WASHINGTON – Almost 200,000 African Americans served in the Union army during the Civil War. Now, two of them have received special honors because of their connection to first lady Michelle Obama.
On Wednesday, the 150th anniversary of the creation of the Union’s first black regiment, a wreath was placed at the two men’s names on the American Civil War Memorial on U Street in D.C.
Jerry Sutton, later known as Jerry Sutter, a stepfather to the first lady’s great-grandmother, served with distinction at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads in Mississippi in 1864.
Ceasar Cohen, who was about 25 when he joined the 128th regiment of the United States Colored Troops, was Michelle Obama’s great-great-grandfather, historical records suggest.
Rachel Swarns, a New York Times reporter who has just released a new book, “American Tapestry,” says the men’s experience was similar to those of many other black soldiers in the Civil War.
But Swarns says Cohen, who joined near the end of the war, later deserted.
“Cohen ended up, as did Jerry Sutter, ended up becoming among the first generation of African American landowners,” she says.
The African American Civil War Memorial is on U Street, just across Vermont Avenue from the African American Civil War Museum.
Editor’s Note: For years, the idea has been promoted that black troops also fought for the southern cause.
The Confederate Congress refused on numerous occasions to allow the use of black troops. It was finally approved on March 3, 1865, when Union troops had Richmond surrounded. It was just over a month before Gen. Lee surrendered at Appomattax.
About 3,000 men of black or mix race did end up in Confederate uniforms. Many were slaves forced to join the Confederate army by their owners. Others were poor blacks looking to earn a $50 bonus for signing up.
The black troops were used as grave diggers, wagon drivers and laborers to free white soldiers for battle. Most were never issued weapons.
There is no record of any black units being used in combat by the Confederate Army.
(Source for Editor’s Note: U.S. Department of Defense and the Mariners Museum)