African American Michigan: The War for Freedom

Editor’s note: This story is the second in a series looking at racial disparity in Michigan.

Africans and African Americans in Michigan had a lot to fight for in the American Civil War. The black population in Michigan fought for freedom in two ways; they played major roles in the Underground Railroad and offered service in the war.

Many know that the Underground Railroad was not actually a railroad. Legislature.mi.gov has a good explanation of why the path to escape slavery was called the Underground Railroad, “Underground means secret or hidden, and the name refers to secret routes used to move escaping slaves, as well as the homes where they were hidden. The Underground Railroad used terms like “conductor” for those abolitionists who helped escaping slaves, and the term “depot” for the locations the conductors hid slaves until they could continue down the railroad.

One very notable abolitionist and conductor was Sojourner Truth, who escaped slavery in 1823 and stationed herself in Battle Creek to help other escapees. Once escaped slaves made it to Michigan, they chose to either stay and attempt to find work, or they would move on to Canada.

As for black Michiganders fighting in the war for freedom, for respect, and the right to work the same jobs as whites, there was a movement to form the 1st Michigan Colored Infantry. Up until 1862, colored men were entirely refused the right to serve in the army. In 1862, they were allowed to enlist, but only in support, non-combative roles. As the war dragged on into 1863, colored units were allowed to fight, such as the 1st Michigan Colored Infantry, and the famous 54th Massachusetts, of which the 1st had even seen combat with.

In correspondence between Michigan Gov. Austin Blair and Edwin M. Stanton, the U.S. Secretary of War, it was revealed that the initial request to raise the first colored regiment was denied, “until suitable arrangements could be made for the organization of a bureau, it was not advisable to raise such troops, but the organization of colored troops is now a distinct bureau in the department, and as fully recognized as any other branch of the military service.”

Even in the North, segregation was so deep that the War Department had to form a federal bureau just for colored military efforts.

In a letter from C.W. Foster, the Assistant Adjutant General, to Gov. Blair, it was revealed that colored troops would only receive one daily ration, would only be paid $10 a month, and $3 would be removed from their pay as price for clothing. The final take for a colored Michigander soldier was $7 per month. Albert A. Nofi’s “A Civil War Treasury” told states that white soldiers were paid $13 and faced no deduction for clothing allowance. The clothing allowance for colored troops was abolished in September 1864. The 1st Michigan Colored Infantry initially had 897 bodies, and was led by Henry Barns of Detroit, who had initially requested the forming of the regiment.

One of the richest sources for the experience of a black Michigan soldier in the war was the journal of Pvt. Kinchen Artis. Artis notes that the 1st toured lower Michigan to rally supporters for their cause and to bolster their numbers. On Mar. 28, the 1st left Detroit after a grand parade, and was then transferred to federal command instead of being a Michigan regiment, changing them to the 102nd U.S. Colored infantry. Colored regiments had certain stipulations such as having only white officers. Colored enlisted men could be promoted, like Pvt. Artis receiving a promotion to Corporal in May 1864, but never could they rise above a non-commissioned officer.

Pvt. Artis and the 102nd went through South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and fought in several battles in 1864 and 1865, the first of which took place in Florida, when they were suddenly charged by Rebel cavalry, which they easily repulsed and proved themselves read for field combat. An officer in the 1st Michigan Colored infantry, now the 102nd, wrote home, “During the time it was almost a by-word, and those connected with it subjects of derision (the 102nd). But now it its praises are on everyone’s lips, and here, at least, it is an honor to belong to what was once known as the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment.”

He continues in the same letter, “The white regiment which fought next to ours held our men in the highest estimation, and expressed their preference to fight beside our regiment rather than any other regiment in the department.”

Keep in mind that these soldiers are the same cut of clothe as the men whites were afraid would take their jobs and spread “negative influence.”

While the 102nd earned the respect of their fellow soldiers in white regiments, they were not as lauded in their return as they were in their parade leaving Detroit. Black Michiganders’ fight for what we whites know as freedom is far from over in 1865.


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