Many free blacks in the North were happy when Southern states began seceding from (leaving) the United States in 1860. In fact, some black leaders had been suggesting the separation of Northern free states from Southern slave states for many years. These black leaders believed that the U.S. government was obligated to protect slavery under the Constitution. They had seen the number of blacks held in slavery increase from seven hundred thousand to four million since the United States had been formed almost nine decades earlier. They knew that the federal government had enforced the Fugitive Slave Laws, which required people in the North to help Southern slave owners find and capture their escaped slaves. Finally, black leaders believed that the federal government would call out the military to crush any major slave rebellions in the South. For these rea sons, many free blacks felt that the institution of slavery would be more likely to end if the South did not have the support of the Union.
When the Civil War began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, thousands of black men volunteered to become soldiers in the Union Army. They cited two main reasons for wanting to join the fight. First, they wanted to help put an end to slavery. Second, they believed that proving their patriotism and courage on the field of battle would help improve their position in American society. "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States," said black abolitionist Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895).
But 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
^^ People to Know
John Andrew (1818-1867) governor of Massachusetts, 1860-66; organized the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, the first Northern black unit in the Civil War
Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895) abolitionist who was the first African American leader of national stature in U.S. history
Thomas Wentworth Higginson (18231911) abolitionist who led the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first regiment of former slaves in the Union Army
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) sixteenth president of the United States, 1861-65
Robert Gould Shaw (1837-1863) Union colonel of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, the famous all-black unit in the Civil War 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 whites 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 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 (1775-83) and the War of 1812 (June 1812 to December 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, about twenty-nine thousand black men served in the Union Navy, which never had a policy against blacks becoming sailors.
Was this article helpful?