They were willing but their nation wouldn’t have them.
Black men who tried to volunteer to fight at the beginning of the Civil War found a country where their contributions weren’t wanted. Within a few years, however, attitudes and policies changed. By war’s end blacks comprised some 10 percent of Union forces.
“You don’t pull them out of the picture. They are part of the picture,” historian and artist Alan Archambault said. On Wednesday, Archambault will give a talk on black soldiers in the Civil War and their ties to the Evergreen State at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.
The lecture is part of “Civil War Pathways in the Northwest,” an exhibit on view at the museum through July 6.
Archambault, who ran the Fort Lewis Military Museum for 21 years, said black troops were approved to join the Union Army in 1863. The man instrumental in making that happen was Maj. Gen. Silas Casey.
Before the Civil War, then Lt. Col. Casey was commander at Fort Steilacoom in present day Lakewood. He was involved with both the Indian wars and the Pig War in the San Juan Islands.
“Casey was a very compassionate guy and his dealings with the Indians — although he was a soldier and he is obliged to fight them – he took a lot of pains to avoid conflict,” Archambault said.
Casey got into political squabbling with Territorial Gov. Issac Stevens. “(Stevens) had a really hard line on the Indians. Casey said in one of his letters, ‘There wouldn’t be an Indian problem if we treated them right,’” Archambault said.
In 1861, Casey left the state to fight in the Civil War. In 1863 he headed up a board that was responsible for recruiting and training the white officers who would lead the black volunteer soldiers in the Union Army. Finding the right men was crucial, Archambault said.
“Whoever they picked had to be sympathetic to abolition, with black soldiers and the whole concept of emancipation. Secondly, they had to be combat-experienced,” Archambault said. “This ensured they had good leadership.”
By the end of the war, Archambault said, there were black officers in the Union Army and 178,975 black soldiers had served. The majority were freed slaves, Archambault said. But there also were units recruited heavily in the free north.
Following the war, many black Union veterans relocated to the West and Puget Sound. The Grand Army of the Republic, a post-war veterans organization, had many black members, Archambault said. “Early in its formation it was decided that blacks could be equal members. There were no limitations or prohibitions based on race. There weren’t many organizations in the United States at the time like that.”
Archambault will display photos during his talk showing black men integrated with whites at Grand Army social events.
Black veterans contributed to both the military veteran community in Puget Sound and society at large.
“These men came out as proud veterans as opposed to somebody coming out as second-class citizens. It gave them a prestigious standing in the community,” Archambault said.
‘Black soldiers in the Civil War’
When: Noon Wednesday
Where: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
Admission: $9.50 adults; $7 seniors, students and military; free for 5 and younger