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Civil War Series

The Civil War's Black Soldiers

   

BEFORE THE WAR

At the time of the Civil War, men and women of African descent suffered from all sorts of racism and discrimination. Approximately four million in the South and border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri endured the hardships and debasement of slavery. Another quarter million free blacks lived in the slave states, while a little over 200,000 resided in the free states. As free blacks they may not have been owned, but their civil liberties scarcely resembled those of white people.

BLACK AND WHITE SOLDIERS STAND BESIDE A BUILDING FORMERLY USED TO AUCTION SLAVES. (LC)

The institution of slavery varied dramatically from region to region and also from rural to urban life. The crops, the size and number of slaves on the farm, local custom, and the imagination of white owners determined how they employed slaves and what privileges they would grant them. Most slaves worked in agriculture, but some labored in urban pockets as servants, skilled artisans, and even factory workers. Slaves who worked on small farms and plantations experienced more careful supervision. In the complex and faster-paced city life, whites were not able to scrutinize the conduct of their slaves quite so well, so that urban slaves carved out a freer, more flexible world for themselves.

Usually, slave labor was demanding physically, and sometimes it was utterly brutal. Standard practice required bondsmen to toil from sunrise until after sunset, in most instances six days per week. Some masters were absolutely savage. They whipped, abused, and degraded their slaves on a regular basis. Other chattels, such as Elijah Marts, received decent treatment from their owners. Even under a kindly master, though, enslavement stripped black people of some of their fundamental human dignity. Their master may have supplied all the essentials for a comfortable lifestyle, but the institution of slavery stifled their complete development. It deprived them of the possibility of achieving their ultimate dreams and aspirations. Like whites, they wanted a better life for themselves and a much better life for their children and grandchildren. The absence of freedom and the prevalence of racism prevented slaves from realizing those hopes and fulfilling their fervent prayers.

AN ADVERTISEMENT FROM THE LATE 1700'S ANNOUNCING "NEGROES FOR SALE." (LC)

FIVE GENERATIONS ARE REPRESENTED IN THIS PORTRAIT OF A SLAVE FAMILY IN BEAUFORT, SOUTH CAROLINA. (LC)

The same was true for free blacks, North and South. They were free but not equal. In the Northern states, they composed barely one percent of the population. They tended to hold inferior jobs, receive inadequate education, and could vote in only a handful of states. Free blacks who resided in the slave states had even fewer civil liberties. Worse, Southern whites viewed them with suspicion, as the instigators and leaders of slave protests and rebellions. Once sectional tensions mounted, whites in the slave states kept a careful eye on free blacks.

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