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Remarks Of The Honorable David J. Hickton United States Attorney For The Western District Of Pennsylvania At The U.S. Attorney's Office Commemoration Of Black History Month
United States
Friday, February 25, 2011

Thank you for joining our celebration today of Black History Month.

Special thanks to Mary Spidell who has organized our Commemoration of Black History Month this year and in the past.  Thanks also to Tamara Collier who has researched and prepared text for my reading.

Black History Month was established more than half a century ago, and in the words of our Attorney General Eric Holder, "Each February we rededicate ourselves to racial and social equality; to the values that have defined and strengthened our nation: tolerance, compassion and, above all-justice. We must not only consider these ideals, we must keep faith in their power to heal old wounds and fuel tomorrow's progress."

The President has identified the theme of Black History Month for this year as the recognition of Black soldiers who served in the Civil War.

When extending the celebration of paying tribute to the many contributions of African Americans to American society from a week to a month in 1976, President Gerald R. Ford urged Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."  Today, we do so by honoring the Black soldiers who served in the Civil War-and to a community of men and women of that time who sacrificed much, in many cases their very lives, for the cause of freedom.

Over 170,000 African Americans served in the Union Army. Men like Christian A. Fleetwood, who kept a detailed diary of his actions during a battle at Chaffin's farm near Richmond, Virginia, which ultimately led to his receipt of the Congressional Medal of Honor, one of 18 African Americans to be awarded this honor for their heroic service in the Civil War.  Wilson Brown and John Lawson were also awarded Medals of Honor for their bravery in the Battle of Mobile Bay.  After recovering from direct fire, they refused medical treatment and continued their duties until the battle was won.  Or Major Martin Delaney, the first African American field officer.

Over 18,000 African Americans served as seaman for the United States Navy, seaman such as The Honorable Robert Smalls, who later became a Reconstruction Congressman.  Mr. Smalls became the captain of a Confederate vessel that he commandeered and sailed into Union lines.

Not until after the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1, 1863, did Union officers actively recruit African American soldiers, although some Black men were unofficially part of segregated units in a few states.  The Lincoln Administration wrestled with the idea of authorizing the recruitment of Black troops, concerned that such a move would prompt the border states to secede.  By mid-1862, however, the escalating number of former slaves (called "contraband"), the declining number of White volunteers and the increasingly pressing personnel needs of the Union Army pushed the Government into reconsidering the Federal law which barred Blacks from bearing arms for the U.S. Army.

Black soldiers were eager to enlist in the Union Army, anxious to join the fight against slavery, and they believed that military service would allow them to prove their right to equality.  Celebrated abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, was a strong advocate of allowing Black men to fight, believing that this would prove their right to citizenship and the vote.  Two of Douglass' sons served in the Union army. John Brown was another abolitionist who strongly believed that Black men were capable and willing to fight for their freedom if given the chance.

Because of prejudice against them, Black units were not used in combat as extensively as they might have been. When they did fight they faced not only the prospect of being killed or maimed in battle, but also the prospect of being executed if they were captured by Confederate forces.  The Confederates declared that all Black men fighting for the Union were rebel slaves, regardless of whether they were actually former slaves or had been born free, and frequently executed them.  As a result, President Lincoln issued General Order 233, threatening reprisal on Confederate prisoners of war (POWs) for any mistreatment of Black troops.  Although the threat generally restrained the Confederates, Black captives were typically treated more harshly than White captives.  In perhaps the most heinous known example of abuse, Confederate soldiers shot to death Black Union soldiers captured at Fort Pillow, TN in 1864.  Confederate General Nathan B. Forrest, the first head of the Ku Klux Klan, witnessed the massacre and did nothing to stop it.

White Union soldiers often treated Black soldiers with derision.  Segregated units were formed with Black enlisted men and typically were commanded by White officers and Black noncommissioned officers.  Black soldiers were initially paid $10 per month from which $3 was deducted for clothing, resulting in a net pay of $7.  In contrast, White soldiers received $13 per month from which no clothing allowance was deducted.  In June, 1864, Congress granted equal pay to the "U.S. Colored Troops" and made the action retroactive.

By the end of the Civil War Black soldiers made up roughly 10% of those serving in the Union Army.  Nearly 40,000 Black soldiers died over the course of the war.  More than 1 in 5 were killed, and approximately 30,000 died of infection or disease.  Black soldiers served in artillery and infantry and performed all non-combat support functions that sustain an army.

Black carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons and teamsters also contributed to the war cause. Ultimately, there were nearly 80 Black commissioned officers in the Civil War.

Black women, who could not formally join the Army, nonetheless served as nurses, spies and scouts, the most famous being Harriet Tubman, who scouted for the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.  Abolitionist and Orator, Sojourner Truth, whose son served in the Civil War, wrote concerning the emancipation of her children and her son's Civil War service:

This is a great and glorious day! It is good to live in it & behold the shackles fall from the manacled limbs. Oh, if I were ten years younger I would go down with these soldiers here & be the Mother of the Regiment.

Cathay Williams took those sentiments a step further and disguised herself as a man and managed to serve her country for two years.

Despite the many obstacles, Black soldiers served with distinction in a number of battles.  Black infantrymen fought gallantly at Milliken's Bend, LA; Port Hudson, LA; Petersburg, VA and Nashville, TN.  The July 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, SC, in which the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, commanded by Colonel Robert Shaw (the son of ardent Boston abolitionists), lost two-thirds of their officers and half of their troops, is dramatized in the film, Glory, which we are set to watch.

As you probably all know, "The Battle Hymn of The Republic" was written by White abolitionist, Julia Ward Howe, who felt there should be more positive lyrics to the tune of "John Brown's Body Lies a Moldering in the Grave".  The Battle Hymn was published by the "Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments." Anyone having sung or read the Battle Hymn lyrics can appreciate the positive effect it must have had on Black soldiers fighting for their freedom and the freedom of their children and their children's children.  Many years later the Battle Hymn would become an American patriotic song and would be sung at the funerals of Senator Robert Kennedy and American Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, as well as the funeral of British Statesman Winston Churchill.  It was also played at the Washington National Cathedral during the memorial service for the victims of the September 11 attacks.

Some of the lyrics, in fact, appeared in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s sermons and speeches.  Most notably, the first lyrics of the Battle Hymn, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord" are the last public words spoken by Dr. King in his final sermon "I've Been to the Mountaintop" delivered the night before his assassination.  All of these facts are notable, but I hope that after today each time you hear the Battle Hymn you will remember and honor the efforts of people of African descent to courageously fight in the battle to destroy slavery and inaugurate universal freedom in the United States.

As servants of justice, it is important that we understand and acknowledge the forms of injustice that have marked our Nation's past and to honor those who, through their courage and faith in justice and sheer desire to merely be considered equal helped shape this Country into what it is today.

Updated July 14, 2015