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AfriGeneas Military Research Forum

Black soldiers waged wars ~ two fronts

They had to fight Southerners for freedom and Northerners for respect

By Gary H. Rawlins, USA TODAY

The American Civil War began as a limited war to preserve the Union and ended in total war to free the slaves. At the start, the Lincoln administration had no use for black soldiers. At the end, it unleashed them as liberators.

The military climax of their halting march toward freedom would come in the final months of the war in two Confederate citadels.

When Charleston, S.C., fell in February 1865, the first Federals to enter this seat of secession were the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry. They were followed by the 54th Massachusetts, the first black regiment raised in the North.

When Richmond, Va., fell in April, among the first units entering the Confederate capital was the Massachusetts 5th Cavalry, a black regiment.

In what must have seemed to contemporary blacks as a sign of cosmic justice, black soldiers were in the vanguard of a conquering army that helped end 250 years of American slavery, argued the late John Hope Franklin, author of From Slavery to Freedom.

To achieve recognition, black soldiers waged a two-front war against hostile Southerners and cynical Northerners.

As the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter, S.C., opened the fighting in 1861, Lincoln was certain that Union forces could quickly crush the rebellion without enlisting the thousands of eager free black volunteers in the North.

But a bloody succession of defeats and a drift into a long dispiriting war slowed overall enlistment to a trickle and triggered desertions.

Flagging public support forced Lincoln and congressional leaders to expand the war's scope beyond just restoring the Union. Lincoln began to mull the idea of wartime emancipation and black enlistment, and on Jan. 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

His decision to recruit blacks into the fight revolutionized the war. Viewing the war as a crusade, nearly 180,000 blacks flocked to the colors - 30,000 from Northern states, the rest former slaves from the South. An estimated 30,000 served in the Navy.

Reflecting the deep-rooted racism of the time, Northern conservative groups such as the Order of the Sons of Liberty argued that blacks lacked the intelligence to execute tactical maneuvers in the field and that their African antecedents made them susceptible to battlefield barbarism. Even liberals doubted the legality of emancipation and the timeliness of enlistment.

Still, recruitment proceeded at a breakneck pace. As Northern armies marched South, a relentless tide of escaped slaves created a constant pool of fresh recruits for the War Department. An estimated 500,000 to 700,000 self-emancipated slaves reached Yankee camps.

To handle the flood of recruits, the War Department created the Bureau of Colored Troops, which systematized the process of raising black regiments and vetting their white officers. Instead of state designations for regiments, they became United States Colored Troops. Only certain Massachusetts and Connecticut regiments retained their original state designations.

Once in uniform, black recruits faced a range of prejudicial treatment, including low pay, inferior weapons, inadequate medical care and relegation to fatigue duty. With blacks in camp, white soldiers were spared from degrading manual tasks such as digging ditches for latrines.

Black soldiers understood that only on the battlefield could they earn the respect of whites. Although black regiments participated in 39 major battles and 449 minor engagements, it was their remarkable valor in several battles in 1863 and 1864 that assuaged Northern prejudices, impressing naysayers enough to give serious consideration to the widespread use of black soldiers.

Learning that the North was arming slaves, the Davis administration threatened to re-enslave captured blacks and execute white officers for aiding servile insurrection. When Lincoln vowed to retaliate by executing Rebel officers taken prisoner, Davis backed down. But the Confederate president could do little to slake the racial animosity of many rebel commands, which adopted a no- prisoners policy signified by carrying the "black flag" into battle.

When blacks responded with terror tactics of their own, the war descended into a vicious cycle of atrocity and reprisal that has somehow faded from the American memory. The war may have been a chivalrous contest for some combatants, but not for the Rebels who shot surrendering blacks at Fort Pillow, Tenn., or the blacks who murdered wounded Confederates at Jenkins' Ferry, Ark.

(Copyright 2011)
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18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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