(The following excerpts from an address delivered by Ed M. Main, former Major and newly elected Historian of the Third U. S. Colored Cavalry Organization during a meeting held at the Grand Pacific Hotel, Chicago, Illinois on May 5, 1893.)
Mr. President and Comrades:
That the colored troops acquitted themselves with credit, has
been fully demonstrated, and that the success they achieved was
due to the patriotism and unflinching bravery of their white
officers, must also be admitted. It is needless to say that
without efficient white officers the experiment with negro troops
would have been a total failure.
The officers of negro troops would not received the credit to
which they are so deservedly entitled, and for which the great
service they rendered to the country in its darkest hour of peril
demands. Rising above the storm of prejudice then prevailing
against the negro troops, they came to the rescue at a time when
the Union was tottering on the brink of dissolution.
Voluntary enlistments had ceased in the loyal States, and the
Union army was wasting away before the invincible legions of Lee
Scattered, as it was, over a vast territory, the Union army
was unable to face their opponents and, at the same time, hold
the already subjugated territory. At this period of the war, the
fact first dawned on the Northern mind that one of the greatest
elements of strength the South possessed consisted in her slave
population numbering four million souls, who tilled the soil
producing the sugar, rice, cotton and corn that fed and clothed
the Confederate armies, and who also looked after the home
interests while the entire white male population flocked to the
support of the Southern standard.
But the usefulness of the negroes did not end here. In the
capacity of pioneers and teamsters, in fact, performing all the
various duties pertaining to an army, they formed a valuable
auxiliary to the Southern cause.
Then the negroes were made the instruments for the destruction
of the Union and for perpetuating their own enslavement. It
became apparent, therefore, that to save the Union, slavery must
The people of the North failed to comprehend the true
condition of affairs, until they saw their own farms and
workshops deserted in consequence of the heavy drafts made for
men to fill up the depleted ranks of the Union army.
When the question of giving the negroes a chance to fight for
their own freedom was at last determined upon by the Federal
Government, a great howl of rage and indignation went up from the
South, which, being echoed by their Northern allies,
Copperheads, aroused a bitter prejudice against the
measure, which, spread through our own army, created widespread
The idea of commanding negro troops was at first severely
ridiculed, and the prejudice was so great that but few men could
be found who possessed the moral courage to face the obliquy,
which threatened to overwhelm all who accepted positions in
colored regiment. There were, however, a few commissioned and
non-commissioned officers in some of the white regiments, whose
patriotism and courage could stand the test. These men. stepping
into the breach, formed the nucleus of what ultimately became an
army of nearly 200,000 well organized, finely drilled and highly
disciplined troops. These troops, as fast as organized and
equipped, took the field and, by their conduct under fire, soon
won the respect of the whole army, and thereafter, white and
colored soldiers fought side by side, mingling their blood in a
common pool on many hard fought fields.
As this branch of the service grew in favor, positions in
colored regiments were eagerly sought after. But as the standard
of admission was high, many applicants suffered disappointment.
The officers of colored troops were selected from the best men
in the white regiments, being chosen for their bravery and
soldierly qualities. These qualifications being established by
previous faithful and meritorious service in their old regiment,
a rigid examination before a board of army officers, expert in
military tactics, was required to test their fitness to command.
Without these qualifications, influence had no weight in securing
these positions, and it is not too much to say that in no other
branch of the service did the officers reach a higher standard of
excellence, and in patriotism and bravery, the officers of
colored troops had no peers.
NOTE: The Third U. S. Colored Cavalry Regiment in which Major Ed M. Main served after resigning his officers commission with the Fourth Illinois Cavalry Regiment enjoyed the proud distinction of being one of the finest cavalry regiments (Union or Confederate) in the Army of the Tennessee to serve in the Mississippi Valley and the Department of the Gulf. A majority of the enlisted men were ex-slaves from Mississippi and Tennessee, and the regiments brilliant achievements are mentioned in general orders of the war department. The history of the regiment will show a long list of brilliant victories and no defeats. It was aggressive and never violated the laws of honorable warfare. It gave and took blow for blow and in a fair and open field acknowledged no superior.
SOURCE: Documents on file at the U. S. Armor School Library, Fort Knox, Kentucky.
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