Militia Act (1862)
Militia Act (1862)
Daniel W. Hamilton
On July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Militia Act, calling on the president to employ "persons of African descent" in military or naval service. This was, importantly, a change in policy. At the start of the Civil War, the War Department refused to accept blacks who volunteered for the Union army. In its relative openness the Militia Act was, however, far from egalitarian in design or practice. The act expressly provided that black soldiers would be paid significantly less than white soldiers. Similarly, while the act did not preclude blacks from serving as Union army soldiers, Lincoln instead initially used blacks in noncombatant roles as scouts, laborers, and nurses. In this clumsy, discriminatory fashion the Union took its first halting steps towards what became one of the most important social, military, and political developments of the Civil War—the widespread participation of black soldiers in the war.
Black abolitionists, most importantly Frederick Douglass, from the start of the war lobbied furiously for the enlistment of black soldiers. Fighting a popular perception that blacks would run from battle, Douglass pressed for black regiments not only to aid the war effort, but as an invaluable political tool in the fight against slavery and for greater racial equality. In Douglass' Monthly, he declared: "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."
On the same day as passage of the Militia Act Congress, the Second Confiscation Act similarly authorized the president to employ blacks in the suppression of the rebellion in any manner he deemed best. The president soon thereafter, in the Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863, announced his intention to enlist black soldiers and sailors. Union generals in the field in Kansas, in Louisiana, and the South Carolina Sea Islands had already, by the summer of 1862 organized black regiments. On August 25, 1862 the War Department officially authorized the recruitment of black regiments in the Sea Islands of South Carolina. A few months later, in October 1862, a Kansas regiment of black soldiers took part in a small battle in Missouri. Ten blacks were killed, and so became the first black combat casualties of the Civil War. A few months afterwards, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts obtained permission from the War Department to form a black regiment. Andrew, however, received enough volunteers to form two regiments, and organized the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments. In May of 1862 the War Department created a Bureau of Colored Troops. Ultimately, nearly 180,000 black troops fought for the Union army, comprising 10 percent of all Union soldiers.
The use of black soldiers sparked intense controversy in the North and South. In the Union, resistance to the use of black troops in battle remained steadfast. Black soldiers were consistently discriminated against in pay, in bounties, and even in receiving medicine. Only in June 1864, after a number of black soldiers complained to Lincoln himself, did the federal government end discriminatory pay practices. In the Confederacy the use of black troops provoked outrage. Some generals in the field declared that any black soldier captured would be summarily executed, and any white officer leading black troops be put on trial for promoting insurrection. This threat became real in April 1864, when Confederate troops under Nathan B. Forrest massacred hundreds of surrendering black soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. During the war, the extraordinary sacrifice of black troops in the field slowly changed Northern public opinion on the role of black troops. Most notably, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment lost nearly half its men in a heroic assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor on July 18, 1863, resulting in widespread commentary and admiration in the army and in the Northern press.
The increasing numbers of black solders and their heroic sacrifices, made nearly impossible any negotiated peace with the Confederacy that preserved slavery. Some black soldiers were free men before the war, but the majority of black soldiers were slaves at the beginning of the war. Lincoln, who credited black soldiers with providing "the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion," made it clear he would not permit the enslaving of any soldier. Otherwise, he feared: "I should be damned in eternity for so doing." Black soldiers, it was recognized, were fighting to end slavery and their devotion to this struggle was perhaps the most powerful testimony against the continuing existence of the institution. Frederick Douglass was, in short, right. Once blacks in sufficient numbers put on a Union uniform and carried a gun into battle on behalf of the Union, a peace settlement preserving slavery was an increasingly distant possibility.
See also: Enrollment Act; First and Second Confiscation Acts.
Andrews, William L., and William S. McFeely, eds. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. New York: Norton 1997.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Ballentine Books, 1989.
The Militia Act of 1903, as amended in 1906 and 1908, increased federal aid to $4 million annually and recognized the National Guard as the “Organized Militia.” The amended 1903 act deemed state units the first reserve to be called in any war. It limited federal control, however, and in the National Defense Act of 1916, Congress gave the army extensive control over National Guard officers and units, made state forces available for service overseas, and greatly increased financial support. As amended in 1920, provisions of the 1916 law essentially have governed federal‐state military relations to the present.
[See also Citizen‐Soldier; Militia and National Guard.]