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Civil War Series

The Civil War's Black Soldiers

   

THE TEST OF COMBAT

Both emancipation and black enlistment generated considerable opposition. While some Northerners praised the decision to free the slaves as morally proper and militarily sensible, many doubted its legality and timeliness, Equally controversial was black military service. Blacks and more liberal-minded whites perceived this as an opportunity for African Americans to demonstrate their commitment to the Union, disprove tightly held prejudices in the Northern states, and gain full rights in the postwar world. More cynical Northerners did not object. After all, "a black man could stop a bullet as well as a white one," so the argument went, and "when Uncle Abraham gets his Niggers armed and in the field he can get along without us." Probably a majority, however, objected to the plan. "God never intended a nigger to put white people Down," insisted a soldier whose view reflected a widely shared opinion. The government would be wasting resources on men who could contribute very little to Union victory. "I think a drove of hogs would do better brought down here," commented a soldier, "for we could eat them and the nigers we can't."

THE 26TH REGIMENT OF THE UNITED STATES COLORED TROOPS CHARGE IN BATTLE. (PAINTING BY RICK REEVES, TAMPA, FL)

Throughout Northern white society, prejudice dominated attitudes on black recruitment. There were doubts about the ability of black soldiers to cope with the rigors of combat. Many whites argued that they lacked the character to sustain themselves in battle, and attempts to convert them into soldiers were preposterous. Others while not so vociferous, certainly needed convincing.

At the core of conventional racial prejudices in the early 1860s was an assumption that blacks were inferior to whites. They lacked character and self-restraint, so whites believed. Men and women of African descent were recently "removed from barbarism," and their latent savagery might bubble up at any time. According to most whites, blacks lacked the intellectually prowess of whites. Through proper cultivation and care, and within the structure of Western civilization, it was thought that they could become productive members of society, but they would always lag behind the white race. Military training and discipline might improve their self-reliance and control their latent savagery; it also might desert them in times of crisis.

MANY NORTHERNERS RELIEVED THAT BLACK PEOPLE LACKED THE SKILLS FOR COMBAT, AS ILLUSTRATED IN THIS RACIST CARTOON. (LC)

Such newspapers as the New York Times, in most respects an organ of Lincoln's party, endorsed the use of black troops cautiously. "Whether negroes shall or shall not be employed as soldiers," argued its editors in February 1863, "seems to us purely a question of expediency, and to be solved satisfactorily only by experiment." Until then, they advocated restraint in the enlistment of black men, fearing that an expansion of recruitment efforts at this time would merely be "adding it to the cause of dissension already existing in the country at large."

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