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Sunday Favorites: African Americans in the Civil War
Part 2: The U.S. Colored Troops
|Contrabands boarded dinghies and braved rough seas in hope of being rescued by the Union blockade.|
The East Coast Blockading Company, the armada of Union ships that closed Florida’s Gulf Coast to receiving, employed black sailors and contraband laborers, but it also worked with the U.S. Colored Troops. While contrabands destroyed salt works to cut off the rebels, the USCT targeted another sought-after commodity – beef.
Florida had become famous for the amount of free-range cattle. The Confederate troops were consuming more beef than could be provided by surrounding states.
Because Florida offered a strategic geographical location, it was important to the North and indispensable to the South because of its supply of beef, sugar and most importantly, salt. As Federal power increased, Confederate resources diminished. The Union blockade was particularly effective because the Feds had gained control of two tactical locations, Fort Pickens in Pensacola and Fort Jefferson off of Key West.
“The cattle in Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas have all been consumed,” a Union naval officer wrote in a letter in 1862. “The whole dependence of the Confederate Government to feed this Army now rests in Florida.”
Cow cavalries were formed. The military would recruit settlers to drive the cattle all the way up to the Georgia line, or to the railroad that extended as far south as Cedar Key.
At the commencement of the Civil War, neither the north nor south had thought of employing black soldiers in combat positions. The Confederacy used them in labor gangs and to work on military projects, but the north had no policy concerning slaves. As the war continued, the need to begin recruiting the black population grew. Black troops had been organized in several southern states even before the Lincoln administration established the Bureau for Colored Troops on May 22, 1863.
|A black Union Soldier is pictured in uniform.|
The Second USCT drew its men from Arlington, Virginia. These men would become the Union’s secret weapon for halting the cattle drive to the Georgia line. But the 942 troops who served under Colonel Benjamin Townsend and 36 other white officers were not considered heroes. During their march through Pennsylvania to catch a train, people heckled them and threw rocks. They received much of the same treatment when they arrived in Key West.
While much of the Second USCT remained in Key West, two companies were the first to begin combat operation in Fort Myers, at the request of Henry Crane, a former naval officer who was running the U.S. Second Florida Calvary. From then on the colored and white troops operated in conjunction. Crane had to fight to allow his superiors to approve raids of Confederates cow calvaries in the eastern interior with both the USSFC and USCT.
But Crane found problems with trying to get the two groups of men to work together.
“The ignorance of one and sensitiveness of the other tends to make every duty unpleasant,” he wrote. “In fact, the effectiveness of the Second Calvary has been seriously injured by this connection. “
The rest of the Second USCT remained in Key West, however some troop under Major Weeks relocated to Cedar Key. Unlike Crane, Weeks didn’t mind mixed black and white regiments and embraced the phrase “the more troops the better.” He led frequent raids into Florida’s interior to halt the cattle drive. The Second USCT became so successful that in August General Woodbury ordered all able-bodied contrabands to join Weeks’ regiment.
In Manatee County John W. Curry, was a Confederate soldier, whose outfit reportedly provided the Confederacy with 200 head of cattle weekly. Colored troops were sent to Curry’s 30-acre farm on the Manatee River to stop transport but were unsuccessful.
The Second USCT not only brought in contrabands and refugees, it also brazenly sent troops to local plantations to recruit slaves.
Even after the war ended the Second Florida Calvary and Second USCT worked together. Then finally in June of 1885, Weeks and his band of contraband and refugee soldiers were ordered to Tallahassee for occupational duty.
A few of the colored troops that were stationed at Fort Myers settled in the area. They initially formed Port Charlotte, although they are not given credit for it in area history books. Tune in next week to learn how John Lomans went from serving in the USCT to becoming the first black magistrate of Manatee County.
Part I of "African Americans in the Civil War" can be read here.
Merab Favorite is a contributing Bradenton Times columnist and published author. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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