Blacks in the Civil War

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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 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.

As slavemasters 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 the 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.

After initially striving to keep the slavery issue out of the war, the Northeners began enlisting blacks to assist them in the fight. Lincoln's Second Confiscation Act and the Militia Act, both of 1862, were significant in building the Northern military, because together they punished rebel slaveholders and encouraged employment of blacks in the Union army. These black slaves fought both on the line as soldiers and behind the scenes in labor tasks. Many blacks, inspired by their involvement, returned home to free their families and friends. Some even reinhabited the plantations, took over the former masters' possessions, and began their own cropping. Other plantations had been left in the hands of white women, the old, and disabled when the men had left to fight for the Confederate army. This led to a further breakup in slave discipline and labor production in the South.

While the blacks were making strides toward their own freedom, they were aided by the decisions made by the President. Issued by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation led to the eventual freedom of all slaves. The historic document officially made free all bondsmen in areas of the Confederacy that were in rebellion. Slavery was not abolished in the boarder states, Tennessee, or Union occupied areas of Louisiana and Virginia, however.

Lincoln delayed in issuing his proclamation to avoid alienating the slave owning boarder states. He feared that Maryland, Deleware, Kentucky, and Missouri would seceed from the Union if he did so. Following the Northern victory at Antietim, Lincoln realized it was time to act. Five days after the battle, on September 22, 1862, he issued a preliminary proclamation. It stated that if the Confederate states did not rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, he would declare their slaves "forever free". The rebels declined, and the Emancipation Proclamation came into being.

Since the proclamation only affected the states in rebellion, it didn't actually free any slaves. What it did do, however, was strengthen the Northern war effort. They now were fighting for a cause. By the end of the Civil War, over 500,000 slaves had escaped to the North, many of whom joined the Union Army, greatly increasing its man power. The Emancipation Proclamation also led to the 13th Amendment , enacted on December 18, 1865, which legally freed all slaves still in bondage.

A final goal the Emancipation Proclamation accomplished was to discourage England and France from entering the war on the South's side. They were supplied with cotton and tobacco by the South, and wanted them to win. However, when the war became an argument over slavery, the European nations, who were opposed to human bondage, gave their support to the Union, and the fight for freedom was eventually won. In April of 1865, General Lee surrendered and the war was over. When word of freedom finally reached the slaves in midsummer, they created Juneteenth to celebrate their emacipation, a holiday still celebrated in some areas today.

Col. Robert Gould Shaw, Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, May 1863. Boston Athenaeum.

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The Fifty-Fourth regiment , the only all black unit in the Union Army, particularly contributed to the Northern efforts and further symbolized a new found unity among blacks. For these reasons, it is worthy of more careful exploration.

In 1863, John Andrew, theWar Govenor of Massachusetts, made a request to the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, to create a volunteer regiment of African Americans. The Fifty-Fourth would include soldiers not only from Massachusetts, since its own black population was not sufficient, but from all over the country. To aid in the recruiting process, the War Govenor called upon the help of African-American leaders such as Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown. In two months 1,000 men had enlisted in the volunteer army, with every state being represented. The superior officer, though, would not be black. Some credentials were necessary for the person who would lead this unique regiment. In particular Andrew sought

...young men of military experience, of firm

antislavery principles, ambitious, superior to the

vulgar contempt of colour, and having faith in the capacity of

coloured men for military service...


The man for the job was Robert Shaw.

The Regiment and their captain set off for Beaufort, Scouth Carolina on May 28, 1863. Their mission was to attack the Confederates at Fort Wagner. Wagner was the key to Charleston and therefore the attack on it was a significant one, but storming the fort meant marching through bands of Confederate infantry and artillary. Wagner itself was surrounded by a ditch and had thick, high walls. Adding to the list of feats to overcome was the sheer size of the Confederates compared to the size of the Fifty-Fourth. Obstacle after obstacle presented itself to the underprepared and undertrained regiment, but still they marched on. Shaw and a few of his men pushed to the top of the parapet. There the colonel was shot and killed. In spite of the almost total decimation of the regiment,the assault was not a complete failure. Through their heroic actions,the Fifty-Fourth was said to have "blazed a path" for future African American soldiers that would "wind its way to Appomattox."

The unfortunate end to the storming of Fort Wagner did not deter other blacks from volunteering. Rather, the heroic efforts of the Fifty-Fourth served as an incentive. Most African Americans felt as this man did, in his letter to the Boston Daily paper, " ...(we)will go where duty shall call...not as a black man, but as an American..." As often as they attempted, though, some blacks were denied enlistment. A general belief among white leaders was that the war would not last more than one hundred days. Thus to put blacks in the army, to hand them rifles and guns, seemed foolish and futile. If they could not volunteer, then the least they could do was donate food,clothing, or money.

Surprisingly, some Southern blacks wanted to fight for the Confederate cause. A patriotic duty rose above all others in a slave's life. Even though they were not citizens, slaves thought themselves as such. Yet many slaves did not feel like lending their help to the South. In fact, when the Yankee soldiers marched through a Southern town, the slaves often fled to the Northern lines. These fugitives, known as "contraband" to the Union, were often a problem. Yankees did not know whether to return them to the fields or to hand them guns. What they did realize was that the slaves knew the geography of the South far better than any Northern soldier. Eventually, it was declared that these fugitives could be used in a helpful manner to the North, if and only if they were organized into units on a small scale. Therefore, slaves could serve as soldiers, scouts, spies, and messengers to the Union.

The War between the States proved to be a war for democracy. The much awaited liberation of the slaves revived the ideals that founded the country. For once, under the law, men were equal. These changes were more quick to come about due to the persistent efforts made by the blacks themselves. By resisting their masters and through the military aid and other labor tasks they provided the North, the blacks pushed for their own emancipation. Although a formal Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment freed blacks in America, it would be a long time before they truly gained equality. Only decades of hard work would lessen the racism that had been so engrained in the minds of Americans. Blacks had yet to overcome the prejudice, segregation, and discrimination rampant in the American society.


Aptheker, Herbert. The Negro in the Civil War. New York, 1938.

Berlin, Ira et al. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation 1861-1867. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1985.

Berlin, Ira et al. Slaves No More. Cambridge University Press: New York, 1992.

Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom. New York, 1947.

Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the Civil War. Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 1953.

Ripley, C. Peter. Slaves and Freedmen in Civil War Louisiana. Baton Rouge, 1976.

Rozwenc, Edwin C. Slavery as the Cause of the Civil War. D.C. Heath and Company: Boston, 1963.

Archives on the World Wide Web

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library provides an extensive collection of personal papers, records of black organizations, typescripts, empheras, sheet music, and rare books that cover subjects in African-American life, concerning history, literature, politics, and culture.

African American History Collection at the Clements Library

The James S. Schoff Civil War Collections at the Clements Library includes correspondences, letters, and diaries from over 300 Union and Confederate soldiers. These, along with photographs and newspaper articles, provide first hand information from the white soldiers about their own experiences. These provide some insight into what life may have been like for the slaves during this time as well.

University Libraries at Virginia Tech offer insight into life on the homefront for both Union and Confederate soldiers. Information provided through letters, diaries, and current research files tell not only about the whites' experiences, but also how they affected the lives of blacks, freed and enslaved.

The U.S. Civil War Center at Louisiana State University provides a plethora of informational sites offering facts and data covering a broad range of topics concerning life for African Americans during the Civil War. Examples of connecting sites include diaries, documents, books and articles. Including over 1200 connecting sites, this archive covers all the Civil War related links found on the Web. Information about black organizations, black roles in battlefields, historical places in the war, and even subjects such as music, poetry, and games of the time, can be found through this vast network.

See Also:

The Negro as a Soldier in the War of the Rebellion (Full Text from the Library of Congress) By Norwood P. Hallowell, Colonel, Fifty-Fifth Regiment, Massachusettes Volunteers. Read before the Military Historical Society of Massachusettes, January 5, 1892. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 1897.

Underground Railroad

54th Massachusettes Volunteer Infantry

African American Bibliographies


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