Fighting to save America's soul

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Following the recent celebration of the Cup Match holiday, which recognises the emancipation of slaves in Bermuda, it is worth examining the largely untold story of the small yet significant contribution that many Bermudians of African descent made in the fight for freedom on behalf of millions of enslaved Americans. This epic struggle for freedom culminated in the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. In the first in a two-part series, Kevin Grigsby looks at the role of black Bermudians in the Union Army. On Monday, he looks at their role in the Union Navy.

The Civil War was more than just a war between North and South; brother against brother; Yankees against Rebels. The war was a struggle to save America's soul.

As long as slavery existed in America, it could never truly be the "land of free" where all people were entitled to liberty, justice and equality. Those who fought to preserve the Union did more than liberate the slaves; protect Northern business interests; or defeat the Confederacy; they helped America rescue its founding principles and ideals that were being held captive alongside the countless numbers of people of African descent in America. The story of Bermuda's role in the Civil War has gone largely untold, especially the story of the Bermudian sailors of African descent that served in the Union Navy during war.

  • <b>Glory days:</b> This picture shows one of the most famed coloured regiments, the Fifty-Fourth Massachussetts Coloured Infantry. The 1989 movie

    Glory days: This picture shows one of the most famed coloured regiments, the Fifty-Fourth Massachussetts Coloured Infantry. The 1989 movie "Glory", told the story of the this famed regiment. More importantly the "Fifty-Fourth" would come to represent all of the brave coloured regiments which fought in the Civil War. Sgt. Robert J. Simmons, who was a Bermudian, served in the Fifty-Fourth. This picture was obtained from Wikipeida, the free encylopllaedia (2008). According to Wikipedia, this work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.


Following the recent celebration of the Cup Match holiday, which recognises the emancipation of slaves in Bermuda, it is worth examining the largely untold story of the small yet significant contribution that many Bermudians of African descent made in the fight for freedom on behalf of millions of enslaved Americans. This epic struggle for freedom culminated in the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. In the first in a two-part series, Kevin Grigsby looks at the role of black Bermudians in the Union Army. On Monday, he looks at their role in the Union Navy.

The Civil War was more than just a war between North and South; brother against brother; Yankees against Rebels. The war was a struggle to save America's soul.

As long as slavery existed in America, it could never truly be the "land of free" where all people were entitled to liberty, justice and equality. Those who fought to preserve the Union did more than liberate the slaves; protect Northern business interests; or defeat the Confederacy; they helped America rescue its founding principles and ideals that were being held captive alongside the countless numbers of people of African descent in America. The story of Bermuda's role in the Civil War has gone largely untold, especially the story of the Bermudian sailors of African descent that served in the Union Navy during war.

Bermudians and the Union Army

According the United States National Park Service it is estimated that nearly 180,000 soldiers, comprising 163 regiments, served in the coloured regiments of the Union Army. The National Park Service is one of the leading organisations in terms of Civil War historical preservation. During the last 20 years an increased awareness has come about pertaining to the significant role that blacks played in the Civil War. The 1989 Academy Award winning film, "Glory", which was about the famed Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment finally brought national attention to the significant contributions that black soldiers made during the Civil War. Unfortunately, the role of the blacks in the Union Navy has still been greatly ignored.

A 2002 article in The Royal Gazette highlighted the exemplary career of Sergeant Robert J. Simmons, who served in the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. Simmons fought in the Union assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Despite their valiant effort the Fifty-fourth suffered heavy casualties and Union forces failed to capture the fort. Simmons's rank of sergeant was quite an accomplishment because this was the highest rank that blacks could achieve in the Union Army for most of the war. Despite Union Army regulations that stipulated that only whites could command the coloured regiments, sergeants such as Simmons played a major role in terms of providing leadership to the men under them. They also served greatly assisted the white officers in command of the colored regiments. Tragically, after being taken prisoner during the assault on Fort Wagner, Simmons died in a South Carolina prison.

Bermudian soldiers fought in the fiercest and most famous battles during the last three years of the war (1863-1865). The regiment of Bermudian Wate O. Harris, the 6th US Coloured Infantry, played a significant role in the Battle of Fort Fischer in North Carolina and Battle of Chaffin's Farm in Virginia. Both battles were major Union victories. The regiment of Bermudian George Smith was also engaged in action at the Battle of Chaffin's Farm. It was quite ironic that Smith's regiment also fought in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, which occurred from May-June 1864 in and near Bermuda Hundred, Virginia. This campaign encompassed several battles that resulted in about 10,000 total military causalities. The most intense fighting the regiment of Bermudian John Thompson, the 26th US Colored Infantry, encountered came at the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina during 1864.

The military career of Robert Tappin is particularly noteworthy as he was recorded as serving in both the Union navy and army (See adjacent story). According to military records he served in the Navy from 1863-1864 and then served in the Union army from 1864 until the end of the war.

It is likely that Bermudians witnessed the actual end of the war. The regiment of Bermudians Robert Tappin, John Wilson and Joseph Thomas, the 31st US Coloured Infantry, was one of the regiments that aggressively pursued General Robert E. Lee's forces in early April of 1865 after the Union troops captured the Confederate stronghold of Petersburg, Virginia. The 31st US Coloured Infantry was then present at the Appomattox Courthouse where Lee officially surrendered on April 9, 1865, bringing to close the deadliest war ever fought on American soil.

Despite President Abraham Lincoln's passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it was only the ending of the war, which officially ensured the freedom for millions of slaves in America.

Following the end of the war, the road towards equal rights and justice would be a long and dangerous journey as blacks throughout the South faced brutal oppression, violence and discrimination for over 100 years after the Civil War had ended.

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