From Oppressed Slaves to Champion Soldiers
Essay submitted by Chris Johnson
courageous men on and off the battlefield on many occasions. Despite deep prejudices
sectional division between the areas began in colonial times, largely resulting from
established in the South. The North, however, was a cooler, rockier climate that would
not support the development of plantations. As a result, the North’s economy came to
growth of cities, although many lived in rural areas during the colonial period. The
sectional division between North and South had widened enormously by the mid -
commerce were centered in the North. The Northerners welcomed modernization and
the constant changes it brought to their way of life. Their ideals included hard work,
and responsibility to decide whether an action was moral or immoral. While Northerners
to keep their old way of life.
By the 1800’s, northerners viewed slavery as wrong and began a movement to end it.
Even though an antislavery minority existed in the South, most Southerners found
both the North and South. The Compromise allowed slavery to continue where it
desired, but the trading of slaves was prohibited in Washington DC. New territories
would have the choice to decide whether to permit slavery or not. This act also
required that the North return escaped slaves to their owners. The Kansas-Nebraska
Act dealt with the problem of Slavery in new territories. This Act allowed slavery in
rganized as a state, they could decide by popular vote whether to permit slavery to
lived in a free state and territory for some time, was denied his freedom. The Supreme
North and showed that the conflict over slavery was beyond judicial solutions. Another
followers attempted to start a slave rebellion by seizing the federal arsenal in Harpers
Ferry, Va. Brown, however, was captured 28 hours later by troops under the command
of Colonel Robert E. Lee. Brown was convicted of treason and hanged two weeks later.
Many Southerners saw the raid as evidence of a Northern plot to end slavery by force.
candidate. The Democrats chose Douglas for their ticket. Lincoln won all electoral votes
of every free state except New Jersey, which awarded him four of its seven votes. He
thus gained a majority of electoral votes and won the election. However, Lincoln
received less than 40 per cent of the popular vote, almost none of which came from
the South. Southerners feared Lincoln would restrict or end slavery.
secede from the Union if Lincoln should win. Many Southerners favored secession as
part of the idea that the states have rights and powers which the federal government
cannot legally deny. The supporters of states’ rights held that the national government
was a league of independent states, any of which had the right to secede.
In December 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede. Five other states
February, representatives from the six states met in Montgomery, Ala., and established
joined the confederacy. Lincoln was inaugurated two days later.
In his inaugural address, Lincoln avoided any threat of immediate force against the
South. But he stated that the Union would last forever and that he would use the
nation’s full power to hold federal possessions in the South. One of the possessions,
At last our proud Republic is overtaken. Our National Sin has found us out. The National
is made bare for our chastisement. No distant monarch, offended at our freedom and
prosperity, has plotted our destruction no envious tyrant has prepared for our necks his
oppressive yoke. Slavery has done it all. Our enemies are those of our own household.
among us. During the last twenty years and more, we have as a nation been forging a
bolt for our own national destruction, collecting and augmenting the fuel that now
threatens to wrap the nation in its malignant and furious flames. We have sown the
of his giant power, that master is emboldened to lift rebellious arms against the very
majesty of the law, and defy the power of the Government itself. In vain have we
plunged our souls into new and unfathomed depths of sin, to conciliate the favor and
secure the loyalty of the slave – holding class. We have hated and persecuted the
degradation, and even to expel him from the borders of some of our States we have
slavery we have repealed and trampled upon laws designed to prevent the spread of
slavery and in a thousand ways given to increase the power and ascendancy of slavery
! over all departments of Government and now, as our reward, this slave-holding power
comes with sword, gun, and cannon to take the life of the nation and overthrow the
On April 15, Lincoln called for Union troops to regain the fort. The South regarded the
joined the Confederacy.
Virginia had long been undecided about which side to join. Its decision to join the
Confederacy boosted Southern morale. Richmond, Virginia’s capital, became the capital
of the Confederacy in May.
It is ironic that only a few days before Fort Sumter was attacked, Douglass had agreed
at the invitation of the Haitian government. He had always been a strong foe of
emigration and repatriation schemes, but the increasingly hostile environments for
Blacks in the United States and the growing power of the slave-holders in the
government worried him into exploring the option of emigration. (Long 27).
people, including 3.5 million slaves, lived in the South. The North had around 4 million
men from 15 through 40 years old – the approximate age range for combat duty. The
South had only about 1 million white men from 15 through 40. The north began to use
black soldiers in 1863. The South did not decide to use blacks as soldiers until the
closing days of the war. From the very beginning of the war, it was obvious that many
the close of the year 1862, the military situation was discouraging to the supporters of
the Federal Government. We had been repulsed at Fredericksburg and at Vicksburg, and
standstill. On the other hand, the Confederates, having filled their ranks, were never
so-called “peace-faction” was strong, and active for meditation. (Emilio 1). It was
evident that more and more men would have to join the draft. But the wives of these
soldiers did not want their husbands running off to war, just to be killed. More soldiers
were need. Lincoln realized this, but did not want to use black soldiers because he did
not want to bring the issue of slavery into the war. The war had began as an effort to
save the union, and that is how Lincoln wanted to keep it.
When the Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter early on the morning of April 12,
1861, inaugurating four years of internecine warfare, many Negroes were eager to wear
the Union blue. They found their services were neither wanted at that time nor
contemplated in the future. (Leckie 3). At this time, most of the blacks living in the
way to freedom in the armies of the North” (Long 26). Early in the war, Northern blacks
who wanted to fight to end slavery tried to enlist in the Union Army. But the Army
rejected them. Most whites felt the war was a “white man’s war.” Others felt that the
blacks were not able to fight as well as the white soldiers. As Northern armies drove
into Confederate territory, slaves flocked to Union camps. After a period of uncertainty,
the Union government decided to allow them to perform support services for the
Northern war effort. In time, as many as 200,000 blacks worked for Union armies as
cooks, laborers, nurses, scouts, and spies. Black leaders, such as the former slave
slaves. However, the idea of emancipation presented problems in the North. For one
thing, the Constitution recognized slavery. In addition, most Northerners – even though
they may have opposed slavery – were convinced of black inferiority. Many of them
feared the emancipation would cause a mass movement of Southern blacks into the
North, Northerners also worried about losing the border states loyal to the Union
because those states were strongly committed to slavery. Skillful leadership was
needed as the country moved toward black freedom. Lincoln supplied that leadership by
On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued a preliminary order to free the slaves. It
declared that all slaves in the states in rebellion against the Union on January 1, 1863,
would be forever free. It did not include slave states loyal to the Union. On Jan 1,
1863, Lincoln issued the final order as the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation
Proclamation, though legally binding, was a war measure that could be reversed later.
Therefore, in 1865, Lincoln helped push through Congress the 13th Amendment to the
Constitution, which abolished slavery throughout the nation. For his effort in freeing the
slaves, Lincoln is known as the “Great Emancipator.” However, many discredit that title
for Lincoln due to the fact that he too believed that blacks were inferior in battle.
The Emancipation Proclamation also announced Lincoln’s decision to use black troops,
though many whites believed that blacks would make poor soldiers. “They will run at
the first sign of danger!” (Park Net 5). “Approximately 180,000 blacks served in the
Union Army, comprising 163 regiments. Many more African-Americans served in the
Union Navy Both free African-Americans and runaway slaves joined the fight” (Bennett
326). “About two-thirds of them were Southerners who had fled to freedom in the
North” (Bennett 326). “Only about 100 blacks were made officers” (Park Net 2). “After
the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, the Civil War became a war to save the Union
and to more importantly abolish slavery” (Long 27).
The Confederacy objected strongly to the North’s use of black soldiers because they
grew fearful of losing slaves to the Union armies. As slave masters in the South grew
fearful of losing slaves to the Union armies, they implemented harsher restrictions upon
their slaves, often moving the entire plantation further inland to avoid Northern
contact. These changes, however, only caused slaves to flee, and those that did stay
demanded more freedom from their masters. In this way, the slaves gained some power
in the situation, forcing masters to make offerings in exchange for labor. (New York
Public Library 1) .
The Confederate government threatened to kill or enslave any captured officers or
enlisted men of black regiments. Lincoln replied by promising to treat Confederate
of prisoners broke down mainly over the issue of black prisoners.
Congress narrowly approved the use of black soldiers. However, the war ended soon
Official Recruiting for black regiments started in September of 1862. “In consequence to
the situation, the arming of Negroes, first determined upon in October, 1862, was fully
adopted as a military measure” (Emilio 1). Although this allowed blacks to enlist in the
army, many viewed this as only a scheme to save lives of white soldiers. The blacks
were not allowed to fight until needed. They were offered the same rights as the white
soldiers, but discrimination always interfered. Most black soldiers did not receive equal
pay and benefits.
The hesitating policy of our government permitted the Rebels to confront every black
braved that double peril intended to cheat him out of pay on which his wife and
children depended for support. (Emilio 18). Even whites who supported the idea of
blacks in army were harassed. While recruiting, Lieutenant Grace was often insulted by
such remarks as, “There goes the captain of the Negro Company! He thinks the Negroes
men. (Emilio 10).
The decision to use the blacks as soldiers was by no means universally popular and was
also selfishly motivated. The decision to use the Negro as a soldier did not necessarily
grow out of any broad humanitarian resolve it seems to have come more largely out of
the dawning realization that, since the Confederates were going to kill a great many
more Union soldiers before the war was over, a good many white men would escape
death if a considerable percentage of those soldiers were colored. (Leckie 4). “Blacks
war” (Long 26). So why would blacks still want to fight for the country that did not
want them, but needed them to fight? Runaway slaves from the South joined the Union
South, and they wanted to fight the evils of slavery. Frederick Douglas encouraged
blacks to join the Union cause. The first black regiment to be formed was the 1st
Kansas Colored Volunteers in October, 1862. There were doubts against this group from
their very beginning. In general, white soldiers and officers believed that black men
lacked the courage to fight and fight well. In October, 1862, African-American soldiers
of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers silenced their critics by repulsing attacking
Confederates at the battle of Island Mound, Missouri. (Park Net 1) At the battle of Port
Hudson, Louisiana, May 27, 1863, the African-American soldiers bravely advanced over
soldiers proved their capability to withstand the heat of battle.
Colored fought with courage once again. Union troops under General James Blunt ran
into a strong Confederate force under General Douglas Cooper. After a two-hour bloody
engagement, Cooper’s soldiers retreated. The 1st Kansas, which had held the center of
the Union line, advanced to within fifty paces of the Confederate line and exchanged
fire for some twenty minutes until the Confederates broke and ran. General Blunt wrote
after the battle, “I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro regiment. The
question if Negroes will fight is settled besides they make better soldiers in every
respect than any other troops I have ever had under my command.” After this battle,
black soldiers began to receive some respect. (Park Net 1). Even though the 1st
Kansas regiment and other colored groups were beginning to win many battles,
discrimination in pay and other areas remained widespread. “According to the Militia Act
of 1862, soldiers of African descent were to receive $10.00 a month, plus a clothing
allowance of $3.50. Many regiments struggled for equal pay, some refusing any money.
However, Congress granted equal pay for all black soldiers in June of 1864. The most
famous black regiment would have to be the 54th Massachusetts. On February 16,
1863, a call for black soldiers was published in the columns of the Boston Journal. In
five days, twenty-five men were secured. Much of the larger number of recruits were
obtained through black organizations in the Boston area. This regiment was to be lead
by Colonel Robert Shaw. This regiment has gained great popularity over the last decade
with the release of the Oscar-winning film Glory.
The most widely known battle fought by African-Americans was the assault on Fort
Wagner, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts on July 18, 1863. The 54th
volunteered to lead the assault on the strongly-fortified Confederate positions. It was a
all doubts would be lifted for they would have defeated all odds. “To this
Massachusetts Fifty-fourth was set the stupendous task to convince the white race
that colored troops would fight, and not only would they fight, but that they could be
made, in every sense of the word, soldiers” (Emilio 17).
Your success hangs on the general success. If the Union lives, it will live with equal
races. If divided, and you have done your duty, then you will stand upon the same
platform with the white race. Then make use of the offers Government has made you
for if you are not willing to fight your way up to office, you are not worthy of it. Put
yourselves under the starts and stripes, and fight yourselves to the marquee of a
general, and you shall come out with a sword! (Emilio 14).
The soldiers of the 54th scaled the fort’s parapet, and were only driven back after
brutal hand-to-hand combat. A monument of the 54th and its slain leader Colonel
Robert Shaw was installed in Boston May 31st, 1897. Black soldiers participated in
every major campaign of 1864-1865 except Sherman’s invasion of Georgia. The year
1864 was especially eventful for black troops.
On April 12, 1864, at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, Confederate General Nathan Bedford
Forrest led his 2,500 men against the Union-held fortification, occupied by 292 black
and 285 white soldiers. After driving the Union pickets and giving the garrison an
opportunity to surrender, Forrest’s men swarmed into the fort with little difficulty and
drove the Federals down the river’s bluff into a deadly crossfire. Casualties were high
Confederates of perpetuating a massacre of black troops, and the controversy
continues to this day. “The battle cry for the Negro soldier east of the Mississippi River
became ‘Remember Fort Pillow!’” (Park Net 5).
The Confederate army did not consider the usage of slaves throughout the war.
for the Confederate cause. “Leaders of the Confederacy considered schemes for the
enlistment of blacks in the armies and for their eventual freedom” (Long 26). However,
those who did serve in the Confederate army were not given their freedom by the
Confederate government, but rather by the North after the war had ended.
The United States Civil War began as an effort to save the Union, and ended in a fight
to abolish slavery. This battle for emancipation, some would argue, was won by the
slaves themselves. While this remains a debate, it is clear that the slaves did
contribute significantly to their own freedom. By running from masters to become
contrabands for the Union, laboring behind the scenes for the Northern armies, and
risking their lives on the battlefront, the slaves centralized the issue of freedom and
played a key role in the North’s victory. (New York Public Library 1).
In actual numbers, African-American soldiers comprised 10% of the entire Union Army.
Losses among African-Americans were high, and from all reported casualties,
approximately one-third of all African-Americans enrolled in the military lost their lives
during the Civil war. (Park Net 5). African-American soldiers, despite doubt and
They were just as deadly, if not deadlier, that their white counterparts. They won
many of the Civil War battles, and in doing so, won their independence. “Once let the
and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth
which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States” (Park