Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Theodore Lyman's Early View on Black Soldiers

United States Colored Troops faced an enormous uphill battle to gain the respect of some of their white officers. Preconceptions of racial inferiority clouded the ability of many whites, both inside the army and out, to give them a fair chance to prove themselves in battle. When they finally got their opportunity they fought not only to end slavery and preserve the Union, they also sought to wipe away the stain of prejudice and stake a claim to acceptance and equality as men and citizens. One perfect example of this prejudice comes from Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman (pictured on the far right), who served on Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's staff  from the late summer of 1863 to the end of the war.

As the Army of the Potomac kicked off its attempt to destroy Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and capture Richmond, Lyman noted some brief thoughts on a group of black troops he observed following the Battle of the Wilderness. To give Lyman some benefit of doubt, he had yet to see USCTs in combat, as they had not been afforded the opportunity with the Army of the Potomac as yet. He wrote:

"A division of black troops, under General Ferrero, and belonging to the 9th Corps, marched up and massed in a hollow near by. As I looked at them, my soul was troubled and I would gladly have seen them marched back to Washington. Can we not fight our own battles, without calling on these humble hewers of wood and drawers of water, to be bayonetted by the unsparing Southerners? We do not dare trust them in the line of battle. Ah, you may make speeches at home, but here, where it is life or death, we dare not risk it. They have been put to guard the trains and have repulsed one or two little cavalry attacks in a creditable manner; but God help them if the grey-backed infantry attack them!"

Lyman's preconceived thoughts, and probably his limited experiences with African Americans, formed his belief that black troops could not be trusted in battle. Their limited opportunities as free men of color and as enslaved individuals, their imposed subservient status as "hewers of wood and drawers of water," as he referred to them, kept Lyman from thinking that they could stand up to a fierce fight from veteran Confederate infantry. He could not fathom depending upon a black man to stick in line of battle when the bullets and shells started flying and the rebel yell was released.

The Lt. Colonel's doubts proved false when black troops were finally given the chance, and when provided with competent leadership. African American men fought just as well as white soldiers, often while laboring under disadvantaged circumstances like less pay, sometimes with inferior weapons, and often put in unenviable situations, time and time again. The historical record proves it.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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