Black people from both the North and the South participated in the Civil War in a variety of ways. Free blacks from the North tried to join the fight as soldiers from the earliest days of the conflict. These men not only wanted to help free the slaves in the South, but also felt that they could improve their chances of gaining equal rights in American society by proving their patriotism and courage on the battlefield. But prejudice (unfair treatment because of their race) prevented blacks from enlisting in the Union Army until late 1862. It also created racial conflicts with working-class white in many Northern cities during the war years.
In the South, black slaves performed much of the heavy work that was required to prepare the Confederacy for war. They built forts, dug trenches, hauled artillery and supplies, set up army camps, and acted as cooks and servants for Confederate soldiers. Some free blacks in the South even fought for the Confederacy in the early years of the Civil War. However, after President Abraham Lincoln issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in 1863, Southern blacks increasingly realized what a Union victory would mean for them. Thousands of slaves escaped and took refuge behind Union lines, and many of those who remained in the Confederacy stopped cooperating with Southern whites. Some Southern blacks even aided the Union army by destroying Confederate property, spying on troop movements, or helping Union prisoners escape.
Words to Know
- Abolitionists – people who worked to end slavery
- Confederacy – eleven Southern states that seceded from the United States in 1860 and 1861
- Discrimination – unfair treatment of people or groups because of their race, religion, gender, or other reasons
- Emancipation – the act of freeing people from slavery or oppression
- Union – Northern states that remained loyal to the United States during the Civil War
When black Americans were finally allowed to join the Union Army in 1862, they still faced discrimination. For example, they received lower wages than white soldiers who held the same rank, they did more than their share of heavy labor, and they were not allowed to become officers. Despite these problems, more than 200,000 black men fought bravely for the Union. Their courage and determination on the battlefield earned the respect of many white Americans and helped the North win the Civil War. As a result, black Americans were able to break down many barriers of discrimination after the war ended.
When the Civil War began, thousands of black men volunteered to become soldiers in the Union Army. They cited two main reasons for wanting to join the fight:
- They wanted to help put an end to slavery
- They believed that proving their patriotism and courage on the field of battle would help improve their position in American society.
However, Federal law prohibited black men from joining state militias or the Union Army, and many Northern whites wanted to keep it that way. For one thing, they claimed that the Civil War was not about slavery. They called it a “white man’s war” and said that its purpose was to restore the Union rather than to settle the issue of slavery. And since the war was not about slavery, they felt that there was no need to change the law so that black people could join the fight. In reality, the dispute between North and South involved a number of different issues, including the question of how much power should be granted to the individual states and how much should be held by the federal government. But in the end, slavery was the one issue upon which the two sides could not compromise.
Another reason that many Northern states did not want black men joining the army was deep-seated racial prejudice. Some whites believed that they were superior to blacks and did not want to fight alongside them. They also thought that black men, particularly those who had been slaves, would be too cowardly and subservient (helpful in an inferior capacity) to make good soldiers. Finally, they worried that allowing blacks to fight in the war would have negative political implications. Several states along the border between the North and South allowed slavery, but remained part of the Union anyway. Some Northern political leaders thought that these border states would join the Confederacy if the Union Army admitted black soldiers.
Black leaders in the North were outraged at the policies and prejudices that prevented them from fighting in the Civil War. They pointed out that black soldiers had fought for the United States in both the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the War of 1812 (1812-1814). Frederick Douglass charged that black men “were good enough to help win American independence, but they are not good enough to help preserve that independence against treason and rebellion.” Many Northern blacks signed petitions asking the Federal government to change its rules, but the government refused. In the meantime, some light-skinned black men passed for white and enlisted in the army anyway. Thousands of other blacks provided unofficial help for the cause by serving as cooks, carpenters, laborers, nurses, scouts, and servants for the Union troops. In addition, men served in the Union Navy, which never had a policy against blacks becoming sailors.