I’m catching up on Disunion articles I missed, and this one was very interesting. Everyone knows about the Colored Troops’ admission to the Union Army, but it never occurred to me that blacks were fighting before that, or that the Navy was totally desegregated.
Still, some black men managed to join the Northern forces. In October 1861 William H. Johnson of Company V, Second Regiment of Connecticut Volunteers, wrote to the Pine and Palm, a New York City black paper, describing army life in Virginia: “The proscribed [black] Americans, (and there are many), attached to this regiment” had even formed their own association, the “Self-Defenders of Connecticut.” Presumably, the need for able-bodied men convinced some officers to look the other way when it came to rules about who could and couldn’t fight.
Similarly, beginning in November 1861 George E. Stewart, the son of a former slave exiled from Virginia after Nat Turner’s Rebellion, sent correspondence from his unit in Maryland to another black paper, the Anglo-African. The younger Stewart made his way to the infantry by joining the Navy, which had always accepted black sailors, and then transferring to a land unit when the opportunity arose.