Citizens of Color, 1863-1890:
Military and Political Participation

The Civil War, 1863-1865

In 1863, President Lincoln authorized the formation of Black combat units to serve in the Civil War. However, Connecticut was slow to organize them, and Blacks were told, "This is not a fight for or about the Negro." Consequently, Black volunteers from Hartford had to travel to Massachusetts (54th and 55th Infantry) and to Rhode Island (14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery) to enlist. Eventually, Connecticut's Governor Buckingham ordered the formation of a Black infantry unit, and in response the 29th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry was quickly assembled.

29th Regiment

Shown here is a stereograph by an unknown photographer taken in about 1864 of the Connecticut 29th Regiment at at Beaufort, South Carolina, (courtesy of William Gladstone). Its first recruits enlisted on 11 August 1963, and by the end of that year its ranks were filled by volunteers from Connecticut and nearby states. The regiment mustered into service on 8 March 1964.

The "colored ladies of New Haven" prepared a regimental flag, and the unit went south to arrive finally at Hilton Head, South Carolina, where it was attached to the Tenth Corps as part of the Black Third Division. From August 12th through the end of October, 1864, the unit saw continuous action in Virginia, at Petersburg, Chapin's Farm, Richmond, Darbytown Road and Kell House.

Battle of the Crater A lithograph of the Battle of the Crater, Petersburg, Virginia, where the Connecticut Black Regiments first saw action. The illustration of about 1885 is from Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, editors, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. After this and subsequent actions in Virginia, the Regiment was given a rest and assigned to garrison duty. When the Confederate forces finally withdrew from Richmond, the 29th Connecticut Regiment was the first Union infantry unit to enter the town.

After the Virginia campaigns, the 29th Connecticut Volunteer Regiment served in Texas. It mustered out on 14 October, 1865 and returned to Hartford on 24 November.

After the ranks of the 29th Connecticut Regiment had been filled, Governor Buckingham authorized the formation of another Black unit, the 30th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Recruitment for it began on 12 January 1864, but the urgent need for front line troops in Virginia meant that it had to be sent there before its ranks were entirely filled.

On 4 June 1864, the four companies that had been raised for the 30th left for Virginia and joined with troops already there, including Connecticut's 29th Regiment, to form the 31st United States Colored Troops. In this capacity, the Connecticut 30th Regiment saw immediate and continuous action throughout June and July during the seige of Petersburg, and on July 30th, the regiment fought in the Battle of the Crater, illustrated above, where it lost 136 men.

The 31st Colored Troops were again engaged in almost continuous action from October 1864 through April 1865, in which it was part of the campaign to destroy Lee's army in Virginia after the fall of Petersburg. This included actions at Petersburg Mine, Fort Sedgewick, Bermuda Front, and at Petersburg again. Finally, the Troops witnessed the surrender of Lee on 9 April 1865. The Connecticut 29th and 30th regiments, with the rest of the 31st Colored Troops, finished their tour of duty in Texas. The 30th Regiment eventually mustered out in Hartford on 1 December 1865, a few days after the 29th.

Mustering out

While this etching from Harper's Weekly of 19 May 1866 shows Black Volunteers mustering out at Little Rock, Arkansas, it probably conveys some sense of what must have taken place in Hartford the previous year as Hartford's Black soldiers returned home. The Civil War was in some ways the first really modern war in world history, involving as it did great masses or ordinary men rather than primarily professional soldiers. Another way the U.S. Civil was was modern is that for the first time, modern mass-produced means of mass slaughter were employed. The result was a war of extraordinary hardship, suffering, and death for untold numbers of humble people. To have survived largely intact, as have these solders in this rather idealized picture, was a stroke of good fortune.

The issues of the War undoubtedly seemed remote to most Blacks in Hartford. Nationalism and the civic religion needed to support it were only beginning to emerge in US political culture, and most Blacks were socially marginal. For Blacks in New England, appeals to help create a nation state or to liberate Black slaves in the South - virtually a foreign country, probably had little appeal.

Nevertheless, there were evidently good reason for Hartford's Blacks to make the sacrifice anyway. Perhaps military service provided the income and independence that was as an alternative to the paternalism and poorly paid domestic labor that most Blacks had so far endured here. In fact, as we shall see, Blacks continued to be drawn to military service long after the issues raised by the Civil War had been resolved.

Civil Rights: The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, 1867-1870

The Civil War resulted in the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery. However, that did not mean that Blacks in Connecticut acquired the rights of citizens. Although slavery had not existed here for many decades, Blacks had been politically marginalized by the sixth article of the State Constitution of 1818 which had explicitly limited the vote to "whites" (nevertheless, white legislators made sure Blacks were obliged to pay taxes and that a military career remained open to them).

The noteworthy participation of Black soldiers in the Civil War might seem to imply that Blacks would not only be freed of slavery, but gain civil rights as well. Nevertheless, a referendum of Hartford's white citizens in 1866 denied the franchise to Blacks. Despite the War and despite popular sentiment against slavery, Hartford's whites were not about to share political power.

The following year in Kentucky, the Klu Klux Klan was formed, which implies that ordinary whites in the U.S. felt so economically insecure they needed to "circle the wagons" to protect what little they had. Indeed, the Hartford riots that set white against Black during the economic troubles of the 1830s, suggest that social and economic insecurity in Hartford had deep roots. While the élite might escape social disorder and the new industrial pollution by moving to grand homes in the new "suburbs" in the Blue Hills and along Wethersfield and Farmington Avenues, the working class remained close to their jobs in the growing number of industries in the city that concentrated along railroad spurs in areas such as Capital and Homestead Avenues and Windsor Street. This geographic circumscription might have contributed to white defensiveness.

However, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution changed this in important ways. The amendments aimed to subject state governments to the federal government by defining the civil rights the state govenments would have to respect to be recogned as legitimate. The Fourteenth Amendment forced the Connecticut legislature to remove the word "white" from the sixth article in the State Constitution so that Blacks acquired the franchise despite the majority of Hartford's whites. This might have led to worsened social relations (as in the South), but the fortunes of the North were hinged to an expanding capitalist economy. Sam Colt was, after all, a war profiteer, and the state economy benefited greatly from the production of cloth and the newly invented canned foods needed by a mass army. War brought prosperity to Hartford, which probably mitigated social tensions for a while.

This link between the military and social relations was evident in Hartford with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1870, which like the Fourteeth Amendment guaranteed the civil rights of Blacks. These rights did not in themselves represent a subtantial gain, but at least opened an arena for future struggle and gave rise to the expectation of progress that was a necessary condition of that struggle.

The military parade in Hartford celebrating the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment was an important manifestation of the new civic religion that began to take shape during the Civil War. We cannot be certain of the parade's entire significance for its participants, but the logic of the event seems to be that if economic exploitation is protected by law, and if law is backed by the police or military, then a military parade hints of the probability of future economic gain. If so, this would tend to reduce social tensions.

The public theater of the military parade on 4 August 1970 to celebrate the Amendment's passage began, significantly, with municipal guard units from Cambridge and New Haven meeting a special train bringing in Blacks from New Haven and other parts of the state. Under their guard, Black contingents (here called "companies") from New Haven and Hartford marched the streets before an enthusiastic welcoming crowd of white and Black spectators.

Later, in this same article from the Hartford Courant (5 August 1870) it is pointed out that the public at large accepted the participation of these Black contingents. "Even those of our citizens who have been foremost in crying down the 'nigger,' for political reasons, were among the number who awarded them the highest praise."

Perhaps this is a hint that while ordinary whites had hitherto felt their political rights were threatened by Black emancipation, the Civil War created a new federal framework for progress backed by military and police force. At least, that would account for the reduction of social tensions for a while. The paper observes pointedly that the two companies had a disciplined "soldier-like bearing." If Black crowds were disciplined like soldiers, they would presumably also honor the law that maintained the existing economic order as well.

Admittedly, some of these inferences are dangerously bold, but they do at least offer possible explanations that can focus and motivate the investigations that will eventually make each interpretation more or less probable. In fact, historical explanation is always couched in terms of probabilities, and because it also reflects the interests, values and needs of those who study the past, it is likely to be contentious as well. This competition of contradictory explanations, all of them uncertain, often dismays the student of history. But this is because teachers (the priesthood of the civic religion) systematically try to hide the ideological dimension of the debates and their value implications in the groundless fear they imply subjectivism and unscientific reasoning. Consequently the whole point of historical debate is lost, and there is something unhealthy about making a fetish of the past. Historical consciousness does not primarily serve to explain the past, but to support effective action in the present, and without it we end prisoners of an eternal present.

Mass political participation

Civil rights in themselves remain hollow unless there is an institutional basis for those rights to bear upon the political process. That basis was the appearance after the War of mass political parties. Until then, political life was controlled by local "notables," which meant that voting rights for Blacks (and most whites as well) had little consequence. Just as the Civil War was the world's first modern mass war, using mass-produced weapons intended to kill or maim the most people at once, so too it ushered in the first mass-based political parties in the U.S. Like military service and public education, mass political participation offered an enormous opportunity for Hartford's Blacks.

The first of this new kind of political party in the U.S. was the Republican Party (quite different from the modern party of that name), which learned how to develop a mass base from immigrants familiar with the Marxist Social Democratic Party in Germany. An interesting manifestation in Hartford of that working-class influence was a small brick building (in the area of Whitman Court, perhaps, but unfortunately torn down in the 1980s), with the word "Turnverein" over its door. A Turnverein was an athletic club that promoted the physical culture of the new working class to compensate for the unhealthy industrial working conditions that Hartford's war industries had brought.

Besides the promotion of physical culture and mass political parties, the working class also successfully pushed for the system of public education. Until after the Civil War, there was little education that was in any sense public. Noteworthy is that the mounting hostility of whites toward Blacks in Hartford during the economic downturn of the 1830s, which led to riots as we have seen, roughly coincided with the legal segregation of schools in 1832.

Thanks to Black lobbying and the struggles of the working class after the Civil War, a universal system of public education was instituted which contributed greatly to the future development of Black people, slowly providing access to jobs outside domestic labor and contributing to Blacks' ability to organize and struggle in their own behalf.

The first election in which this mass participation of Blacks occurred was in 1871. Here is an article from the Hartford Courant (3 April 1971) which prints a letter from an ex-slave urging other Black men (women still did not have the vote) to exercise their political rights and vote for the Republican party as the party which had proven itself friendly to Blacks. The writer says that the Democratic Party on the other hand will drag Blacks down to "the lowest ditch of degradation". "Two hundred and forty-five years we have been stopping in this country, and now just started to live."

Indeed, not to be free to shape one's own destiny is not to be alive in a human sense. For most people the strength to define the future can only come from standing in solidarity with all others who share their potentials in life, and the two typical forms of this solidarity are mass politics and labor unions. However, the racism that may have arisen spontaneously from social distress, was nurtured and legitimated by new biological theories, for it well served to divide the working-class and cripple its solidarity. As a result, only extraordinary Blacks could suceed in a system dominated by whites.

So while the post-war years were heady times, we now know there was little significant change for most Blacks. Public education and mass political parties represented an enormous potential, but the parties were under the control of the rich who made sure politics supported the existing order. Public education was a great asset, too, but in practice it served to perpetuated civic religion and prepare youngsters for the rigors of factory labor.

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