3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry Regiment
(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 and Johnston.
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 be destroyed.
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 dissatisfaction.
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 officer’s 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.