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African Americans In The Civil War summary: African-Americans served in the in the Civil War on both the Union and Confederate side. In the Union army, over 179,000 African American men served in over 160 units, as well as more serving in the Navy and in support positions. This number comprised of both northern free African Americans and runaway slaves from the South who enlisted to fight. In the Confederacy, African-Americans were still slaves and they served mostly in labor positions. By 1865, the South allowed slaves to enlist but very few actually did.
African-Americans In the Union Army
At the onset of the Civil War, free Black men rushed to volunteer for service with the Union forces. Although African Americans had served in the army and navy during the American Revolution and in the War of 1812 (few, if any served in the Mexican War), they were not permitted to enlist because of a 1792 law that barred them from bearing arms in the U.S. Army. President Abraham Lincoln also feared that accepting Black men into the military would cause border states like Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri to secede.
Free Black men were finally permitted to enlist late in 1862, following the passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, which freed slaves who had masters in the Confederate Army, and Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. By May 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established to manage Black enlistees. Recruitment was low until active efforts were made to enlist Black volunteers—leaders like Frederick Douglass encouraged free Black men to volunteer as a way to ensure eventual full citizenship.
The First Black Regiments
The first authorized black regiments—designated colored troops—consisted of recruits from Massachusetts, Tennessee, and South Carolina, the latter in areas under Union control, of course. In May 1863, the Corps d’ Afrique was formed in Louisiana by Union major general Nathanial Banks. He planned for it to consist of 18 regiments, infantry, artillery and cavalry, with engineers and mobile hospitals.
Black Union soldiers did not receive equal pay or equal treatment. They were paid $10 a month, with $3 deducted from that pay for clothing—white soldiers received $13 a month with no clothing deduction—until June 1864, when Congress granted retroactive equal pay. Even in the North, racial discrimination was widespread and Blacks were often not treated as equals by white soldiers. In addition, segregated units were formed with Black enlisted men commanded by white officers and Black non-commissioned officers. Some of the white officers had low opinions of their colored troops and failed to adequately train them.
Black units and soldiers that were captured by the Confederates faced harsher treatment than white prisoners of war. In 1863 the Confederate Congress threatened to punish captured Union officers of Black troops and enslave Black Union soldiers. In response, Lincoln issued General Order 233, threatening reprisal against Confederate POWs. At the Battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, on April 12, 1864, the disorganized Union garrison—almost 600 men, about half of whom were Black—suffered nearly 575 casualties when they were attacked by Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The fight was promptly dubbed a massacre in the Northern press, and it was claimed that Black soldiers who attempted to surrender were massacred. Other reports say the Union troops and their commanders refused to surrender. Exactly what happened at Fort Pillow remains controversial to this day, fueled by Forrest’s pre-war trade as a slave dealer and his post-war association with the Ku Klux Klan.
Black troops played a major role at the Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, and formed a significant part of the Union force during the Battle of Nashville.
By the time the war ended, some 179,000 Black men had served in the Union Army, representing 10 percent of its total. Nearly 20,000 more were in the navy. Nearly 40,000 died, three-fourths of them due to disease or infections.
Other Roles Of African-Americans In The Civil War
Blacks on both sides of the war served in relief roles, for example, working as nurses, cooks, and blacksmiths. The South refused to arm blacks but used them to build fortifications and perform camp duties; many Northern officers refused to believe Black troops would fight, and so they were often assigned to non-combat duties or placed in the rear guarding railroads and bridges. Blacks also served as spies and scouts to the Union Army, providing valuable information about Confederate forces, plans, and familiar terrain. Information gathered from Black sources were so numerous and valuable, they were put in a special category—the so-called Black Dispatches.
Escaped slaves, many of whom fled to the Union lines, were referred to as contrabands in the early stages of the war since they were seen as technically being property of the Confederates states. They were carefully debriefed and some were recruited as spies, returning to slave territory with white agents posing as masters. Freed blacks, including Harriet Tubman, were also spies, scouts, and agents. Tubman even famously led a raid outside Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1863. The value of the Black Dispatches was recognized by all in the Union and even by the Confederacy—General Robert E. Lee wrote “The chief source of information to the enemy is through our negroes.”
Black Slaves In The Confederate Army
Blacks also served in the Confederate Army, although most were impressed as a slave labor force. Others were brought along by their masters to tend to the master’s needs in camp. In some cases, these servants were entrusted with a master’s personal affects if he was killed, and returned them to his family. There are reports of a few servants who took their master’s place on the firing line and were adopted by the regiment. Records also show men who served as color-bearers in militia units. Tens of thousands may have served, willingly or otherwise.
At the midpoint of the war in 1863, when more Confederate soldiers were needed, state militias of freed Black men were offered to the Confederate war office but refused. (At the beginning of the war, a Louisiana unit offered its services but was rejected; that state had a long history of militia units comprised of free men of color.) As the war continued, the issue became even more hotly debated in the Confederate Congress. On January 2, 1864, Confederate major general Patrick Cleburne proposed arming slaves. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, ordered that the proposal be suppressed. Despite his reputation as “the Stonewall Jackson of the West,” Cleburne never rose to higher command, and it is widely believed that was because of his unpopular proposal.
On March 13, 1865, legislation was finally passed that would free Black slaves if they enlisted in the Confederate Army, although they had to have consent from their masters. Only a handful of Black soldiers, probably less than 50, enlisted because of this legislation and were still in training when the war ended.
Articles Featuring African Americans In The Civil War From History Net Magazines
Slave to Soldier: Fighting for Freedom
“What shall we do with the Negro?” was a question posed in Northern newspapers as early as the summer of 1861. The question, of course, revealed an underlying attitude— white people still regarded African Americans as objects, not equals, and not a part of the polity. The status of freed slaves clearly presented a problem for the North. But in fact it played an important role in Confederate war councils as well. And ultimately the conflict proved how unready either side was to deal with it constructively.
The first serious proposal to overturn the Confederacy’s system of racial slavery came from a surprising source: Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, a zealous supporter of Southern independence, who was supported in his views by 13 other high-ranking officers in the Army of Tennessee. An Irish immigrant who had established himself as a successful lawyer in Arkansas, Cleburne became one of the Confederate Army’s finest commanders. By January 1864, however, he viewed the Confederacy’s dimming prospects with dismay.
Others Southerners had earlier voiced concern about the future of former slaves. After the fall of Vicksburg in July, a few citizens of Mississippi and Alabama had also felt the despair that weighed on Cleburne. In September 1863, the Jackson Mississippian had opined, “We must either employ the negroes ourselves, or the enemy will employ them against us.” The Mobile Register decried the “danger to the South” from Northern use of Black soldiers. Its editor asked, “Why not, if necessity requires, meet them with the same fighting material?” The Montgomery Weekly Mail urged its readers to bow to that same necessity, even if it was “revolting to every sentiment of pride, and to every principle that governed our institutions before the war.”
But no one developed as thorough an argument for arming and freeing the slaves as Cleburne. The “present state of affairs” was grim, the general pointed out in a proposal that he sent to his immediate superior. Confederates had sacrificed “much of our best blood” and immense amounts of property, yet they were left with “nothing but long lists of dead and mangled.” The South’s forces, “Hemmed in” and menaced “at every point with superior forces,” could “see no end to this except in our own exhaustion.” A “catastrophe” lay “not far ahead unless some extraordinary change is soon made.” Cleburne felt the South must act to avoid “subjugation” and “the loss of all we now hold most sacred.”
SOURCE OF WEAKNESS
“Three great causes,” he wrote, were “operating to destroy us.” Most fundamental was the Army’s inferiority in numbers. Closely related to that problem was the Confederacy’s “single source” of manpower compared to the enemy’s “several sources.” Cleburne’s third cause was the most controversial: “slavery, from being one of our chief sources of strength at the commencement of the war, has now become, in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.”
Jefferson Davis had recently proposed several steps to increase the size of the Army, but Cleburne said these were simply inadequate, listing the reasons why. Many deserters were outside Confederate lines and would not make reliable soldiers, even if captured. Ending substitution would merely bring into the Army an “unwilling and discontented” element. Drafting young boys and old men would “swell the sick lists more than” augment the ranks. The South’s economy needed most of the men who were currently exempt, so few additional men could be gained from that source. Only Davis’ idea of using Black men “as wagoners, nurses, cooks, and other employe[e]s” made sense to Cleburne.
But he and his fellow officers also urged a far more drastic step: “We propose that we immediately commence training a large reserve of the most courageous of our slaves, and further that we guarantee freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war.” To make that shocking proposal more palatable, Cleburne claimed that “every patriot” would surely prefer to lose slavery rather than his own independence—choose to “give up the negro slave rather than be a slave himself.”
More eyebrow-raising assertions followed. Slavery, the general declared, “has become a military weakness,” and in point of fact the Confederacy’s “most vulnerable point.” Not only were Black soldiers swelling the Union ranks, but slavery was also undermining the South from within. “Wherever slavery is once seriously disturbed” by Union advances, whites ceased to “openly sympathize with our cause,” he claimed. “The fear of their slaves is continually haunting them,” and “they become dead to us.” Meanwhile, the slaves worked as “an omnipresent spy system,” aiding Union troops. Cleburne added, “for many years the negro has been dreaming of freedom,” and it would be “preposterous” to “expect him to fight against it.” It was equally preposterous to expect him to fight for the Confederacy without it.
“Therefore when we make soldiers of them we must make free men of them beyond all question, and thus enlist their sympathies also.” The South, Cleburne emphasized, had to face “the necessity for more fighting men.” After countering possible objections and arguing that slaves could make good soldiers, he closed by urging prompt action on what he described as a “concession to common sense.”
Throughout most of 1864, Cleburne’s proposal went nowhere. His superior, General Joseph E. Johnston, declined to forward it to Richmond on the grounds that “it was more political than military in tenor.” But another Army of Tennessee officer, scandalized by the notion of interfering with slavery, sent the document to Jefferson Davis in protest. At that point the Confederate president directed that Cleburne’s idea should not even be discussed. With an eye on the 1864 elections in the North, Davis wanted to avoid dissension in the Southern ranks. He was hoping that the image of a strong, resolute Confederacy might help to defeat President Abraham Lincoln. But after the fall of Atlanta in September 1864, Davis knew his strategy had failed. The Army had to be enlarged.
On November 7, 1864, Davis urged Congress to increase the number of slaves used by the Army to 40,000. To reach that number he recommended purchasing the slaves and “engaging to liberate the negro on his discharge after service faithfully rendered.” This amounted to proposing a sizable program of compensated emancipation. More significant was his statement that “should the alternative ever be presented of subjugation or the employment of the slave as a soldier, there seems no reason to doubt what should then be our decision.”
This message was the cautious opening move in the Davis administration’s plan to arm and free the slaves. Within a few weeks Davis and his allies were pressing forward with their maneuver, both inside the Confederacy as well as abroad. In hopes that emancipation might help the South to gain European support, Davis sent Duncan Kenner to England and France. A wealthy Louisiana slaveholder who had independently advocated enlisting and freeing slave soldiers, Kenner readily accepted his diplomatic instructions.
On the home front, the administration used Robert E. Lee, whose prestige within the Confederacy surpassed the president’s, as its primary advocate. At the suggestion of Secretary of State Judah Benjamin, Lee invited his men to speak out, and most declared that they needed and wanted Black reinforcements. More important, Lee himself called for bold steps. In January he wrote a Virginia legislator that the Confederacy should raise African-American troops “without delay.”
PROMISE OF FREEDOM
Lee not only had confidence that they could “be made efficient soldiers,” he also argued that the Confederacy should capture their “personal interest” by “giving immediate freedom to all who enlist, and freedom at the end of the war to the families of those who discharge their duties faithfully (whether they survive or not), together with the privilege of residing at the South. To this might be added a bounty for faithful service.” A similar letter, this one to Mississippi Congressman Ethelbert Barksdale, became public in February.
By February 1865, Lee had become the South’s last remaining hope. The Richmond Examiner, which opposed arming slaves, imagined that “in the present position” of affairs, “the country will not venture to deny to General Lee anything he may ask for.” The Richmond Sentinel predicted that “[w]ith the great mass of our people, nothing more than this letter [to Congressman Barksdale] is needed to settle every doubt or silence every objection.” But both papers were wrong. Even Lee’s great prestige was not potent enough to determine a question so fundamental to Southern society.
The idea of arming and freeing the slaves horrified many prominent Southerners. “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong,” objected Howell Cobb of Georgia. North Carolina Senator William A. Graham blasted the administration’s ideas as “insane proposals” and “confessions of despair.” The Charleston Mercury insisted that African Americans were “inferior” and “prone to barbarism.” It denounced Davis’ “extraordinary suggestion” as “unsound and suicidal” and issued a racist warning that “swaggering buck niggers” would ruin the country. A Galveston, Texas, newspaper repeated the familiar argument that “slavery is the best possible condition for the slave himself” and opposed any “abandonment” of that “foundation principle.” Davis, charged the Richmond Examiner, had adopted “the whole theory of the abolitionist.”
Lee did not escape criticism in the course of the controversy, the Examiner arguing that his military genius did not make him “an authority” on moral, social or political questions. It even questioned whether the general could be considered “a ‘good Southerner’”—that is, one who was “thoroughly satisfied of the justice and beneficence of [N]egro slavery.”
A few Confederates were willing to pursue independence without slavery. But most of the leadership elite valued slavery above all else. Although the South was in a truly desperate situation by that juncture, the Confederate Congress delayed on a decision for months, its members unwilling to act. Finally, in March 1865, the House passed a bill sponsored by Congressman Barksdale authorizing the president to call for one-quarter of any state’s male slaves between the ages of 18 and 45. Opposition to the measure was strong in the Senate, and the bill would not have passed had Virginia’s legislature not finally instructed its state’s senators to vote yes.
Even so, this tardy measure referred only to using slaves as soldiers; it emancipated no one. The final clause specified that “nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners.” Freedom, as a reward for service, could come only if individual owners and the states in which they lived allowed it, as had always been the case in the Confederacy.
Davis tried to require a pledge of emancipation from any owner who offered his slave for service. But recruitment proved difficult, as resistance continued to making soldiers of slaves. A small number of Black recruits began drilling in Richmond, but since the war soon came to an end, the Confederate proposal to arm and free slaves amounted to nothing. Most Confederate slaveholders did not want to give up slavery.
From a 21st-century vantage point, this refusal seems all the more noteworthy in view of the Richmond administration’s ultra-conservative plans for race relations. When Davis and Benjamin were seeking allies for their measure, they made it clear that freedom would not bring equality. The government would have to emancipate soldiers “as a reward for good services.” But for their families, “serfage or peonage” would not follow until after the war. In this way, Southern whites would “vindicate[e] our faith in the doctrine that the negro is an inferior race and unfitted for social or political equality with the white man.” The Southern states should adjust the status of soldiers’ families “by degrees.”
Davis’ plan envisioned “cautious legislation providing for their ultimate emancipation after an intermediate stage.” While these families remained serfs, the Confederacy could legislate “certain rights of property” and provide legal protection “for marital and parental relations.” These steps would not only improve “our institutions” but also blunt external criticism. No longer could critics point to aspects of slavery “calculated to draw down on us the odium and reprobation of civilized man.”
Thus racism dominated the thinking of even those Confederates willing to consider arming and freeing slaves. Even after emancipation, no dramatic improvement in their social or political status would occur. African Americans might be better off after the war, but in a markedly limited way. Though they were technically free, they would remain inferior and subordinate within society.
Such low expectations were not restricted to the South. Racism, in fact, had always been a national problem. Though today the North is popularly credited with fighting the war for the sake of freedom and equality, such was not the case. This misconception had its origin in postwar cultural battles over the meaning of the Civil War, when Northerners often used emancipation to claim the moral high ground. Lincoln won adulation as the Great Emancipator in the decades following the conflict, and more recently some have argued that he was a “fervent idealist” and “moral visionary” who labored and schemed for racial equality. But during the war years the North shrank from giving a morally inspired answer to the question “What shall we do with the Negro?”
At best, a minority of Northerners adopted racially progressive views, while most of those supporting the Union cause continued to hold racist beliefs. Although Lincoln wanted an end to slavery, neither he nor his party was committed to racial equality. The Northern president was more focused on conciliating Southern whites, to gain their participation in reunion, than on improving the postwar status of African Americans.
A few facts can help to bring into perspective the larger picture of the American view of slavery. The Republican Party came into being to oppose slavery’s expansion, and carefully distanced itself from the abolitionists. When Lincoln took the oath of office in 1861, he gave his support to a proposed constitutional amendment that would have guaranteed the existence of slavery against federal interference forever. This was in accord with his party’s pledge to maintain “inviolate the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively.” This provision, Lincoln said, was “a law to me.”
Once the conflict started, many Northerners soon concluded that an attack on slavery was necessary to win the war. Moving slowly, Lincoln repeatedly proposed measures of gradual, compensated emancipation. These plans envisioned voluntary action by the states and colonization of the freed slaves somewhere outside the nation. Lincoln particularly urged the border slave states to adopt such measures, as a means of dashing Confederates’ hopes and bringing the war to a speedier end.
He justified the Emancipation Proclamation as a necessary war measure, taken under his authority as commander in chief, to preserve the Union. Thereafter the Republican Party and Republican newspapers, such as The New York Times, stressed that emancipation was a “military expedient,” a “weapon of warfare.” The war was “Still to be Prosecuted for the Restoration of the Union.” Lincoln’s “one fixed aim” was “the salvation of the Republic.” Emancipation and elevation of the slaves were “secondary in importance to the salvation of the Union, and not to be sought at its expense.” Or as Lincoln told Horace Greeley, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union,” and whatever he did about slavery he did “because I believe it helps to save the Union.”
Many Republicans believed that African Americans would have to remain in a deeply degraded status, deprived of most rights. The Times contemptuously rejected the idea that emancipation would lead to the African American becoming “a voting citizen of the United States.” Blacks were “incapable” of exercising the right of suffrage, and “for many generations to come” suffrage for the freedmen would bring about “the destruction of popular institutions on this continent.” It was “little short of insane” to think otherwise. At the end of 1864 the Times was still declaring that the “Black masses of the South, of a voting age, are as ignorant upon all public questions as the driven cattle.”
Lincoln’s views were not quite so negative. He said little throughout the war about elevating freedmen, but a few days before his death he did express a preference for giving the ballot to a few Black men—“the very intelligent” and “those who serve our cause as soldiers.” Nevertheless, he did not envision or promote rapid improvement in the practical conditions and social status of the freed people. What he expected was revealed in a letter to Gen. John McClernand that is seldom quoted, since it does not support the idea of Lincoln as a fervent idealist.
Writing on Jan. 8, 1863, Lincoln noted that in his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation he had given Southern states 100 days to return to the Union. Had they returned, they could have avoided emancipation. Even then he was willing to allow “peace upon the old terms” if they acted “at once.” Moreover, the rebelling states “need not to be hurt” by his proclamation. “Let them adopt systems of apprenticeship for the colored people, conforming substantially to the most approved plans of gradual emancipation, and, with the aid they can have from the general government, they may be nearly as well off, in this respect, as if the present trouble had not occurred.”
This idea of apprenticeships, or “temporary arrangements” (as he also called it), was a fundamental part of Lincoln’s thinking about the postwar future. When he issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction at the end of 1863, he sought to reassure white Southerners. He would not object to Southern states adopting measures for the freed people that “shall recognize and declare their permanent freedom, provide for their education, and which may yet be consistent, as a temporary arrangement, with their present condition as a laboring, landless, and homeless class.” He explained that he feared “confusion and destitution” resulting from emancipation and would acquiesce in “any reasonable temporary State arrangement” for the former slaves. Southern whites, the “deeply afflicted people in those States,” might be “more ready to give up the cause of their affliction [slavery], if, to this extent, this vital matter be left to themselves.”
Looking past the war, Lincoln wanted to engage Southerners in reconstruction, to induce them to participate rather than resist at every turn. For this reason he consistently reiterated his view that formerly rebellious states should be readmitted to the Union promptly. He did not call for changes in their constitutions, as the majority in Congress felt was necessary, and he staunchly backed his “ten-percent” government in Louisiana, despite the fact that it was widely criticized and had done little to improve the status of African Americans.
In fact, in his desire to appeal to Southern whites and respect states’ rights, Lincoln supported a method of ratifying the 13th Amendment that would have made its success doubtful. Charles Sumner and other advocates of Black rights feared that the defeated South would block the 13th Amendment. The Confederacy had more than enough states to defeat it, and a few states in the Union voted heavily Democratic and were unlikely to support the measure. For that reason Sumner argued that ratification should be determined only by the loyal states. In his last public statement, on April 11, 1865, Lincoln demurred, saying “such a ratification would be questionable, and sure to be persistently questioned.” On the other hand, “a ratification by three-fourths of all the States would be unquestioned and unquestionable.”
A more detailed analysis of Lincoln’s policies augments this picture considerably, but the larger point about American society in 1865 is already clear. Racism pervaded the social landscape in both North and South. Although the war settled the question of secession vs. union, it failed to bring equal rights to African Americans. Before 1865 had passed, three Northern states—Connecticut, Wisconsin and Minnesota, all of which had very few Black residents—voted against giving suffrage to African-American men. Equality for Blacks would have to be sought in Reconstruction, and it would remain an elusive goal for many decades following the war’s end.
Paul D. Escott is the Reynolds Professor of History at Wake Forest University. This article is adapted from his most recent book, “What Shall We Do With the Negro?”: Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War. For more on Patrick Cleburne, turn to “Resources,” P. 73.
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