Media Scene

TV special focuses on blacks in Civil War

An African-American soldier in uniform poses with his wife and children in this Civil War-era portrait.
An African-American soldier in uniform poses with his wife and children in this Civil War-era portrait.

African-Americans comprised about 200,000 of the Union troops during the Civil War (and an unknown number on the Confederate side) and about a quarter of the Union Navy.

Their little-known contributions are chronicled in Quiet Valor and Silent Strength,” a documentary produced by WBTV’s Steve Crump, airing 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on WTVI (Channel 42).

Soldiers who filled the ranks of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) in the Civil War were drawn from backgrounds as diverse as escaped slaves and highly educated freemen from the North. They were paid $10 a month; whites were paid $13.

More than 5,000 USCT troops engaged in the final battle at Appomattox, where Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered.

They were drawn to service to fight for freedom, says Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and one of the academics interviewed in the documentary.

“For the black community, the military is the constant – the belief was if the military can prove that they were worthy as soldiers,” Bunch says, “then equality for the rest of the community would follow.”

Early in the war, there were questions of whether black troops would measure up, says Marcus Cox, a Citadel historian. But they persevered, and 14 were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Crump follows black Civil War re-enactors past Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor to nearby Fort Wagner, the setting for the 1989 American film “Glory” with Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.

There, on July 11, 1863, soldiers from a black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, breached the ramparts but were driven back with heavy casualties in hand-to-hand combat. A siege eventually yielded the fort, but the battle proved to skeptics that black troops would fight courageously.

Black troops suffered disproportionately at the hands of the Confederates, the documentary notes. At Fort Pillow, near Memphis, Tenn., troops led by Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest (who had nearly 50 blacks who served with him throughout the war) overran the garrison and massacred black troops with bullets and bayonets while shouting, “No quarter! No quarter!”