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Sea Change

Union General Orders No. 143, issued on May 22, 1863, is one of the war’s most important but little-known documents. The order laid out nine points establishing a bureau for “the organization of Colored Troops” and began the process of recruiting and forming black regiments commanded by white officers. Former slaves were transformed into paid agents of the Federal government, armed and given sanction to kill those who had enslaved them. The order jump-started the process of black equality in the nation, and its impact was not lost on white Union soldiers.

In October 1862, Harvey Reid of the 22nd Wisconsin Infantry wrote that blacks were “lazy, saucy, and lousy, ” a not uncommon opinion in white ranks at the time. But less than a year later, after Reid saw African Americans wearing their blue uniforms, bedecked with the powerful initials “U.S.,” for the first time, his comments reflected a change of heart. “I have been surprised at the difference it makes in their appearance,” he wrote. “They appear so much more independent and manly. They seem to consider the fact of their being soldiers to place them almost on an equality with whites. I have no doubt they will make good soldiers.”

It took a while for some white commanders to share Reid’s confidence in the fighting ability of USCTs. But when African-American soldiers did get the chance to undertake the “test of courage in battle,” wrote Colonel Thomas J. Morgan, who commanded black troops at the Battle of Nashville, “They had crossed the great gulf which separates between chattels and men.” Thanks, in part, to a largely forgotten order.


Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.