Author Benjamin Quarles writes of free black Joseph T. Wilson who enlisted in a New York regiment early in the war with two Spaniards. After being sworn in and sent to a nearby island for service, a Negro cook recognized Wilson “and greeted him effusively. Before the recruit could “give the cook a hint,” a summons came. The officer of the day, to whom the incident was reported, sent for the cook. Within a few hours [Wilson] was escorted to the launch by a guard of honor, landed in New York, and honorably discharged.”
Aiding Virginia’s Cause
“The North was yet a long way from inscribing upon its banners, “Freedom for the Slave,” and it did not propose to be stampeded in that direction by the abolitionists. Rights for Negroes must still be measured out in homeopathic doses and administered with a long spoon. Border and Midwest States were ready to pounce on the government for anything that could be construed as pro-Negro. “At Washington I found that the mere mention of a Negro made the President nervous, and frightened some others in his cabinet much more,” wrote a staunch friend of the Negro, the Unitarian clergyman, Moncure D. Conway of Cincinnati . . .
[Northern] State governors, their ears to the ground, did not dare act contrary to the assertions that this was a white man’s war, and that white volunteers would not shoulder arms with the Negro. “We don’t want to fight side by side with the n*****,” wrote nineteen-year-old Corporal Felix Brannigan of the Seventy-fourth New York Volunteers to his sister.
Not dissimilar from the patriotic response of the Northern Negro was that of the 182,000 free Negroes in the eleven States flying the Stars and Bars. Southern Negroes too came forward in a general eagerness to be of service. Many of the offers were without strings – their masters indicated a willingness to assist in whatever capacity assigned.
Many such responses came from Virginia’s nearly 6,000 free Negroes, The Old Dominion had scarcely voted to secede when seventy Lynchburg Negroes tendered their services. A week later a group from Richmond, having volunteered for “the work of defense, or any other capacity required,” were directed to report “to the Captain of the Woodis Riflemen.” In Amelia County, Chesterfield and Petersburg, free Negroes volunteered to do any work assigned to them.
One morning in April 1861 [Petersburg Negroes] gathered in the courthouse square, preparatory to leaving for Norfolk to work on the fortifications. They listened to white speakers including former mayor John Dodson who presented them with a Confederate flag, assuring them that when they returned they would “reap a rich reward of praise, and merit, from a thankful people.”
Charles Tinsley, a bricklayer and a “corner workman,” acted a spokesman for the Negroes. His remarks in acceptance of the flag were brief: “We are willing to aid Virginia’s cause to the utmost of our ability . . . There is not an unwilling heart among us, not a hand but will tell in the work before us; and we promise unhesitating obedience to all orders that may be given us.”
(The Negro in the Civil War, Benjamin Quarles, Little, Brown and Company, 1953, excerpts pp. 30; 35-36)