War for Freedom (1863—1865)
As United States armies penetrated deeper into the Confederacy, politicians and the Union high command came to understand the necessity, and benefit, of enlisting black men in the army and navy. Although a few commanders began forming black units in 1862, such as Massachusetts abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s First South Carolina Volunteers (the Civil War’s first black regiment), widespread enlistment did not occur until the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. “And I further declare and make known,” Lincoln’s Proclamation read, “that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”
The language describing black enlistment indicated Lincoln’s implicit desire to segregate African American troops from the main campaigning armies of white soldiers. “I believe it is a resource which, if vigorously applied now, will soon close the contest. It works doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us,” Lincoln remarked in August 1863 about black soldiering. Although more than 180,000 black men (ten percent of the Union army) served during the war, the majority of United States Colored Troops (USCT) remained stationed behind the lines as garrison forces, often laboring and performing non–combat roles. (2)
When black soldiers did fight on the battlefield they distinguished themselves. Colonel Higginson, the white commander of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, wrote a report about their valor and bravery following a skirmish along the South Carolina coast in January 1863 that was eventually published in Northern newspapers. “Nobody knows anything about these men who has not seen them in battle,” Higginson wrote. “No officer in this regiment now doubts that the key to the successful prosecution of the war lies in the unlimited employment of black troops”
Soon thereafter, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts received permission from the War Department to create an all-black regiment. Men enlisted in droves, which required creating two regiments, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts. (McPherson, “Battle Cry” 564–65) The 54th became one of the most recognized regiment’s in the entire war. A 1989 film, Glory, starring Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, told a fictionalized version of the 54th’s history and helped renew the regiment’s renown in the twentieth century.
The courage and commitment of black soldiers did not, however, generate immediate enthusiasm or acceptance from white Northerners, including civilians and enlisted men. (McPherson, “Battle Cry” 565)
Black soldiers in the Union army endured rampant discrimination and earned less pay than white soldiers, while also facing the possibility of being murdered or sold into slavery if captured. James Henry Gooding, a black corporal in the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, wrote to Abraham Lincoln in September 1863, questioning why he and his fellow volunteers were paid less than white men. Gooding argued that, because he and his brethren were born in the United States and selflessly left their private lives and to enter the army, they should be treated “as American SOLDIERS, not as menial hirelings.” (2) In addition to protesting in letters to Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and black run newspapers in the North such as Philadelphia’s Christian Recorder, the soldiers of the 54th highlighted the injustice of unequal pay by refusing their paychecks while still fighting for their freedom and citizenship on the battlefield. (1)
African American soldiers defied the inequality of military service and used their positions in the army to reshape society, North and South. The majority of USCT (United States Colored Troops) had once been enslaved, and their presence as armed, blue-clad soldiers sent shockwaves throughout the Confederacy. To their friends and families, African American soldiers symbolized the embodiment of liberation and the destruction of slavery. To white southerners, they represented the utter disruption of the Old South’s racial and social hierarchy. As members of armies of occupation, black soldiers wielded martial authority in towns and plantations. At the end of the war, as a black soldier marched by a cluster of Confederate prisoners, he noticed his former master among the group. “Hello, massa,” the soldier exclaimed, “bottom rail on top dis time!”
The majority of USCT occupied the South by performing garrison duty, other black soldiers performed admirably on the battlefield, shattering white myths that docile, cowardly black men would fold in the maelstrom of war. Black troops fought in more than 400 battles and skirmishes, including Milliken’s Bend and Port Hudson, Louisiana; Fort Wagner, South Carolina; Nashville; and the final campaigns to capture Richmond, Virginia. Fifteen black soldiers received the Medal of Honor, the highest honor bestowed for military heroism. Through their voluntarism, service, battlefield contributions, and even death, black soldiers laid their claims for citizenship. “Once let a black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S.” Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, proclaimed, “and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
Many slaves accompanied their masters in the Confederate army. They served their masters as “camp servants,” cooking their meals, raising their tents, and carrying their supplies. The Confederacy also impressed slaves to perform manual labor. There are three important points to make about these “Confederate” slaves. First, their labor was almost always coerced. Second, people are complicated and have varying, often contradictory loyalties. A slave could hope in general that the Confederacy would lose but at the same time be concerned for the safety of his master and the Confederate soldiers he saw on a daily basis.
Finally, white Confederates did not see African Americans as their equals, much less as soldiers. There was never any doubt that black laborers and camp servants were property. Though historians disagree on the matter, it is a stretch to claim that not a single African American ever fired a gun for the Confederacy; a camp servant whose master died in battle might well pick up his dead master’s gun and continue firing, if for no other reason than to protect himself. But this was always on an informal basis. The Confederate government did, in an act of desperation, pass a law in March 1865 allowing for the enlistment of black soldiers, but only a few dozen African Americans (mostly Richmond hospital workers) had enlisted by the war’s end. (2)
The Draft Riots
By the end of the first week of July 1863, the North won significant, decisive battles against the South that seemed to turn the tide of the war. On July 3, after three days of brutal fighting, the Union Army finally defeated the Confederates led by General Robert E. Lee. The Union victory thwarted the Confederate invasion into the North and forced Lee and his troops to retreat back to Virginia. At the same time Union General Ulysses S. Grant finally wrested Vicksburg, Mississippi from Confederate forces and took control of the Mississippi River, effectively cutting the Confederacy in two.
Despite these advantages, Northern discontent over the war continued to grow, especially among portions of the white populace who did not favor fighting a bloody war for emancipation. This was particularly true in the wake of the Enrollment Act—the first effort at a draft among the northern populace during the Civil War. The working class citizens of New York felt especially angered as wealthy New Yorkers paid $300 for substitutes, sparing themselves from the hardships of war. “A rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight,” became a popular refrain. The Emancipation Proclamation convinced many immigrants in northern cities that freed people would soon take their jobs. This frustration culminated in the New York City Draft Riots in July 1863. Over the span of four days, the white populace killed some 120 citizens including the lynching of at least eleven black New Yorkers. Property damage was in the millions, including the complete destruction of more than fifty properties—most notably that of the Colored Orphan Asylum. In an ultimate irony, the largest civil disturbance to date in the United States (aside from the war itself) was only stopped by the deployment of Union soldiers, some of whom came directly from Gettysburg. (2)