History of the 14th RI during the Civil War

History of the 14th RI during the Civil War

Alex Baldino, Contributor

There were many courageous African-American soldiers who sacrificed a lot fighting in the Civil War. In an attempt to prove their worth as soldiers and to defeat the slave-holding south, both northern and southern African-Americans enlisted in the union army in droves. They wanted to be active in helping secure the emancipation of slaves and ending slavery as an institution. Nearly 200,000 African Americans enlisted in the Union army. During the war, black regiments participated in over 35 battles but the majority of these soldiers saw little to no combat. Prejudice still played a big role in determining their wartime duties.

The Fourteenth Regiment Rhode Island Heavy Artillery was a black unit who epitomized the average black regiment during the civil war. This regiment was called by 5 different titles, all sectioned by the Secretary of War: the Fourteenth Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, the Fourteenth Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Corps d’Afrique, the Eighth U.S. Heavy Artillery (Colored), the Eighth U.S. Colored Artillery (Heavy), and finally, the Eleventh U.S. Colored Artillery (Heavy).

Establishing a black regiment was not unique to the Civil War for Rhode Island. Nearly 100 years prior in Portsmouth, the first Rhode Island Regiment fought in the Revolutionary War. In the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln didn’t allow Regiments of black soldiers to be established out of concern that such a move would crumble Union support for the war. Pressure to form these types of regiments increased rapidly. Governor of Rhode Island, James Y. Smith, requested permission to allow the states black men to enlist into the army and eventually got permission from the war department to form a “colored” Heavy Artillery company. Rhode Island was the first to implement this call. The amount of volunteers was so overwhelming that by September it grew into an entire regiment.

Colonial Nelson Viall was chosen as the commander of the newly formed regiment. By December 1863, the first battalion of troops were deployed out of the port of Providence. Their destination was the Gulf of Louisiana. The second battalion of troops was deployed in the following January. The third battalion was deployed in the following April. Once in Louisiana, the units for the next few months would laboriously slash down swamp grass and build forts.

Entertainment opportunities were severely limited due to construction and fatigue duties and drills. Within a few months the regiment had established its own semimonthly newspaper, The Black Warrior, published at camp Parapet. Although the regiment had a lot of accomplishments, they also had a lot of calamity. A Private shot and mortally wounded another Private and was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

During the war, nearly one in every ten whites died of disease. In black regiments, the death rate doubled. The reason for this is not clear, but many believe that because blacks served in more harsh environments for longer periods of times, the death rate was therefore increased. The regiment again had no share of fame, because most of the deaths were from diseases.  The regiment was marked as a contributor to the preservation of the Union.