The overlooked legacy of the Civil War’s black soldiers

A public historian and research consultant recalls her family’s history
A USCT soldier and his family, circa 1863

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress

There are two things indelibly enmeshed in my consciousness when I think about the Civil War: my cerebral understanding of the role of slavery in the conflict, and my emotional understanding of the outcomes of the Union Army utilizing black men, free and enslaved, as game-changers to expedite the end of the war and to preserve the Union under one flag.

The physical and spiritual brutality that the yoke of slavery exacted upon black folks in the Bible Belt is indisputable. The horrifying stories of survival, the glimpses of hope, and the unwavering faith that freedom would come pervade my trove of collected family memories, and they shape my present ideas about the war and its relevance to me 150 years later.

My great-aunt Rosa Lee is ninety-two years old and lives in Chicago. She was born in Coweta County, Georgia. Although she can neither read nor write, she remembers her grandmother, whose name she recalls as “Riah Moten” and who was only seven years old when the war ended. In freedom time, Riah married a man named “Cisro,” who had also been born a slave. (Both of their names are listed in the 1890 Census.) The story goes that Riah actually witnessed her sister being “sole up de ribber.” Which river, no one knows exactly. But it’s plausible this really happened; as late as 1864, Atlanta was still trafficking and profiting from the slave trade.

As a third-generation Atlanta native, I wonder about the seemingly invisible slaves in the city and surrounding countryside and their feelings concerning the burning and destruction of Atlanta. In my imaginings, the slave quarters and urban shanties were awhirl as their residents gleaned information from the conversations of slave owners—already made nervous by Lincoln’s crazy talk of emancipation one year earlier, and now frantic as the Union Army moved into Georgia.

Oh, to be a witness to freedom marching through the streets of Atlanta in the form of the glory of the coming of Sherman’s troops, executing his scorched-earth policies on the infrastructures propped up by slavery, the very institution that shaped Moriah and Cicero Morton’s earliest years.

Whether born in the North or South, free or enslaved, most black folks understood that the Union’s call of “Men of Color: To Arms!” was really risky business. The enlisted men of the U.S. Colored Troops appreciated firsthand the price of freedom. Three months before the Atlanta Campaign commenced, that price was paid with the lives of 300 black Union soldiers massacred after the Battle of Fort Pillow, when Confederate forces refused to accept them as prisoners of war. The rallying cry for freedom became “Remember Fort Pillow!” Hubbard Pryor remembered that call when he escaped from his plantation in Polk County, Georgia, to join the Forty-Fourth Regiment, USCT in Chattanooga. George “Union” Wilder of Atlanta understood it when he enlisted in the Third Regiment, USCT. And my maternal great-great-grandfather “Major” Martin understood it too.

Descendants of white soldiers who fought in the war—on either side—can visit countless shrines and statues and ceremonial graveyards. For descendants of the enlisted men of the USCT, or descendants of slaves forced into battle, such monuments do not exist.

But we do share a universal memorial. In my family, as in countless others, the Bible serves as a sacred book of remembrance. We read its ancient stories of prophets and patriarchs. We also use its first pages to log our own family histories. It is the sacred book containing the names of heroic wartime patriarchs (and matriarchs) and of peacetime marriages and births and deaths and passages. The family Bible chronicles our generations, and for families like mine, it chronicles the journey toward freedom.

It is from the Old Testament that the Civil War is known by my people as the Jubilee. Leviticus 25:10: “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: It shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.”

Family lore has it that Grandpa Martin served in the Civil War black regiments in Texas. And when the war was over, he found his way to Luthersville in Meriwether County, Georgia, where he proclaimed his name as “Major” Martin. There he grew his own cotton and married—yes, married!—my great-great-grandmother, Georgianne Favors. They raised thirteen children. What my great-great-grandparents were not allowed to do in slavery, they mustered the courage to do in freedom, a liberty that Grandpa Martin fought to earn.

Hermina Glass is a public historian and research consultant in Atlanta. She is the former associate director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University and principal researcher for the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park study The War of Jubilee: Assessing African American Attitudes Toward the Civil War, published in 2011.

This article originally appeared in our July 2014 issue under the headline “Men of Color: To Arms!”