Blacks and the Civil War: Never Afraid to Fight for Right

Posted by TubmanCity / on 11/10/2008 / 0 Comments

Lester S. Brooks, Ph.D. 
B.A., Indiana University;  
M.A., Howard University; Ph.D., University of Michigan  
Historian/ Professor of History, Anne Arundel Community College 
Tyrone Powers, Ph.D.  
B.Sc., Coppin State College;  
M.P.A., Uni. Of Cincinnati; Ph.D., American University 

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, there were approximately four million slaves and five hundred thousand free blacks in the United States. Many blacks concluded that if the Union prevailed then this war could bring emancipation to the slaves. Those who initially sought to join the war effort were turned away, however. Those that could afford it purchased war bonds, hoping that this contribution would assist the North in the struggle.  
Labor was the most significant experience of African Americans early in the war. As slaves fled southern farms and plantations, poured into Union lines (some 500,000 by war's end), these "contrabands" were put to work in Union army camps as well as on loyal farms and plantations. It is usually overlooked that the majority of Blacks served the confederate war effort because the vast majority of them remained slaves in southern states. In their condition of servitude, Blacks grew crops that fed southerners and provided the necessities to maintain the southern war effort. In addition, slaves were used to build southern defenses.  
David Hunter, an Abolitionist and Union officer, caused a stir when he formed one of the earliest military units comprised of Blacks (1862). Hunter formed regiments with former slaves in South Carolina and at the same time issued a proclamation to abolish slavery in that state. He had no authority to form military units with Blacks and President Lincoln rescinded Hunter's proclamation of freedom. Washington officials had not yet developed a concrete course of action to utilize black troops. Official recruiting and organizing "U.S. Colored" fighting units only came after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863.  
The Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln's most controversial proposal. He was often urged by abolitionists to free the slaves. Frederick Douglass, a former slave, angrily proclaimed, 
What upon earth is the matter with the American Government and people?... Our Presidents, Governors, Generals and Secretaries are calling, with almost frantic vehemence, for men.---'Men! Men! Send us men!' they scream, or the cause of the Union is gone...and yet...[they] steadily and persistently refuse to receive the very class of men which have a deeper interest in the defeat and humiliation of the rebels, than all others...this is no time to fight with one hand, when both are needed; this is no time to fight only with your white hand, and allow your black hand to remain tied...  
Lincoln, understanding the delicate nature of opinions in the North and the "Border States," concluded that in order to win the war and to maintain the Union it was necessary to emancipate the slaves but the timing had to be just right.  
In the wake of Lincoln's proclamation, Blacks came forward to join the Union war effort or were recruited by agents such as Douglass or Harriet Tubman. Approximately 186,000 African Americans served in the war. Records show that one-fourth of the Union navy was made up of African Americans. Questions about their courage were answered at engagements such as Fort Wagner, South Carolina (part of the campaign to seize Charleston harbor) and Port Hudson (attempt to secure the Mississippi River stronghold). Questions about their treatment were ongoing controversies. Douglass and others called for equal treatment, including pay, supplies, medical attention, and assignments. There was even concern shown for how the Confederacy would treat Black prisoners (the Fort Pillow "massacre" remains a point of controversy).  
Robert Smalls, a slave, represents the heroics that Blacks performed during the war. As an assistant pilot of the "Planter" (a Confederate ship), Smalls "captured" the ship while the Confederate crew went ashore. After gathering his slave family and others, Smalls delivered the ship to a Union fleet off the coast at Fort Sumter, S.C. For their courageous behavior during the war, African Americans earned a total of sixteen Medals of Honor.  
The Confederacy could not bring itself to seriously consider the use of Blacks as soldiers until the last year of the war. Howell Cobb, a Confederate senator, expressed his disapproval of the use of slaves as soldiers by saying, "If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong." Additionally, Confederate general Patrick Cleburne caused an outcry against the idea when he suggested the use of Blacks as soldiers in 1864. Not until March 1865 did the Confederacy authorize the use of Blacks as official soldiers, but it was too late to have a bearing on the outcome of the war.

The Fort Pillow Massacre: Paying the Price
"Remember Fort Pillow !"

Many Confederates could never bring themselves to see Black soldiers as human beings. In fact, they saw the capture of Black troops as no different than the capture of weapons or cattle and other food products, mere contraband. Further, they did not recognize captured Black troops as prisoners of war (POW) and thus were unwilling to exchange them for Confederate Troops captured by Union Soldiers. Captured Black troops were either returned to their former masters, sold to other Whites at discounted prices, or lynched.  
On April 12, 1864 Confederate soldier Nathan Bedford Forrest, leader of a group of Calvary men know as the Tennesseans, led an attack on the Union garrison at Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River. Five hundred fifty-seven Black troops and a unit of Tennessee Unionists were stationed at Fort Pillow. Forrest and his men surrounded the fort and called for its surrender. After a relatively short period of time, Forrest and his men attacked. The Black troops were overwhelmed and thus surrendered. Nonetheless, Forrest had his men butcher the unarmed troops. One of Forrest's Confederate soldiers indicated:  
The poor, deluded Negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands, scream for mercy, but were ordered to their feet, and then shot down.  
Another soldier indicated that, "I saw four white men and at least 25 Negroes shot while begging for mercy, and I saw one Negro dragged from a hollow log and as one rebel held him by the foot, another shot him." 
Reportedly, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who would eventually become the first Grand Wizard Of the Ku Klux Klan, stated, the river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards, it is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the northern people that Negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners." (Ward, Burns and Burns, 335)  
Black soldiers have never been afraid to fight and die for a cause. History indicates that the enemy, and in many cases those armies in which Black men fought, has never recognized the Black man as quite human. Thus, he has been the easiest to kill and mutilate. He has been the subject of massacres and the digger of graves. He has been utilized as a tool in causes for which he has no interest and in which he reaps no rewards. The spoils of victory have very seldom been his to enjoy. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. indicated that poor Black men have been enlisted into futile and sometimes criminal wars on foreign shores. The Black man is a soldier in waiting. He is waiting for the proper war and the proper cause that will make his efforts worthwhile. History indicates that he has not found that war - thus his current condition in America and the world over. [back to top]


James M. McPherson, Marching Toward Freedom
Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers.  
Dudley T. Cornish, The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865.  
Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery.  
Geoffrey C. Ward with Ric Burns and Ken Burns, The Civil War.


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