African Americans and the Civil War

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Date: 1999
Publisher: Primary Source Media
Series: American Journey
Document Type: Essay
Length: 2,338 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1120L

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Northern blacks took a keen interest in the campaign and election of 1860. The Republican party's presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), enjoyed wide support among the North's small free black population, although many blacks remained dissatisfied with that party's platform because it failed to call for emancipation. Others supported the Radical Abolition party candidate, Gerrit Smith (1791-1874). Although the Republican platform fell short of their wishes, blacks still welcomed the election of Abraham Lincoln as a step in the right direction.

Soon after Lincoln's election, slave states began to secede. Lincoln lamented their decision and strove to prevent others from following suit. Black leaders, however, tired of watching northern politicians make compromises with southern slaveholders, welcomed secession. Now that the two regions were separate, they reasoned, the North would no longer enforce the abhorrent fugitive slave law, and all slaves who escaped north would be free.

Blacks also welcomed the outbreak of war, seeing it as the first step toward the end of slavery, even though abolition was not a stated war aim. "The American people and the Government at Washington may refuse to recognize it for a time," Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) wrote in May 1861, but nevertheless, he insisted, the "war now being waged in this land is a war for and against slavery."


Southern blacks, largely illiterate and unfamiliar with the activities of northern abolitionists, observed the outbreak of war more cautiously. However, once they understood that the war could hasten their freedom, most grasped every opportunity to aid the Union army. Their reactions to the war's outbreak destroyed the myth of the happy slave. Apologists for the South's peculiar institution had long contended that slaves loved their masters and would not take freedom if it were offered. In fact, slaves fled to freedom when they had the opportunity; during the war, approximately five hundred thousand slaves escaped or came within Union lines.

The coming of war changed slaves' lives in several ways. Many plantations shifted from cash crops such as cotton to staples such as corn and wheat to feed the army and the civilian population. Families lost loved ones as able-bodied male slaves were forced to aid the war effort. Many experienced severe dislocation. As Union armies approached, masters often fled, taking their human property into the hinterland. In some cases, masters fled and left slaves behind. These slaves were emancipated and often continued to farm under the direction of the Union army.

Many slaves were pressed into service in the Confederate army. Although the Confederacy never officially conscripted or armed free blacks and slaves, slaves were forced to build defensive fortifications and to cook, clean, and perform other tasks in army camps. In the war's early stages, some went to battle as their masters' personal slaves. Some blacks, perhaps hoping to earn their freedom or to prove that they were the whites' equals, volunteered to serve in the army, but their numbers were very small.

As the war dragged on and the need for more soldiers increased, several southern generals discussed the possibility of pressing blacks into service. Although Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) concluded in early 1865 that arming blacks was a military necessity, most Confederate leaders were skeptical about the loyalty of free and enslaved blacks, especially as their desertion rate was high. After some deliberation, Confederate leaders decided against the idea.


From the war's onset, fugitive slaves were a difficult issue for the Union army. Lincoln had made clear that he believed secession was not legally possible. In his eyes, the southern states were still a part of the Union and in rebellion against it. All federal laws regarding slavery were therefore still in effect, including the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In keeping with this law, Union officers were supposed to return fugitive slaves who had taken refuge behind their lines.

In May 1861, three fugitives escaped to the Union army camped at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. The army's commander, Benjamin Butler (1818-1893), declared them contraband of war, meaning that they were property of the enemy that could be confiscated. Butler harbored the runaways because he recognized that they were of material aid to the Confederates. Despite his commitment to enforce the fugitive slave law, Lincoln approved Butler's decision. The fugitives continued to arrive, and by July 1861, over nine hundred contraband slaves had taken refuge with Butler's troops.

In early August, Congress passed an act providing for the confiscation of all property that aided the rebellion, including slaves. Slaves owned by those who were loyal to the Union or had not contributed to the war effort were to remain slaves. Later that same August, John C. Fremont (1813-1890), Union commander in the Western Department, declared martial law in Missouri. In violation of Congress's confiscation law, he issued a declaration that all slaves owned by rebels were to be freed. Lincoln sharply rebuked Fremont, fearing that this action would alienate the other loyal slave states. He ordered Fremont to comply with the confiscation act; when Fremont refused, Lincoln revoked Fremont's order and soon thereafter relieved him of his command.

The contraband issue became increasingly pressing as the war continued. More and more slaves flooded behind Union lines, often arriving as families, not just as able-bodied men who could claim that Confederates had put them to work in the war effort. In March 1862, General David Hunter (1802-1886) followed Fremont's example of the previous summer and declared the slaves of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to be free. As he had before, Lincoln overruled the emancipation order. The black press excoriated Lincoln on moral and strategic grounds, denouncing his failure to seize an opportunity to free the slaves and his apparent inability to see the immense value of emancipation for the Union cause.

The growing presence of slaves behind Union lines revealed the inherent link between the contraband and the war. Because of the confiscation act, the southward-moving Union troops were essentially armies of emancipation. In April 1862, Congress passed further laws prohibiting the return of fugitive slaves who had escaped to Union forces, prohibiting slavery in the territories, providing for a real end to the African slave trade, and abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia. In July 1862, Congress followed these legislative efforts with yet another confiscation act further guaranteeing the freedom of slaves held by rebels.


From the beginning of the war, black males throughout the North offered themselves as soldiers in the Union army, but their services were refused. A federal law barred them from serving in state militia, and in 1860, there were no blacks in United States Army.

Despite the army's refusal to enlist them, black men in Boston organized a drill company and repeatedly petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to allow them to fight. Similar companies were formed in other northern cities. Abolitionists tried to pressure President Lincoln to allow white officers to lead companies of black soldiers, but their suggestion met with resistance. Because of their deep racism, few white soldiers wanted to fight alongside blacks, and few officers believed that blacks would make good soldiers.

In addition, many white politicians and editors insisted that the war was a white man's war for the preservation of the Union, not for the emancipation of the slaves. To allow blacks to fight would be to admit that emancipation was a war goal and perhaps to alienate whites who had no desire to free the slaves. In the early stages of the war, Abraham Lincoln had made this very clear. His attitude prompted some blacks to question whether or not they should continue to offer their services to a government that was hostile to them. Despite these reservations, however, numerous black men continued to organize and train, waiting for an opportunity to fight.

While they waited, black leaders in the North waged a war of words, demanding the abolition of slavery in both rebel and loyal states. Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass argued forcefully that the only way to put an end to the war against slaveholders was to put an end to slavery itself. Slavery was a source of immense military strength, black leaders argued, and emancipation would strike directly at the South's capacity for war.

By the summer of 1862, Lincoln had begun to agree. In the previous spring, he had encouraged Congress to offer compensation to any state that would adopt a policy of gradual emancipation. Although Congress enacted other legislative blows against slavery at this time, the border states vehemently opposed Lincoln's plan and secured its defeat in Congress. While Congress was making some strides toward emancipation, Lincoln began to draft the Emancipation Proclamation. He understood that emancipation had become a military necessity. The Union needed to deprive the South of its slaves and put them in Union uniforms. In July 1862, he presented the idea to his cabinet, which advised him to wait for a military victory before announcing his plan to the nation.

That victory came at Antietam in September 1862, and Lincoln issued a preliminary draft of the proclamation that same month. The proclamation decreed that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states would be forever free. Blacks rejoiced at Lincoln's decision and celebrated throughout the North. The black press praised Lincoln for taking the step, at the same time noting that the proclamation did not free slaves in the states that remained loyal to the Union. Nevertheless, after the proclamation was issued, the Union army officially became an instrument of emancipation.

The Emancipation Proclamation called on all freed slaves to join the army and fight for the Union. Black men immediately answered the call, forming numerous units, including the heralded Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts regiments and the First South Carolina Volunteers. Units of black soldiers fought under the leadership of white men, including the abolitionists Col. Robert Gould Shaw (1837-1863) and Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911). Black soldiers fought courageously in every theater of the war, but they were paid less than their white counterparts until 1864.

By the war's end, over 186,000 blacks had enlisted in the Union army. They served in all capacities, as soldiers, hospital surgeons, chaplains, and spies. A few attained high rank and were decorated for valor. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died in the war, almost a quarter of all who enlisted, a casualty rate 40 percent higher than that of whites. Blacks' contributions to the war effort proved undeniably that they had won their own victory and their own freedom.

In the South, slaves learned of Lincoln's proclamation by word of mouth and from southern newspapers. When Union troops occupied an area, army commanders appointed a superintendent of freedmen's affairs to organize the freedmen. These superintendents put the ex-slaves to work on abandoned plantations or as laborers in camps. In theory, the former slaves were to receive wages for their labor, but in some cases, they lived and worked in conditions scarcely different from slavery.

Northerners organized numerous societies to aid the freedmen and sent men and women south to teach and train them. One of the most famous and successful of these programs was in the South Carolina Sea Islands. Among the teachers who went there was Charlotte Forten (1837-1917), granddaughter of the famous abolitionist James Forten. In the Sea Islands and elsewhere, the contraband camps demonstrated that with assistance, blacks could make the transition from slavery to freedom.


The realization that the slaves were acquiring their freedom focused white attention on the blacks' future in the nation. Most whites believed that blacks were innately inferior to whites and loathed the idea of living in a biracial society. This racism gave new energy to the American Colonization Society, founded nearly a half century earlier by a small group of influential white men. The colonizationists had founded Liberia, but they had never successfully settled many free blacks in this West African colony.

Colonizationists assumed that whites and blacks could never live peacefully and prosperously together and that blacks would never be able to rise above white racial prejudice. Abraham Lincoln fully shared this view. When Lincoln met with five blacks at the White House in August 1862, he told his visitors that the differences between the Negro and the Caucasian made it impossible for them to live together as equals. Lincoln did not defend his characterization of the situation, he simply asserted that it was true. Separation, he argued, was the only remedy and would benefit both blacks and whites. He encouraged the visitors to organize families to emigrate to South America, where they could thrive undaunted by racism.

Lincoln's meeting with the small group was widely publicized. The black press harshly criticized the president and reminded him that blacks had the same rights as whites to live in the land of their birth. Fully cognizant of the weight of the white population's racism, they stated that their unequivocal goal was to elevate the black race in the United States.

Other northern blacks, however, supported the idea of colonization. Although always a small group, they were a high-profile minority that included such famous critics of slavery as Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882) and Martin Delany (1812-1885). Garnet and Delany participated in a plan to settle blacks in Haiti, and over the course of the war, more than a thousand blacks emigrated to that island nation. In the end, however, colonization failed during the Civil War because few blacks volunteered to emigrate.


As civilians and soldiers, north and south, blacks made significant contributions to the war effort and proved that they were the whites' equals. In a very real way, blacks freed themselves in the Civil War. Freedom did not come easily, despite the Emancipation Proclamation and later the 13th Amendment. White prejudice remained strong after the war and seriously compromised the efforts of reconstruction. The Civil War had ended, but the struggle for true freedom continued.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2152000666