Updated: Aug 24
The Civil War was the culmination of years of tremendous political agitation regarding the abolition of slavery and the issue of states’ rights to secede from the United States. Although the war’s declared aim was to preserve the Union, free Blacks were eager to join the Union Army to fight against slavery and prove that they were worthy of equal rights as citizens.
As the Union forces moved south, enslaved people left the plantations to join up. They were inspired by the formerly enslaved Frederick Douglass, who proclaimed, “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.”
The Emancipation Proclamation authorizing the recruitment of Black troops took effect in January 1863. In a pattern that would not end until after World War II, African Americans were assigned to all-Black regiments headed by white commissioned officers, and given the most arduous tasks, such as digging an infamous canal near Richmond while under enemy fire.
The 6th Regiment U.S. Colored Troop was organized near Philadelphia that summer. The regiment was honored to have the Rev. Jeremiah Asher, one of only 14 Black ministers in the Union Army, assigned as chaplain.
Fifty-two of the 1,272 members of the 6th Regiment were born in New Jersey. The regiment took part in crucial engagements in Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia, but its greatest battle was at New Market Heights, where three members earned Congressional Medals of Honor, and casualties were severe. By the end of the war, 224 had died — 87 in battle and the rest from disease.
The modern re-enactment troop, according to Algernon Ward, who serves as a sergeant, was joined by New Jersey residents eager to uncover and understand the vital role African Americans played in the Civil War. One of them, Fred Minus, is the great-great-grandson of Civil War soldier John Henry Minus.
In 2003, the 6th Regiment re-enactors were chosen to participate in a PBS television series on American slavery, aired in February 2005. Mr. Ward played the role of Robert Smalls, a Black Civil War hero whose exploits included the theft of a Confederate ship.
“The story of Black soldiers in the Civil War has not been explored enough,” Mr. Ward said. “Our mission, through our members and our cadets, is to help people understand this history and give these heroes the recognition they deserve.”
Juneteenth -- A Celebration of the End of Slavery
When they re-enacted a Civil War Muster on the meadows of Grasmere Park in 2006, the 6th Regiment was joined by members of the Trenton Juneteenth Committee, who portrayed women camp followers, nurses and scouts.
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. It commemorates June 19th, 1865, when Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. This was two and a half years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation had become official, but the proclamation had had little impact on Texans because there were few Union troops to enforce it.
However, with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome resistance to the end of slavery.