The foundation for black participation in the Civil War began more than a hundred yearsbefore the outbreak of the war. Blacks in America had been in bondage since earlycolonial times. In 1776, when Jefferson proclaimed mankind’s inalienable right to life,liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the institution of slavery had become firmly established in America. Blacks worked in the tobacco fields of Virginia, in the rice fieldsof South Carolina, and toiled in small farms and shops in the North. Foner and Mahoneyreport in A House Divided, America in the Age of Lincoln that, ?In 1776, slavescomposed forty percent of the population of the colonies from Maryland south to Georgia,but well below ten percent in the colonies to the North. ? The invention of the cotton ginby Eli Whitney in 1793 provided a demand for cotton thus increasing the demand forslaves.Order now
By the 1800’s slavery was an institution throughout the South, an institution inwhich slaves had few rights, and could be sold or leased by their owners. They lacked anyvoice in the government and lived a life of hardship. Considering these circumstances, theslave population never abandoned the desire for freedom or the determination to resistcontrol by the slave owners. The slave’s reaction to this desire and determinationresulted in outright rebellion and individual acts of defiance. However, historians placethe strongest reaction in the enlisting of blacks in the war itself. Batty in The Divided Union: The Story of the Great American War, 1861-65,concur with Foner and Mahoney about the importance of outright rebellion in theiranalysis of the Nat Turner Rebellion, which took place in 1831.
This revolt demonstratedthat not all slaves were willing to accept this ?institution of slavery? passively. Foner andMahoney note that the significance of this uprising is found in its aftermath because of thenumerous reports of ?insubordinate? behavior by slaves. 8Individual acts of defiance ranged from the use of the Underground Railroad – asecret, organized network of people who helped fugitive slaves reach the Northern statesand Canada – to the daily resistance or silent sabotage found on the plantations. Stokesbury acknowledges in, A Short History of the Civil War, the existence of theUnderground Railroad but disagrees with other historians as to its importance.
He notesthat it never became as well organized or as successful as the South believed. Even with the groundwork having been laid for resistance, the prevalent racialclimate in America in 1860 found it unthinkable that blacks would bear arms against whiteAmericans. However, by 1865 these black soldiers had proven their value. Wilson writesin great detail describing the struggles and achievements of the black soldiers in his bookThe Black Phalanx. McPherson discusses in The Negro’s Civil War that widespreadopposition to the use of blacks as soldiers prevailed among northern whites. WhereasMcPherson relates the events cumulating in the passage of two laws that aided blackenlistment, Wilson focuses on the actual enlistment.
He notes that the first regiment offree blacks came into service at New Orleans in September 1862 through the efforts ofButler. Wilson credits Butler’s three regiments of blacks as the first officially musteredinto Union ranks. North Carolina and Kansas also organized additional black units whereminor skirmishes proved to be successful. Wilson also notes that ?Kansas has .
. . the honorof being the first State in the Union to begin the organization of Negroes as soldiers forthe Federal army. ? McPherson believes that up to this point President Lincoln hadopposed the idea of blacks fighting for the Union but after the issuance of theEmancipation Proclamation, which declared that slaves in states still in rebellion onJanuary 1, 1863, ?shall be then, thence forward, and forever free,? he reversed his 8thinking. At the end of the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln announced that the freedblacks ?would be received into the armed service of the United States. .
. . ? Lincolnplanned to tap into a new source of fighting individuals, ?. .
. the great available and as yetunavailed of, force for the restoration of the Union. ?. Lincoln thought this would bothweaken the enemy and strengthen the Union. The recruitment of the blacks took laborersfrom the South and placed these men in the Union army in places which otherwise mustbe filled with so many white men.
? Lincoln also felt that seeing the blacks fighting againstthe Confederacy would have a psychological effect upon the South. With the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, freeing the slaves, theNorth began recruiting black soldiers but, as reported by Batty and Parish, this was a slowrecruitment at first. In the Spring of 1863 only two black regiments existed, however,this had grown to sixty by the end of 1863. By 1864 this had expanded to 80 moreregiments. Jordan provides a comprehensive account of one of the first black regiments tofight for the Union Army, the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment that numbered atleast 1,000 soldiers.
This all-volunteer regiment, lead by a white colonel, Robert GouldShaw, helped open the 22- month land and sea assault on Charleston, South Carolina. Leading an unsuccessful hand-to-hand attack on Fort Wagner in Charleston, this regimentengaged in one of the most famous black actions of the Civil War and sufferedapproximately 44 percent casualties, including Colonel Shaw. Their performance in thisbattle helped to make the blacks more acceptable in the Union army. One of its soldierswon the Congressional Medal of Honor. Eventually twenty-three other black soldiersearned this honor.
The reports of the tenacity of the blacks at Fort Wagner plus 8engagements at Port Hudson, Louisiana, Fort Pillow and Milliken’s Bend helped to fuelthe fire of black enlistment. Historians differ in the actual number of blacks in the Union Army. Foner andMahoney reported that by the end of the war approximately 190,000 blacks had served inthe Union Army and Navy, while Stokesbury notes that there were 300,000 black soldiersand 166 regiments. McPherson, in contrast, places this number more than 200,000. Wilson explains the discrepancy in the numbers of black soldiers as he describes a practiceof ?putting a live Negro in a dead one’s place.
? If a black solder died in the war thecommanding officers would simply put another man in his place and have him answer tothe dead man’s name. Batty and Parish call the raising of the black regiments one of the?most remarkable, even revolutionary, developments of the whole war. ? Batty and Parish, McPherson and Wilson all agree that even though these soldierswere fighting for the North and trying to escape the bonds of slavery and gain freedom,discrimination still existed in the Army. The soldiers fought in segregated companies withwhite commanders. The Blacks were not equal to the whites as they received lower pay,performed fatigue duty and menial labor, such as cleaning quarters, laundering clothing,cleaning boots and cooking. Black soldiers, regardless of their rank, earned $10 a monthminus $3 for clothing, while white privates earned $13 a month plus clothing.
Ex-slavescould not advance into the ranks of commissioned officers until the end of the war. Battyand Parish note that less than 100 ever became officers and none ranked higher thancaptain. McPherson, who agrees with other historians that the blacks were consideredsecond class soldiers, cites statistics to support this theory. He shows the contrast in thenumber of white and black soldiers killed in action and in the rate of death from disease 8among the white and black soldiers. The black soldiers faced the prospect of executionor sale into slavery if captured.
Wilson reports that one of the worst atrocities allegedlycommitted against the black soldiers occurred at Fort Pillow, Tennessee on April 12, 1864, when the Confederate Army indiscriminately killed some three hundred blacksoldiers. The fort, stormed by General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s troops, had surrendered. Union officials claimed that the killing of the black soldiers was a massacre, however, theConfederate denied this claim, maintaining that the soldiers died in the fighting before thesurrender. Wilson gives a detailed account of the battle to support the massacre theory and Harper’s Weekly called the battle, ?Inhuman, fiendish butchery. ? Stokesbury, inconcurring with Wilson, notes ?the weight of evidence . .
. suggests a massacre. ? Thismassacre failed to weaken the courage of the black soldiers, but rather fueled them with adesire of determination. Just as the Union Army realized the importance of black soldiers, so did the South.
The readiness to which these slaves responded to the call of fighting for the confederacy isexplained by the fact that the failure of Nat Turner, among others, was held up to them astheir fate, should they attempt to free themselves from their masters. In the early years ofthe war some Confederate states accepted blacks into their units, much to JeffersonDavis’s opposition. Black workers found their way into armament factories and into theConfederate Army doing anything short of handling a gun. Throughout the war effort inthe South, blacks willingly dug field fortifications, mounted cannons and builtentrenchments to fortify cities and towns. Wilson cites an article in the Charleston Mercury on January 3, 1861, which reported, ?One hundred and fifty able-bodied freecolored men yesterday offered their services gratuitously. .
. . to hasten forward theimportant work of throwing up redoubts. .
. along our coast. ? Likewise, the states of 8Tennessee and Virginia enlisted the aid of the blacks. Often after completing the neededfortifications the slaves returned to the fields to help supply the needs of the confederatesoldiers who were fighting to keep the blacks as slaves. As the Confederacy faced a mounting shortage of white soldiers, General Pat Cleburne developed a plan to use theblacks in the fight for the Confederacy.
This plan promised freedom for the slaves butJefferson Davis rejected the idea. In the dying days of the war in early 1865 theConfederacy faced an army that was daily thinned more to desertion than bullets. General-in chief of the Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee persuaded theConfederate Congress to arm slaves to fight for the South.
These slaves trained, drilledand paraded in some cities. However, the war ended before this program could begin. Their importance in the fighting is found in the claim they staked to equal rightsfollowing the war. Former slave Frederick Douglas wrote, ?Once let the black man getupon his person the brass U. S. .
. . and there is no power on earth which can deny that hehas earned the right to citizenship. ? . The role of the black soldiers also influencedmoderate Republicans to believe that the federal government should guarantee the equalitybefore the law of all citizens. Small, but significant, steps developed following the wartowards easing the color line.
For example, street cars became desegregated in severalmajor cities. Illinois, which in 1862 had banned blacks from coming into the state, nowlifted the ban, and allowed blacks to serve on juries and to testify in courts. Whereas other historians confine their accounts of black involvement in the CivilWar, Catton notes in The Civil War that as a result of their fighting along side whitesoldiers a new attitude developed towards the blacks. Many northern soldiers had grownup knowing only the black as portrayed on the stage – grinning, big-mouthed, carefree 8loving possum and watermelons and eating fried chicken.
What they found was a realhuman – struggling to be in control of his destiny. He describes a Wisconsin soldier’sfeelings by saying, ?The black folks are awful good, poor miserable things that they are. The boys talk to them fearful and treat them most any way and yet they can’t talk twominutes but tears come to their eyes and they throw their arms up and praise de Lord forde coming of de Lincoln soldiers. ? Deeply entrenched in the institution of slavery, the black population responded byplaying an important role in the Civil War.
This role began years before the actualfighting, with the foundation being laid by outright rebellion and individual resistance asthe slaves dreamed of freedom. Building on this foundation historians agree that the roleof the blacks in the fighting of the Civil War was important to both the North and Southefforts. Consequently, the historians agree agreement that one important result of theirfighting was the advancement of the idea of their freedom and steps toward equality. Thisidea of freedom and equality gave great confidence and pride to these long oppressedpeople.
BibliographyBatty, Peter The Divided Union, Tempus Publishing Limited, September 1999. Catton, Bruce The Civil War, Houghton Mifflin Company, April 1985Foner, Eric and Mahoney, Olivia A House Divided, Norton, Ww, Louisania University Press, May 1991McPherson, James M. The Negro’s Civil War: How Americans Felt and ActedDuring the War for the Union. , Ballantine Books, Inc.
, February 1989Stokesbury, James C. A Short History of the Civil War Morrow, William &Company, March, 1997Wilson, Joseph T. The Black Phalanx: African-American Soliders in the War ofIndependence and the Civil War Plenum Publishing Corp., April 1994