Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Secret Six Member Turned USCT Recruiter

When the Civil War came, a couple of John Brown's Secret Six supporters anted up. One, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, became the colonel of an African American regiment in South Carolina. Another, George Luther Stearns, became a recruiter of black troops in Tennessee and held the rank of major.

In November 1863, Stearns was interviewed by a representative of the American Freedman's Inquiry Commission in Nashville.

When asked how Stearns currently found slavery in Tennessee he responded that he believed it was dead, but thought the U.S. government was not treating the slaves fairly. Asked to elaborate, Stearns replied that when called to work on fortifications, roads, and other projects, blacks were not properly provided for. They were given inferior food, clothing, and shelter - if any shelter was provided at all. Additionally, and in his opinion, the men were also not properly paid for their labor.

Stearns was next questioned as to how the government should assist the slaves' transition to freedmen. He first recommended making them soldiers. Stearns was confident they would make excellent troops - troops the Union army needed and that were more readily willing and available there in the South, much more so, than in the North. He next recommended taking care of the the soldiers' families. He continued that the men wanted to be officially married and have their families recognized as legitimate.  This done and there could not be found a better soldier. "The value of the negro to us, at this moment, is in his enthusiasm, which far exceeds that of the white; in his cheerfulness . . . especially under privation; in his capacity to bear hardships, and in his capacity for discipline. You can discipline colored troops in half the time that you can white. The negro gives his whole attention to the work, and takes a pride in it. They want to enlist," Stearns said. But, "They do not feel themselves to be soldiers, until they get muskets," he clarified.

The inquisitor next asked Stearns if the men preferred to be soldiers or laborers.  Stearns said that "two-thirds" want to be soldiers instead of workers. He elaborated that if when as soldiers they were asked to work, that they would work willingly. He explained that he had no doubt that they would make soldiers equally good to white troopss and at the present time he had about three regiments (3,000 men) ready.

Stearns was asked what was to be done with the families of the soldiers while the men were in the ranks. He contented that confiscated land should be set aside for the families to work and that they should be paid for their labor. "The negro is very anxious to know what will become of his family if he enlists, and would be very glad to allot his pay for their support," explained Stearns.

Stearns closed the interview by stating: "I find that the prejudice of color fades away before negro recruiting, whereever it is tried. I believe the enlisting of the negro as a soldier will do more to elevate the negro character than any other influence - more probably, than all other influences combined. I think that, in the end, the two races will harmonize, and my opinion is that the black man will elevate himself faster than the Southern white, especially that class called the poor whites of the South. Before the war, there were no negro schools here; but now there are ten or twelve such schools established in this city, and all of them supported by blacks."

Stearns was perhaps a little too optimistic in his racial harmony timeline, but it can be of little doubt that service in the Union army provided African Americans with opportunities and a solid basis for claiming the rights granted by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution.

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