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The American Civil War (1861–1865) started as a war to prevent the literal segregation of the North and South, but it soon became a fight of the eradication of the institution of slavery. African American enlistment played a pivotal role in the Civil War. Though the Confederacy had laws prohibiting the integration of the army, many African Americans were enlisted regardless. These African Americans served as slaves, cooks, guards, menservants, and soldiers for the army. African Americans could not legally serve in the Confederate army until the south was desperate for manpower. The Union army legally enlisted blacks after July 17, 1862. Many blacks fled to the north to achieve freedom and fight against their southern oppressors. The Union utilized many blacks as soldiers and other workers. In both armies black soldiers were seen as expendable and were often sent out on the front lines of dangerous battles. African Americans played an important role in both the Confederate and Union armies. Some suggest that if the Confederate army had utilized African Americans as readily as the Union, the outcome of the Civil war may have been different.
The Confederate army did not allow many blacks to participate in the Civil War as soldiers. White Southerners were concerned that if slaves had access to fire arms, the blacks would turn against them and use those firearms to kill whites. This was a valid fear since blacks outnumbered whites in the South in some places. Initially, Confederate law prohibited enlisting blacks into the army as anything other than musicians. Although the official mandate was that Southern troops could not be biracial, many local Confederate enlisted blacks. The few blacks that fought in the Confederate army were not listed in record books as soldiers. Instead the word soldier was crossed out and body servant was inserted in its place. More than 65,000 southern blacks participated in the Confederate army as soldiers or other service personnel such as cooks, musicians, guards, and scouts. Once the south could see that it was in danger of losing the war, the Confederacy created the "Confederate States Colored Troops" to add more regiments to their army. The black regiments were segregated from white regiments and were usually sent off into dangerous situations because they were seen as expendable. The impact of black soldiers in the Confederacy cannot be overlooked. As Professor Leonard Hayes of Southern University put it, "When you eliminate the black Confederate Soldier, you've eliminated the history of the South."
John Parker, a former slave reported that the "Richmond Howitzers were regiment partially manned by black people. They fought at the 1st Battle of Bull Run where they operated the second battery. A black regiment also fought for the confederates during this battle. John Parker states "many colored people were killed in action.
Frederick Douglass reported, "There are at the present moment many Colored men in the Confederate Army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down any loyal troops and do all that soldiers may do to destroy the Federal government and build up that of the rebels."  James Washington was a black confederate non-commissioned officer. He was the 4th Sergeant in a rec Co. D 35th in the Texas Cavalry in the Confederate Army. This man served on the State militia level in Louisiana instead of in the regular C.S. Army.
Lighter-complexioned blacks were used in the Louisiana Native Guards, know in French as the Corps d’Afrique. On Nov. 23, 1861, the Louisiana Native guards fought along the Mississippi next to the white regiments. The Guards consisted of at least 33 black officers and 731 black enlisted men. Hollandsworth wrote "Free blacks joined the Louisiana militia for varied and complex reasons, Some free blacks thought that they would lose their property, others fought for economic self-interest."
Although slave soldiers played an integral part in the Revolutionary War, a 1792 law actually barred blacks from bearing arms in the US army. In the early 1860s, black volunteers for the Union army were initially rejected. President Lincoln wrestled with the idea of employing the help of freed blacks and slaves for the Union. For several years, abstained from this idea for fear that the border states would secede if black regiments were created in the Union. However, in 1862 the number of Union volunteers plummeted and the untapped resource of black soldiers became more and more appealing to Lincoln and Congress.
On July 17, 1862 Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act which authorized Lincoln to employ Blacks in the Union Army. Two days later, slavery was formally abolished in the territories. On July 22 of that year, Lincoln presented his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley responded to Lincoln’s actions about a month later, August 19, 1862 in a letter published “The Prayer of Twenty Millions”. Greeley’s main grievance was the President’s inadequate execution of the Second Confiscation Act. He explained that the populace of the loyal states was “sorely disappointed and deeply pained” by his policies towards black soldiers. On September 6, the president responded in a public letter which appeared in Harper’s Weekly. Lincoln asserted that his only goal was to save the Union. Furthermore, Lincoln divorced the issue of slavery from the entire purpose of the war. He said “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save the Union by freeing all the slaves I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” Only until Lincoln released his Emancipation Proclamation did it become clear that this war was being fought not only for the sake of the Union, but also on behalf of all the enslaved people of America.
At first, volunteerism was slow. Abolitionist leaders, such as Frederick Douglass, urged blacks to pick up the cause and fight for freedom. In May 1863, Congress established the Bureau of Colored Troops in an effort to organize black efforts in the war. By the end of the Civil War, about 179,000 black soldiers had fought for the Union Army. This number comprised approximately ten percent of the total troops. In addition, about 19,000 black served in the Union Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died in the process, three quarters of which were caused by infectious disease. Black soldiers served in artillery and infantry and performed all noncombat support functions that sustain an army, as well. Black carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons, and teamsters also contributed to the war cause. Sergeant William Carney of Bedford, MA was the first African-American to receive the Medal of Honor. Martin R. Delany (1812–1885) was the first black commanding officer to serve in the Union Army. Not only was Delany an officer, he was also a writer, editor, doctor, and politician. "His was a magnificent life," W. E. B. DuBois wrote in 1936.
Although they were available, black regiments were not used extensively in combat. Typically, these regiments were even commanded by white officers. Initially, blacks were paid ten dollars a month with a three dollar charge for clothes. Whites, on the other hand, were paid thirteen dollars a month and received clothes for free. In June 1864, Congress passed laws guaranteeing equal pay to US colored troops. In addition, blacks received equal rations and improved medical care. Even once blacks were enlisted in the Union army, they still experienced racial discrimination because of their skin color. Blacks commonly received jobs that were reminiscant of slavery such as cooking and manual labor. The harsh reality that former slaves had to face was that even once they had attained freedom, they had not gained social equality. Free blacks had few rights to property, and found it difficult to get jobs. In some cases, freedom proved to more uncertain than slavery. Without a master to protect them, free blacks were open to all the prejudice and mistreatment of all of white northern society. African Americans expected to be treated differently as free blacks in the Union army than in slavery. This was not always the case. Scar marks on the backs of slaves indicated that whippings and other forms of abuse still ran rampant in the Union army. The Union army soldiers beat the former slaves as a form of discrimination and punishment. Soldiers in the Union Army used racist nicknames and terms to refer to African Americans. Not all people in the Union believed that blacks should be free. Few believed that blacks were equal to whites. This contributed to racism in the Union Army.
Since the beginning of the war, large numbers of runaway slaves sought refuge in the Union army camps. Runaway slave saw Union camps as a way to achieve freedom from the oppressive south. One example of this was a slave named John Brown who sought the Union army because the Northern encampments were seen as a gateway to a long desired freedom. In a letter to his wife, Brown writes: "My Dear Wife it is with grate joy I take to let you know Whare I am i am in Safety in the 14th Regiment of Brooklyn this Day I can Address you thank god as a free man I had a little truble in giting away But as the lord led the Children of Isrel to the land of Canon So he led me to a land Whare freedom Will rain in spite of earth and hell Dear you must make your Self content i am free from al the Slavers."
Brown explains to his wife how he attained his freedom and the rapture he felt once he finally did. Slaves began undermining the south once they began running to the North. The Union army facilitated this by encouraging slave rebellions, while at the same time promising the Confederate army that the Union army would aid slave insurrections. These slave insurrections changed the balance of power on plantations, giving more to the slaves. This gave slaves the power to run away to fight for the Union army.
The most famous battle involving African American soldiers was the Battle of New Market Heights in Chaffin's Farm, Virginia. This battle occurred on September 29, 1862. Only 16 African Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor during the civil war. Fourteen of these were given away at the Battle of New Market Heights. The Union's African American sector of the 18th Corps had been under heavy Confederate artillery fire for half an hour. The 18th Corps charged up the hill at Chaffins Farm and overtook the Confederates. Both armies sufffered heavy casualties, especially the African American Sector of the 18th Corps.
On the morning of April 3, 1865, most of the African American Union regiments were occupying Richmond. A few entered Petersburg the day it fell. One of these regiments was the Brigadeer General William Birney's XXV corps. They had been fighting to the South of the Appomattox river. This regiment was among the first to siege the city from the West. Also fighting in this battle were the 7th U.S.C.T and the 8th U.S.C.T. rigiments. They had formerly been fighting in Maryland and Philadelphia. Both of these regiments were present at the fall of St. Petersburg.
Glory is a 1989 film chronicling the courageous men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick, was assigned to command one of the first African American regiments to see combat for the Union, the 54th. The cast also features Denzel Washington, a runaway slave, and Morgan Freeman, a former Union Army gravedigger. The film shows the prejudices many blacks faced while serving in the Union. In the beginning of the movie the regiment is only used for manual labor. In one scene, Denzel Washington is whipped for attempting to desert. This scene in particular shows the hardships blacks faced in the Union Army. It is not until July 16, 1863 that the unit repelled a Confederate attack on James Island, South Carolina. The film culminates when the 54th leads an assault on Fort Wagner. Though the assault was unsuccessful, the regiments heroic effort earned them an eternal spot in our nation's history. In the closing scenes, Colonel Shaw is shot and killed while in combat with his men.
On the whole, the film received positive reviews. Though not acclaimed for historical accuracy, the movie was nominated for five academy awards of which it won three. Along with winning a slew of other awards, the film was especially acclaimed for its cinematography. James Berardinelli, in his movie review says "For a motion picture made on a relatively modest budget, Glory looks great. From a technical standpoint, the movie is a masterpiece, and the verisimilitude of the battle scenes is not in question."
Frederick Douglass and the White Negro Documentary film on African Americans and Irish Americans during the Civil War.