March 5, 1864: Ovation for a Black Regiment

26th United States Colored Troops

Following the draft riots in New York City in July 1863 where blacks were hunted and murdered in the streets by mobs, the Union League of New York City helped the blacks of the city recover from the devastation inflicted upon them, and in December 1863 received permission to sponsor the raising of a black regiment.  The regiment was duly raised, the 26th Infantry, United States Colored Troops.  They would see service on the South Carolina coast, fight in several engagements, and be mustered out on August 28, 1865.  On March 5, 1864, they paraded before a crowd of 100,000 New Yorkers, white and black, and a reporter from the New York Times marveled at the change from just nine months before:

There has been no more striking manifestation of the marvelous times that are upon us than the scene in our streets at the departure of the first of our colored regiments. Had any man predicted it last year he would have been thought a fool, even by the wisest and most discerning. History abounds with strange contrasts. It always has been an ever-shifting melo-drama. But never, in this land at least, has it presented a transition so extreme and yet so speedy as what our eyes have just beheld.       

Eight months ago the African race in this City were literally hunted down like wild beasts. They fled for their lives. When caught, they were shot down in cold blood, or stoned to death, or hung to the trees or the lamp-posts. Their houses were pillaged; the asylum which Christian charity had provided for their orphaned children was burned; and there was no limit to the persecution but in the physical impossibility of finding further material on which the mob could wreak its ruthless hate. Nor was it solely the raging horde in the streets that visited upon the black man the nefarious wrong. Thousands and tens of thousands of men of higher social grade, of better education, cherished precisely the same spirit. It found expression in contumelious speech rather than in the violent act, but it was persecution none the less for that. In fact the mob would never have entered upon that career of outrage but for the fact that it was fired and maddened by the prejudice which had been generated by the ruling influences, civil and social, here in New York, till it had enveloped the City like some infernal atmosphere. The physical outrages which were inflicted on the black race in those terrible days were but the outburst of malignant agencies which had been transfusing the whole community from top to bottom, year after year.       

 How astonishingly has all this been changed! The same men who could not have shown themselves in the most obscure street in the City without peril of instant death, even though in the most suppliant attitude, now march in solid platoons, with shouldered muskets, slung knapsacks, and buckled cartridge-boxes down through our gayest avenues and our busiest thoroughfares to the pealing strains of martial music, and are everywhere saluted with waving handkerchiefs, with descending flowers,and with the acclamations and plaudits of countless beholders. They are halted at our most beautiful square, and, amid an admiring crowd, in the presence of many of our most prominent citizens, are addressed in an eloquent and most complimentary speech by the President of our chief literary institution, and are presented with a gorgeous stand of colors in the name of a large number of the first ladies of the City, who attest on parchment, signed by their own fair hands, that they “will anxiously watch your career, glorying in your heroism, ministering to you when wounded and ill, and honoring your martyrdom with benedictions and with tears.”       

It is only by such occasions that we can at all realize the prodigious revolution which the public mind everywhere is experiencing. Such developments are infallible tokens of a new epoch.

2 Comments

  1. I love the details in history. It has its own good, bad and ugly – oh wait that was a movie! I always enjoy your blog.
    In Christ,
    Dennis McCutcheon

    • I deeply regret that Clint Eastwood never portrayed Nathan Bedford Forrest in a movie, either that or Colonel Shaw!


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