National Park Service black bar with arrowhead logo
NPS History E-LibraryScene in Antietam National Cemetery in Sharpsburg, Maryland
 
 

Civil War Series

The Civil War's Black Soldiers

   

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 slavery—subordination to the superior race—is 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 slavery.

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 free."

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. (FW)

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 slaves.

MAJOR GENERAL BENJAMIN BUTLER (USAMHI)
Previous Top Next


 

History and Culture