Today many will recall, with good reason, President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Several contemporary written copies of that famous speech offer slight variations. The words may be different, but the meaning is there. We tend to forget in the context of the time, that speech, and its meaning, were extensions of Lincoln’s policies – his greater goals beyond just seeing the war through to a successful conclusion.
But policy statements are but hollow words without action. If the President really, honestly, intended there be a “new birth of freedom” then where do we see that in action? On the battlefield? Yes… on the battlefield.
Months earlier, Major-General Quincy Gillmore General Orders No. 77. Section I of that order read:
It has come to the knowledge of the brigadier-general commanding that the detachments of colored troops detailed for fatigue duty have been employed, in one instance at least, to prepare camps and perform menial duty for white troops. Such use of these details is unauthorized and improper, and is hereafter expressly prohibited.
Commanding officers of colored regiments are directed to report promptly to these headquarters any violations of this order which may come to their knowledge.
As mentioned in an earlier post, in the context of this order the Federal troops on Morris Island were engaged in a long, bitter siege. And during that siege, the Army employed the U.S. Colored Troops to a larger degree than ever before. USCT regiments served in the lines, often on specific details, along side white volunteer regiments. This lead some to evaluate, or perhaps RE-evaluate is a more applicable word, the nature of race as it applied to the combat environment.
But apparently not all on Morris Island had fully re-evaluated. A week after Lincoln’s address, Gillmore issued General Orders No. 105 on November 25, 1863. The first section of that order read:
The major-general commanding has heretofore had occasion to rebuke officers of this command for imposing improper labors upon colored troops. He is now informed that the abuses sought to be corrected still exist. Attention is called to General Orders, No. 77, current series, from these headquarters, and commanding officers are enjoined to see to its strict enforcement. Colored troops will not be required to perform any labor which is not shared by the white troops, but will receive, in all respects, the same treatment and be allowed the same opportunities for drill and instruction.
Again, don’t paint Gillmore as an advocate for front seats on the bus, or even at the lunch counter. The context is clear – if black troops were willing to carry the muskets and risk their lives, they should receive the same respects as white troops.
The path from Civil War to Civil Rights contains many waypoints like G.O. 77 and G.O. 105. Lincoln’s 272 words stand as a marvel of the English language and serve as the centerpiece to a national legacy. Not to detract from that, but I’m drawn to those words from Gillmore. That order put action behind the words.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, pages 95 and 123.)