Blacks in the Civil War

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Blacks in the Civil War

Black people from both the North and the South participated in the Civil War in a variety of ways. Free blacks from the North tried to join the fight as soldiers from the earliest days of the conflict. These men not only wanted to help free the slaves in the South, but also felt that they could improve their chances of gaining equal rights in American society by proving their patriotism and courage on the battlefield. But prejudice (unfair treatment because of their race) prevented blacks from enlisting in the Union Army until late 1862. It also created racial conflicts with working-class whites in many Northern cities during the war years.

In the South, black slaves performed much of the heavy work that was required to prepare the Confederacy for war. They built forts, dug trenches, hauled artillery and supplies, set up army camps, and acted as cooks and servants for Confederate soldiers. Some free blacks in the South even fought for the Confederacy in the early years of the Civil War. However, after President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in 1863, Southern blacks increasingly realized what a Union victory would mean for them. Thousands of slaves escaped and took refuge behind Union lines, and many of those who remained in the Confederacy stopped cooperating with Southern whites. Some Southern blacks even aided the Union cause by destroying Confederate property, spying on troop movements, or helping Union prisoners escape.

When black Americans were finally allowed to join the Union Army in 1862, they still faced discrimination. For example, they received lower wages than white soldiers who held the same rank, they did more than their fair share of heavy labor, and they were not allowed to become officers. Despite these problems, more than two hundred thousand black men fought bravely for the Union. Their courage and determination on the battlefield earned the respect of many white Americans and helped the North win the Civil War. As a result, black Americans were able to break down many barriers of discrimination after the war ended.

Northern blacks want to join the fight

Many free blacks in the North were happy when Southern states began seceding from (leaving) the United States in 1860. In fact, some black leaders had been suggesting the separation of Northern free states from Southern slave states for many years. These black leaders believed that the U.S. government was obligated to protect slavery under the Constitution. They had seen the number of blacks held in slavery increase from seven hundred thousand to four million since the United States had been formed almost nine decades earlier. They knew that the federal government had enforced the Fugitive Slave Laws, which required people in the North to help Southern slave owners find and capture their escaped slaves. Finally, black leaders believed that the federal government would call out the military to crush any major slave rebellions in the South. For these reasons, many free blacks felt that the institution of slavery would be more likely to end if the South did not have the support of the Union.

When the Civil War began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, thousands of black men volunteered to become soldiers in the Union Army. They cited two main reasons for wanting to join the fight. First, they wanted to help put an end to slavery. Second, they believed that proving their patriotism and courage on the field of battle would help improve their position in American society. "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States," said black abolitionist Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895).

But Federal law prohibited black men from joining state militias or the Union Army, and many Northern whites wanted to keep it that way. For one thing, they claimed that the Civil War was not about slavery. They called it a "white man's war" and said that its purpose was to restore the Union rather than to settle the issue of slavery. And since the war was not about slavery, they felt that there was no need to change the law so that black people could join the fight. In reality, the dispute between North and South involved a number of different issues, including the question of how much power should be granted to the individual states and how much should be held by the federal government. But in the end, slavery was the one issue upon which the two sides could not compromise.

Another reason that many Northern whites did not want black men joining the army was deep-seated racial prejudice. Some whites believed that they were superior to blacks and did not want to fight alongside them. They also thought that black men, particularly those who had been slaves, would be too cowardly and subservient (helpful in an inferior capacity) to make good soldiers. Finally, they worried that allowing blacks to fight in the war would have negative political implications. Several states along the border between North and South allowed slavery, but remained part of the Union anyway. Some Northern political leaders thought that these border states would join the Confederacy if the Union Army admitted black soldiers.

Black leaders in the North were outraged at the policies and prejudices that prevented them from fighting in the Civil War. They pointed out that black soldiers had fought for the United States in both the American Revolution (1775–83) and the War of 1812 (June 1812 to December 1814). Frederick Douglass charged that black men "were good enough to help win American independence, but they are not good enough to help preserve that independence against treason and rebellion." Many Northern blacks signed petitions asking the Federal government to change its rules, but the government refused. In the meantime, some light-skinned black men passed for white and enlisted in the army anyway. Thousands of other blacks provided unofficial help for the cause by serving as cooks, carpenters, laborers, nurses, scouts, and servants for the Union troops. In addition, about twenty-nine thousand black men served in the Union Navy, which never had a policy against blacks becoming sailors.

Prejudice leads to race riots in the North

Racial prejudice caused other problems for Northern blacks during the Civil War, in addition to preventing them from serving their country as soldiers. At that time, many immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy, and other European countries worked in industrial factories in the North. Working conditions in the factories were not good in those days, and many people worked long hours for low wages. Some workers formed groups called labor unions in order to negotiate with their employers for better working conditions and higher pay. Most labor unions did not allow black people to become members. When employers did not meet the demands of the unions, the members would often refuse to work—or go on strike—as a form of protest. Then the factory owners would hire black workers, who were not part of a union, to take the place of striking workers. This practice made many working-class white people angry and resentful. But instead of taking out their anger on their employers, they targeted black workers.

In 1862 and 1863, the job competition between European immigrants and Northern blacks sparked race riots in several major cities. Some of the most destructive riots occurred in Cincinnati, Ohio, in July 1862. Angry groups of Irish and German laborers set fires and attacked people in the black part of town, and then groups of black workers retaliated the next day. The mob violence continued for five days, and large sections of the city were destroyed. Similar events took place in New York City; Chicago, Illinois; and Detroit, Michigan, over the next few months. The situation grew even more tense once President Abraham Lincoln granted freedom to black slaves in the South in 1863. Working-class whites in the North worried that emancipation would create a flood of Southern blacks who would work for low wages and take their jobs.

Blacks in the Confederacy

In the early years of the Civil War, black slaves performed much of the hard labor that was required to prepare the Confederacy for war. They built forts and dug trenches, transported artillery and unloaded shipments of arms, set up army camps and acted as cooks and servants for the soldiers. They also continued to work in the fields, growing food and cotton to be used in the war effort. The prevailing attitude in the South was that "every Negro who could wield [handle] a shovel would release a white man for the musket [gun]," according to Charles H. Wesley and Patricia W. Romero in Afro-Americans in the Civil War: From Slavery to Citizenship. Most slaves who worked for the Confederate troops found conditions difficult. Food and clothing were scarce, living conditions were cramped and unsanitary, and doctors rarely came to treat sick and injured slaves.

In some cases, free black men volunteered to serve in the Confederate Army. Although it might seem strange for black people to fight in support of slavery, there were several reasons for such wartime service. Some free blacks believed that they would receive better treatment from Southern whites if they fought for the Confederacy. Others were afraid that they would be forced to join if they did not do so voluntarily. Finally, some free blacks in the South fought due to feelings of patriotism toward their state or city. But most Southern whites did not like the idea of black men serving in the Confederate Army. They did not trust black soldiers, even when they had volunteered, and were always suspicious that their true loyalties lay with the North. They worried that giving weapons to free black men would lead to widespread slave rebellions. In fact, the Confederate government enacted strict laws to restrict the activities of free blacks during the war.

As the Civil War dragged on, life became chaotic through much of the South. Large numbers of people were forced to leave their homes, as Union forces captured Southern cities. White men were usually too busy fighting the war to pay much attention to the behavior of their slaves. Over time, many Southern blacks took advantage of this situation. Some slaves remained in the South but became less willing to submit to the authority of whites. For example, large networks of slaves formed to help Union soldiers escape from prison and find their way back to safety in the North. These slaves brought the soldiers food and water, helped them hide from Confederate forces, and served as guides through the forests and countryside.

Other slaves took their first opportunity to escape to the North. "During the first two years of the War, most slaves were loyal to their masters in the lower South," Wesley and Romero explained. "After 1863, however, when the news and the meaning of freedom spread, there were many instances of disloyalty and dissatisfaction. . . . As the word revealing freedom reached the South, slaves ran away from the plantations to join the advancing Union troops."

Word of emancipation spreads in the South

President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation put an end to slavery in the United States on January 1, 1863. Word of emancipation spread slowly among slaves in the South, however. Mail delivery, telegraph lines, and other forms of communication were disrupted during the war. In addition, many Southern whites attempted to prevent the information from getting around. They worried that slaves would rebel and become violent upon hearing the news. But most slaves eventually learned of their freedom. Free blacks within the Union passed word to others in the South. Some slaves were able to read about the Proclamation in Southern newspapers, and others were simply informed by their masters.

Free blacks in both the North and South celebrated the end of slavery and looked forward to the time when they would be treated equally in American society. Most slaves were thrilled to learn that they were free, although some recognized that freedom brought uncertainty and new responsibilities. Since many slaves had not received basic education and were not trained in any special skills, they were concerned about how they would make a living and take care of their families.

Educator Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) remembered first hearing about the Emancipation Proclamation with other slaves in Virginia: "For some minutes there was great rejoicing, and thanksgiving, and wild scenes of ecstasy. But there was no feeling of bitterness. In fact, there was pity among the slaves for our former owners. The wild rejoicing on the part of the emancipated colored people lasted but for a brief period, for I noticed that by the time they returned to their cabins there was a change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves, of having to think and plan for themselves and their children, seemed to take possession of them."

As slaves in the South heard about the Emancipation Proclamation, they began to recognize what the Civil War meant for their future. If the North won, slavery would be abolished throughout the land. As a result, some slaves began to rebel against their masters and to help the Union cause. Some simply refused to work, while others started fires to destroy property belonging to whites. In addition to fighting the North, Southern whites increasingly had to worry about fighting slave uprisings.

Escaped slaves move north

About five hundred thousand slaves escaped from the South and crossed the battle lines into Union territory during the Civil War. Prior to mid-1862—when black men were not allowed to be soldiers, and many Northern whites claimed that it was a "white man's war"—some Union generals returned fugitive slaves to their owners in the South. But before long, some Union officials began welcoming escaped slaves, partly because they often brought useful information about enemy troop numbers and positions. Keeping fugitive slaves became the official Union policy in 1861. A small group of escaped slaves approached Union general Benjamin F. Butler (1818–1893) that May, and he refused to return them to Confederate hands. He argued that the Fugitive Slave Act—which required Americans in free states to help slave owners retrieve their property—no longer applied because the Confederacy was a foreign country. He called the escaped slaves "contraband [captured goods] of war" and declared his intention to keep them. In August, the U.S. Congress passed the Confiscation Act, which allowed the Union Army to seize any property used "in aid of the rebellion," including slaves.

At first there was no clear Federal policy regarding "contrabands," as the escaped slaves came to be known. Eventually, most Union Army units set up contraband camps and provided food, clothing, and shelter to the former slaves. The residents of many Northern cities organized freedmen's aid societies and sent volunteers to teach the contrabands to read and write. One of the earliest contraband communities was established on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. Volunteers provided the former slaves with education and land and helped them make the transition to freedom. Following emancipation, some free Northern blacks started schools in the South to educate freed slaves.

Some of the escaped slaves who came through Union lines stayed to become cooks or laborers for the soldiers. Others were put to work on abandoned plantations to grow food and cotton for the troops. In addition, some former slaves served as spies for the North. They traveled through the South, pretending to be slaves on their way from one plantation to another, and gathered information from slaves and free blacks. Then they came back and told Union officials about the location and size of the enemy forces. Spying was dangerous work for blacks, because anyone who was caught could be killed or returned to slavery.

Union Army finally accepts black soldiers

In 1862, the Union Army suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Confederates. This led to low morale among the troops and difficulty attracting white volunteers. As a result, public opinion about allowing blacks to fight gradually began to change. By this time, several Union generals had tried to set up black regiments despite the lack of government approval, including General James Lane (1814–1866) in Kansas, General David Hunter (1802–1886) in South Carolina's Sea Islands, and General Benjamin Butler in New Orleans. On July 17, 1862, the U.S. Congress passed two new laws that officially allowed black men to serve as soldiers in the Union Army. But they were only allowed to join special all-black units led by white officers.

The first black regiment (unit), the First South Carolina Volunteers, was formed in August 1862. Massachusetts abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911) was appointed colonel of this regiment. In January 1863, he led his troops on a raid along the St. Mary's River, which formed the border between Georgia and Florida. He reported back to his superior officers that he was very pleased by his unit's performance. "The men have been repeatedly under fire; have had infantry, cavalry, and even artillery arrayed against them, and have in every instance come off not only with unblemished honor, but with undisputed triumph," General Higginson wrote. "Nobody knows anything about these men who has not seen them in battle. I find that I myself knew nothing. There is a fiery energy about them beyond anything of which I have ever read." In March, Higginson's regiment and another black regiment under James Montgomery (1814–1871) joined forces to capture Jacksonville, Florida. As the success stories of black troops in battle began rolling in, several more black regiments were organized.

Although some black men were eager to join the Union Army, those in Northern cities tended to be more reluctant to enlist than they had been earlier in the war. For one thing, they were able to find good jobs in factories that were busy producing goods for the war effort. In addition, some black men worried about what would happen to them if they were captured by the Confederates. The Confederate government had said that it intended to ignore the usual rules covering the treatment of prisoners of war and deal with captured black soldiers in a harsh manner. It issued a statement saying that black soldiers would be "put to death or be otherwise punished at the discretion [judgment] of the court," which might include being sold into slavery. Many people thought that the Confederacy was just trying to discourage blacks from joining the Union Army, but a few well-publicized incidents convinced other people that they were serious.

One such incident was the "Fort Pillow massacre" of 1864. Fort Pillow was a Union outpost on the Mississippi River, north of Memphis, Tennessee. Half of the 570 Union soldiers stationed there to guard the fort were black. On April 12, the fort was captured by Confederate forces led by General Nathan Bedford Forrest. An unknown number of black soldiers (estimates range from twenty to two hundred) and a few white officers were killed after they had surrendered, in violation of the basic rules of war. This incident received a great deal of news coverage in the North. While it made some black men hesitant to volunteer, it made others determined to fight in order to take revenge on the Confederates.

Another reason that some black men were reluctant to enlist in the Union Army was that the army still had policies that discriminated against blacks. For example, black soldiers were not allowed to be promoted to the rank of officer, meaning that they were stuck being followers rather than leaders. Black regiments were always led by white officers. In addition, black soldiers received lower pay than white soldiers of the same rank. Black soldiers with the rank of private were paid $10 per month, with $3 deducted for clothing. But white privates received $13 per month, plus an additional $3.50 for clothing. Finally, black soldiers often performed more than their fair share of hard labor and fatigue duty, such as pitching tents, loading supplies, and digging wells and trenches. These policies began to change when black regiments proved themselves in battle. But it took a protest by two black regiments from Massachusetts—who refused to accept any pay until they were treated equally with white soldiers—to convince the War Department to make the changes official in June 1864.

By late 1864, the Union Army included 140 black regiments with nearly 102,000 soldiers—or about 10 percent of the entire Northern forces. Black men fought in almost every major battle during the final year of the Civil War and played an important role in achieving victory for the Union. Approximately 37,300 black men died while serving their country, and 21 received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery in battle.

The black regiments fighting for the Union were so successful that the Confederates even considered arming slaves late in the war. Most Southern whites opposed this idea because they believed that blacks were inferior and worried that it would promote slave rebellions. But as the Union Army advanced through the South, the Confederate government became desperate enough to consider it. In 1865, the Confederate Congress passed the Negro Soldier Law and established a few companies of black soldiers in Richmond, Virginia. But the Union won the Civil War before any of these troops could be used in battle.

Blacks' wartime service breaks barriers of discrimination

As black soldiers helped the Union achieve victory in the Civil War, some white people began to reconsider their earlier beliefs that blacks were inferior and should be kept separate from whites. "The performance of Negro soldiers on the front lines in the South helped make things easier for colored civilians in the North," James M. McPherson noted in The Negro's Civil War. During the war years, the U.S. government passed several new laws designed to reduce discrimination against blacks. For example, one law allowed blacks to carry the U.S. mail, and another permitted blacks to testify as witnesses in federal courts.

A major turning point for blacks came in 1865, when John S. Rock (1825–1866) became the first black lawyer allowed to argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Just eight years earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled in the Dred Scott case that blacks did not have the rights of citizens of the United States. The government took a number of other important measures to reduce discrimination and provide equal rights for black people after the Civil War ended.

Words to Know

Abolitionists people who worked to end slavery

Civil War conflict that took place from 1861 to 1865 between the Northern states (Union) and the Southern seceded states (Confederacy); also known in the South as the War between the States and in the North as the War of the Rebellion

Confederacy eleven Southern states that seceded from the United States in 1860 and 1861

Discrimination unfair treatment of people or groups because of their race, religion, gender, or other reasons

Emancipation the act of freeing people from slavery or oppression

Union Northern states that remained loyal to the United States during the Civil War

People to Know

John Andrew (1818–1867) governor of Massachusetts, 1860–66; organized the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, the first Northern black unit in the Civil War

Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895) abolitionist who was the first African American leader of national stature in U.S. history

Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911) abolitionist who led the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first regiment of former slaves in the Union Army

Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) sixteenth president of the United States, 1861–65

Robert Gould Shaw (1837–1863) Union colonel of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, the famous all-black unit in the Civil War

Northerners Organize to Help the "Contrabands"

Thousands of slaves escaped from plantations in the South during the Civil War and made their way to the North, particularly after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation set the slaves free in 1863. Many former slaves crossed the battle lines to join the advancing Union troops, where they were accepted as "contraband of war." Most of the "contrabands," as the escaped slaves came to be called, were poor and uneducated and arrived with only the possessions they could carry on their backs. At first, the Union Army did not have any systems in place to deal with the contrabands.

Before long, however, many Northern cities organized freedmen's aid societies to collect money and supplies for the former slaves. They also sent volunteers to teach the contrabands how to read and write and help them make the transition to working for pay. Many of the early teachers and aid workers were Northern whites who had supported the abolition of slavery. But large numbers of free blacks became involved in helping the contrabands after emancipation. The following statement from the Reverend Henry McNeal Turner (1834–1915), pastor of Israel Bethel Church in Washington, D.C., shows how black leaders throughout the North rallied people to the cause:

The time has arrived in the history of the American African, when grave and solemn responsibilities stare him in the face. . . . The great quantity of contra bands (so-called), who have fled from the oppressor's rod, and are now thronging Old Point Comfort, Hilton Head, Washington City, and many other places, and the unnumbered host who shall soon be freed by the President's Proclamation, are to materially change their political and social condition. The day of our inactivity, disinterestedness, and irresponsibility, has given place to a day in which our long cherished abilities, and every intellectual fibre of our being, are to be called into a sphere of requisition [a formal demand or request]. . . . Thousands of contrabands, now at the places above designated, are in a condition of the extremest suffering. We see them in droves every day perambulating [walking around] the streets of Washington, homeless, shoeless, dressless, and moneyless. . . . Every man of us now, who has a speck of grace or bit of sympathy, for the race that we are inseparably identified with, is called upon by force of surrounding circumstances, to extend a hand of mercy to bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment

In January 1863, the U.S. government authorized Governor John Andrew (1818–1867) of Massachusetts to put together a regiment of black soldiers from his state. Since there were not enough black men living in Massachusetts at that time, Andrew called upon prominent abolitionists and black leaders to recruit men from all over the North to form the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts would be the first all-black regiment to represent a state in battle during the Civil War. Many white people in the North were opposed to allowing black soldiers to fight for the Union Army, so Governor Andrew and his recruiters staked their reputations on the success or failure of the regiment. "Rarely in history did a regiment so completely justify the faith of its founders," James M. McPherson wrote in The Negro's Civil War.

Since black men were not allowed to become officers in the Union Army, the governor selected several white men to lead the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts. Andrew knew that the regiment would receive a great deal of publicity, so he chose these officers carefully. He asked a young, Harvard-educated soldier named Robert Gould Shaw (1837–1863) to become colonel of the regiment. Shaw accepted the position and immediately began training his troops for battle. "May we have an opportunity to show that you have not made a mistake in entrusting the honor of the state to a colored regiment—the first state that has sent one to the War," Shaw wrote to Andrew.

The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts got an opportunity to prove itself on July 18, 1863. The regiment was chosen to lead an assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold that guarded the entrance to Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. The soldiers had marched all of the previous day and night, along beaches and through swamps, in terrible heat and humidity. But even though they were tired and hungry by the time they arrived in Charleston, they still proudly took their positions at the head of the assault. The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts charged forward on command and were hit with heavy artillery and musket fire from the Confederate troops inside the fort. Colonel Shaw was killed, along with nearly half of his six hundred officers and men. But the remaining troops kept moving forward, crossed the moat surrounding the fort, and climbed up the stone wall. They were eventually forced to retreat when reinforcements did not appear in time, but by then they had inflicted heavy losses on the enemy.

The next day, Confederate troops dug a mass grave and buried Shaw's body along with his fallen black soldiers, despite the fact that the bodies of high-ranking officers were usually returned by both sides. The Confederates intended this action to be an insult, since they believed that whites were superior to blacks and thus deserved a better burial. Several weeks later, when Union forces finally captured Fort Wagner, a Union officer offered to search for the grave and recover Shaw's body. But Shaw's father, a prominent abolitionist, refused the offer. "We hold that a soldier's most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen," he wrote.

Even though the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts did not succeed in capturing Fort Wagner, their brave performance in battle was considered a triumph. "In the face of heavy odds, black troops had proved once again their courage, determination, and willingness to die for the freedom of their race," McPherson wrote. Newspapers throughout the North carried the story, even those that had opposed the enlistment of blacks in the Union Army. As abolitionist Angelina Grimké Weld (1805–1879) said of the regiment: "I have no tears to shed over their graves, because I see that their heroism is working a great change in public opinion, forcing all men to see the sin and shame of enslaving such men." The success of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts and other black regiments not only helped the North win the Civil War, but also led to greater acceptance of blacks in American society.

In 1989, director Edward Zwick turned the story of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment into a major movie called Glory, starring Matthew Broderick (1962– ) as Colonel Shaw and Morgan Freeman (1937– ) and Denzel Washington (1954– ) as two of his soldiers. Based in part on Shaw's letters and diaries, Glory traces the opposition to blacks serving as soldiers in the Civil War, follows the recruitment and training of the historic regiment, and ends with the assault on Fort Wagner. It was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture of 1989 and won Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Supporting Actor (Washington). In his book Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, James M. McPherson praised the movie's realistic combat footage and called Glory "the most powerful movie about [the Civil War] ever made."