Even before Indiana began recruiting them, African-American Hoosiers volunteered to fight in the Civil War.
An 1862 act of Congress allowed President Abraham Lincoln “to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion.” The Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863 expressly allowed use of African-Americans as combat soldiers.
Racial prejudices initially kept Indiana from enlisting blacks, so the future soldiers went elsewhere. About 150 black Hoosiers signed up for the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, memorialized in the Oscar-winning film “Glory.” Others crossed into Ohio, which assembled a regiment in the summer of 1863.
Late that same year, Gov. Oliver P. Morton realized the impact of out-of-state enrollments on Indiana’s quota obligations. Morton authorized a black battalion and warned that “recruitment of colored troops in this state for companies or regiments organizing in other states is henceforth positively prohibited.”
The 28th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, organized at Indianapolis from Dec. 24, 1863, through March 31, 1864. More than 500 men trained at Camp Fremont near Fountain Square in Indianapolis on farmland loaned by abolitionist Calvin Fletcher.
Assigned to the 9th Army Corps under Major General Ambrose Burnside, the regiment headed east — destined for intense action.
They first saw combat that June near White House, Virginia. Next they accompanied Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Cavalry through the Chickahominy swamps to Prince George Courthouse and sustained “severe losses from frequent skirmishes with the enemy,” as reported by Adjutant Gen. W. H. H. Terrell.
In the summer and fall of 1864, the regiment took part in the siege of Petersburg, Va. Its most notorious assignment came July 30 at the Battle of the Crater where Union troops dug a tunnel under a Confederate fort. Soldiers carrying 8,000 pounds of gunpowder entered the tunnel in an ill-fated effort to blow up the Confederate defense.
“Instead of victory there was disastrous defeat,” according to The Indiana Historian. “When the mine explosion created the ‘crater,’ there was great disorder, and many Union soldiers were killed or wounded.” Burnside was relieved of command for his role in the disaster.
The victims included 88 members of Indiana’s 28th. “The colored troops went as far as they were ordered to go, and did just what they were told to do,” observed the regiment’s chaplain, the Rev. Garland White, whose accounts of the war were published in a church newsletter.
Following that battle, Indiana raised four more companies to fill the regiment’s depleted ranks. They joined the 25th Corps, Army of the James, and were among the first to enter the fallen Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., in April 1865. The men’s final duty was in Texas where, even after the Surrender at Appomattox, Confederate units resisted Union victory.
In all, 1,537 black Hoosiers joined the Union Army counting those who enlisted from other states.
The 28th mustered out of service on Nov. 8, 1865, after proving its mettle and losing 212 men to battle or disease. The group was honored with a public ceremony in Indianapolis on Jan. 8, 1866. The Indianapolis Daily Journal reported, “The occasion was a very pleasant one, and was a large nail in the great platform of equal justice.”
This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December 2016. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.