The Civil War 150th Anniversary: Integrating the US Army

From the movie Glory (1989).

From the movie Glory (1989).

That is beautiful lighting, in the clip from the movie Glory that was at the end of the anniversary post for July 15th to the 21st.

It also shows the difficulty America had in 1863 with race in the military.

Ebony and Ivory

The 54th Massachusetts had white officers, but it wasn’t integrated. There was still a lot of prejudice around.

As we saw in August last year, the 1st Louisiana Native Guards (CSA) had been the first black military unit to have black officers, back in 1862.

Per the appendix in source 26, the 1st and 2nd regimens of the Louisiana Native Guards (USA) had black officers when they formed in 1862, with General Butler’s approval. The 3rd regiment had both white and black officers.

General Banks, a Massachusetts man, made efforts to increase the enlistment of black Americans when he took over in Louisiana from General Butler, but he also tried to get rid of black officers, telling President Lincoln black men were “unsuited for this duty.”

So, in the Civil War, it was an ongoing struggle against racism that lurked everywhere, but at least there were black military units in America’s armed forces now. That was quite radical. But as the units grew more common as decades passed, segregation became the new norm/barrier to hurdle.

So, when did the first integrated US Army unit form? Would you believe in 1943? For a Broadway musical?

This is the Army (1943)

This is the Army was a one-of-a-kind thing: a 300-member company, including a 50-piece orchestra, made up of active-duty US soldiers who were also actors and performers.

They played on Broadway, toured the US (and eventually the world, including all the combat zones) and made a movie to boost American wartime morale and raise money for the Army Emergency Relief.

This is the movie they made.

It debuted the song “God Bless America,” and it does convey the sadness felt by the generation of Americans who fought “the war to end all wars” and then saw the new one that their children would face.

There are a lot of strange things in this movie, though. The unit was so famous by this time that they didn’t bother explaining a lot of stuff. That makes for some odd viewing in the 21st century.

What’s really mindblowing about This is the Army is that it has both a blackface minstrel skit and a performance by black soldiers (not at the same time). They just do it, and you’re left, “Wait, what… .”

There are various explanations for how that came about, but the one I read a while back (don’t have the link) explains that Irving Berlin was fine with the blackface act, but others knew that the racial climate in America was shifting, and some of the show’s movers and shakers thought it would be offensive and that they should allow black soldiers to perform instead.

Since Irving Berlin carried a lot of weight, both with this and in the professional world, his opinion couldn’t be ignored, and so the show eventually ended up with both.

And since the unit was an official Army unit, it also became the first integrated military unit. Sort of.

There was still a long way to go (PDF), of course, but it was a start.

Source:  Beverly & Pack

Of course, the only color that really matters is red. Image source: Beverly & Pack


(1) The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

(2) Morgan’s Raiders and The L&N Railroad in the Civil War, by Dan Lee (2011).

(3) Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (2003 – see side bar for link).

(4) The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N.B. Forrest, and of Forrest’s Cavalry by Thomas Jordan, J. P. Pryor (1868).

(5) The Lincoln Log timeline.

(6) Blue and Gray Timeline.

(7) Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.

(8)”The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” (Vol. II), Jefferson Davis.

(9) Henry Halleck’s War: A Fresh Look at Lincoln’s Controversial General-In-Chief, by Curt Anders

(10) Conquest of the Lower Mississippi.

(11) Under Siege: Three Children at the Civil War Battle for Vicksburg, Andrea Warren (2009)

(12) Civil War Interactive.

(13) Inside the Army of the Potomac, the Civil War Experience of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, edited by J. Gregory Acken (1998).

(14) Mosby Heritage Area Association: Chronology of Mosby’s Life.

(15) Battle of Vicksburg. Civil War Home.

(16) Born to Battle: Grant and Forrest: Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga: The Campaigns That Doomed the Confederacy, Jack Hurst (2012).

(17) Life of Lieutenant-General Nathan Bedford Forrest, by John A. Wyeth (1908/2011).

(18) Captain Raphael Semmes and the CSS Alabama, US Naval Historical Center.

(19) A. Lincoln, A Biography, Ronald C. White, Jr. (2009)

(20) The Civil War and the Press. Sachsman et al., 2000.

(21) Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Civil War Trust.

(22) Morgan’s Raid Timeline, Conner Prairie Interactive History Park.

(23) The Siege of Vicksburg, Civil War Home.

(24) Battle of Williamsport, Wikipedia.

(25) The Jackson Expedition, Wikipedia.

(26) The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War. James G. Hollandsworth, Jr., 1995.

(27) This Week in the Civil War.

(28) Port Hudson Photo Album, Civil War Album.

(29) Gettysburg Campaign, Encyclopedia of Virginia.

(30) New York City’s Draft Riots. Learning Through History.

(31) The New York City Draft Riots of 1863. University of Chicago.

Categories: American Civil War

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