Before we speak about the African American experience we must understand why the war begin. There is a common miss belief that the war was started because of slavery. Now slavery did play a big role but, “The Civil War began as a southern war for Confederate independence and a northern war to defeat the Confederate rebellion and restore the Union. At the outset, neither side thought that the war would last very long or eventually lead to the destruction of slavery. The Confederacy was founded to protect slavery.”1 The Union was willing to accept slavery where it already existed but was opposed only to the extension of slavery into the new territories.
Most slaves fought on the side of the Union, but there were some slaves that fought on the side of the Confederates. Some figures that were mentioned in class. There were about 179,000 African American who served in over 160 units in the Union army, also according to professor Harding runaway slaves from the South who enlisted to fight and northern free African Americans were counted for when these figures were created. On the other hand, the Confederacy and its African-Americans were still slaves, but like the north, the Confederate slaves served mostly in labor positions.
When the war broke out free black men imaginable rushed to volunteer their services for the Union forces. Unfortunately, unlike wars in the past that were black Americans who had served in the army and navy during the American Revolution, weren’t permitted to enlist “because of a 1792 law that barred them from bearing arms in the U.S. Army” 2 There was also feared that accepting black men into the military would cause border states like Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri to secede, which inadvertently would have crushed the chances of the Union Army from winning the war.
President Lincoln’s decision about free man aside, Union commanders had to make decisions about the increasing numbers of runaway slaves. Runaway slaves saw the war as an opportunity to escape for the pursuit of freedom, which they believed was obtainable behind Union lines. After reading our textbook it was common for generals to take runaways slaves as contraband. “General Benjamin F. Butler of the Union army designated slaves as contraband of war”2 This was allowed because slaves were property in the south, thus general Butler was able to use and keep these runaway slaves. The general put these runaway slaves to work in non-combat roles in exchange for wages. Later Congress would classify these slaves along with others that we captured during the war as refugees by passing the First Confiscation Act.
As the war and its battles spread to southern states, it was more and more common for Union commanders to issue the proclamation to free slaves in the new areas they controlled. This created an interior battle in the Union. “John C. Fremont, the major general of the Department of the West, freed the slaves of disloyal slaveholders in Missouri and, in 1862, General David Hunter freed all slaves in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.”2 Unfortunately, Lincoln disapproved these orders and proclamations wanting to keep the focus of the war on maintaining the Union. This was only temporary because eventually, Lincoln saw the utility and advantages that slaves would have provided to the Union.
These proclamation success stories eventually enlightened Lincoln. Thus, Lincoln saw the potential benefits of labeling the war as a being anti-slavery outweighed the harm it would have done otherwise. Which in return allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”4. Unfortunately, the proclamation applied only to states that had seceded from the Union. Which would leave slavery untouched in the Union states, But Lincoln’s proclamation was able to connect freedom with the Unions success. Which meant that the freedom it promised depended upon Union army victory.
Slaveholders in the confederacy knowing how the news of the Emancipation Proclamation would have tempted their slaves to rebel. Some slaveholders attempted to appease slaves by agreeing so some demands of freedom, allowing slaves to grow and sell their own crops and their own plot of land. Slaveholders also attempted to hide the news from their slaves, some slave owner tried to move their slaves further down South to isolated regions. However, the news spread with the advance of the Union army. Thus, as the Union and the news of proclamation spread it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of African Americans, and fundamentally transformed the character of the war from a war for the Union into a war for freedom. Moreover, the proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union army and navy.
This new belief of the war being a war of freedom didn’t account for low numbers of enlistment. Recruitment was low until there was growing active efforts to enlist black volunteer leaders like Frederick Douglass encouraged free black men to volunteer to ensure eventual full citizenship. One factor that could contribute to the weak enlistment numbers is that black Union soldiers did not receive equal pay or equal treatment. According to Freedom of the Mind “black soldiers were paid $10 a month, with $3 deducted from that pay for clothing and food, white soldiers received $13 a month with no clothing deduction.” This was clearly a problem which is why Congress granted retroactive equal pay after 1864. There was also racial discrimination present within the army. The black’s soldiers were often not treated as equals by white soldiers or by the white generals. This was evident because white generals would have low opinions of their colored troops and failed to adequately train them. The discrimination continued because black soldiers were given second-rate equipment which was worse than the equipment given to the white soldiers. This discrimination would explain the higher rate of black deaths in the army. This discrimination magnified when black soldiers were captured by the Confederacy. Black soldiers that were captured by the Confederates faced harsher treatment than white prisoners of war.
As mentioned before black soldiers fought on both sides of the battlefield. The difference is that African American who fought on the side of the Union fought for the possibility of freedom and citizenship. African Americans that fought on the side of the Confederacy were likely forced to enter the war by slaveholders. There were multitudes of tasks given to black soldiers during the war no matter what side. African Americans on both sides of the war served in relief roles. Normally relief roles would require African American worked as nurses, cooks, and blacksmiths. A difference present in the south was that the South refused to arm blacks. Most of the food grown for the Confederacy was grown by African Americans and slaves also worked for the military by building roads and other fortifications, being servants, and cooking. Another valuable resource that the newly freed slaves provided was information. “Black also served as spies and scouts to the Union Army, providing valuable information about Confederate forces, plans, and familiar terrain.”3.
Lincoln’s initial fear of inward rebellion was a sound fear that manifested itself into riots. The length of the war was the catalyst for these riots. The war uncountable length eventually meant there was going to be a shortage of soldiers. This shortage would later lead the Union to declare a draft. This draft would in return frustrated the lowers class because the wealthy were able to avoid the draft by paying a fee. Thus, the lower class would take its frustrations out on the free blacks. “White Americans resented the war because they were unwilling to fight for the end slavery especially because many believed that the newly freed slaves would come north to take their jobs”.3 This uncontrollable anger along with misconception lead to riots that targeted African Americans in Brooklyn, Detroit, and the worst being in New York City. “Local officials in these cities were criticized for failing to protect the black population” 2.
The silver lining to this war was that is allowed a free man to defined freedom for themselves. Black man defined freedom as the ability to have right, the ability to fight for these rights. Thus, free man and women alike were willing to fight for these rights regardless of the discrimination that presents in the south and north alike. Freeman was willing to fight and did so in this war.