AND THE WAR CAME
The status of African Americans in America rested at the very core of
the Civil War. Most Southerners seceded and entered military service to
preserve their "rights" and to protect their homes, but the issue of
slavery was always central. Secessionists were attempting to safeguard
individual and states' rights from federal and Northern interference,
specifically the right to own property such as slaves and to take that
property anywhere without fear of loss or seizure; the right to retrieve
runaway property anywhere; and the right to live in peace, without
attempts by outsiders to subvert the existing order. Slavery was at the
heart of that order. As Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens
argued in 1861, the "corner-stone [of the new Confederate government and
nation] rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the
white man; that slaverysubordination to the superior raceis
his natural and normal condition."
A PERIOD ILLUSTRATION OF "NEW PRAISE'S OF SOUTHERN LIFE." (FW)|
More than anyone else, Confederate soldiers blamed the war on "Black"
Republicans and abolitionists. In the minds of most Confederate
soldiers, these Northerners were the arch-villains, the group that
provoked this wholly unnecessary crisis and shattered the greatest
government in the world through its antislavery activities. That deep
and abiding hatred toward abolitionists demonstrated the central role of
Even more obscure but no less essential among Northerners was the
role of slavery. While many Yankees disapproved of the institution,
racial prejudice had penetrated deeply into Northern society. Few of the
early enlistees sought the destruction of the slave system as an
objective in war. Instead, Federals marched off under arms to restore
the Union. It took the keen mind of Abraham Lincoln to recognize that
the status of black people was the core issue of the war, something few
outside the black race grasped. Had northerners not found slavery
morally repugnant and the institution incompatible with the new
economic, political, and social directions of the country, Lincoln
reasoned, there would have been no war.
Nevertheless, whites on both sides wanted to keep blacks on the
periphery. In the Confederacy, several states allowed free blacks to
join the militia, and a small number offered their services. At the
time, few Southern blacks imagined that this would be a war against
slavery; rather, blacks and whites alike viewed the conflict as one over
the Union. Some free blacks in the South felt they could best
demonstrate their loyalty and enhance their position in society through
military service in this moment of crisis. "No matter where I fight,"
announced a black man who had volunteered to fight for the Confederacy
and a year later extended his services to the Federals, "I only wish to
spend what I have, and fight as long as I can, if only my boy may stand
in the street equal to a white boy when the war is over."
Yet President Jefferson Davis had no intention of opening the
Confederate ranks to black men, either free or slave. The entire premise
of black military service was incongruous with the fundamental concept
of slavery and would threaten the foundation of Southern society.
Georgia Governor Joseph F. Brown articulated this viewpoint most
concisely, arguing, "Whenever we establish the fact that they are a
military race, we destroy our whole theory that they are unfit to be
With two hundred years of experience and tradition employing slave
labor, Confederates knew exactly how to use them: as laborers.
Throughout the war bondsmen performed a wide range of military and
nonmilitary duties. For the armed forces, they dug trenches, constructed
fortifications, maintained railroads, mined minerals, and manufactured
war equipment and material, all of which benefited Confederate troops.
In addition, slaves continued to plow the soil, hoe the fields, harvest
the crops, and tend to the livestock, producing vast quantities of
foodstuffs to feed the huge Confederate armies and the civilian
population. They grew cotton, which the Confederate government used to
purchase the tools of war abroad. Whites even let slaves cook meals,
drive wagons, and care for the personal property of soldiers. But in the
eyes of Southern whites, the distinction between service for the
military and military service was clear. The best way that slaves could
contribute to the Confederate cause was through their labor.
WHEN THE WAR BEGAN, THE CONFEDERATES USED SLAVES TO PERFORM HARD LABOR.
In the Union, African Americans bombarded the government with
requests to serve in the military. Like some free blacks in the South.
most Northern men and women of African descent realized that the war
offered a rare opportunity for them. They could dispel race prejudice
and prove to all that they could contribute significantly to the nation
in times of crisis, all through military service. A black physician from
Michigan offered to raise five to ten thousand men in sixty days. Others
were not so ambitious and pledged to organize individual companies and
regiments for Federal service. Two prospective volunteers offered a
clever argument for military service, demanding that the Lincoln
administration "allow us the poor priverlige of fighting and (if need be
dieing) to support those in office who are our own choise."
Frederick Douglass, a leading black abolitionist who had known the
hardships and indignities of slavery firsthand, grasped the essence of
the war just days after Confederates fired the opening salvo on Fort
Sumter. "The American people and the Government at Washington may refuse
to recognize it for a time," Douglass thundered, "but the 'inexorable
logic of events' will force it upon them in the end; that the war now
being waged in this land is a war for and against slavery; and that it
can never be effectually put down till one or the other of these vital
forces is completely destroyed." Four months later, Douglass led the
charge for black military service to help crush the rebellion. "This is
no time to fight only with your white hand, and allow your black hand to
remain tied," he counseled the Lincoln administration. "Men in earnest
didn't fight with one hand, when they might fight with two, and a man
drowning would not refuse to be saved even by a colored man."
A PHOTOGRAPH OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS TAKEN YEARS AFTER THE WAR. (NA)|
Despite such evident logic, the government of Abraham Lincoln and the
Northern white populace were not convinced. Many believed this was a
white man's war and black men, because of their "innate" inferiority,
could contribute little toward subduing the Rebels. Others anticipated
the value of black soldiers but hesitated to advance the idea. Black
military service was a highly controversial notion, and the loss of
white support in the prosecution of the war might override all
advantages from increased manpower.
At the time, the concept of black enlistment offered little benefit
to the Lincoln administration. The president was walking a tightrope,
trying to retain the loyalty of the border states and foster Unionist
sentiment in the seceding states. A bold policy of black enlistment
would have driven many people in those states into the Confederate camp.
Anyway, Lincoln had more white volunteers than he could accept into
military service. Tens of thousands of whites were turned away, and
governors begged the president to raise state quotas for enlistment to
pacify their zealous constituents.
In one bold swoop, Butler had not only hired bondsmen to work for
the Union army, he had also established a policy that, in effect, freed
MAJOR GENERAL BENJAMIN BUTLER (USAMHI)|