Sojourner Truth was one of the most highly regarded and recognized African American women in the 19th century. In 1863, Harriet Beecher Stowe noted that she was impressed not only by Truth's tall, slender physical appearance but also by her clear sense of self-worth. An unstinting advocate of the rights of women and African Americans, Truth traveled widely in support of both movements.
Truth was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree around 1797 in New York State. Enduring harsh physical punishments, Isabella was sold several times. She grew to adulthood on John Dumont's farm in New Paltz, New York. Dumont had promised to emancipate Isabella early rather than waiting for New York's emancipation law to take effect. When Dumont reneged on his promise, Isabella took her youngest child and walked to freedom in 1826, seeking refuge
superiors that they resigned. Ninety percent of the USCT's commissioned white officers were combat veterans who received their commissions after passing a rigorous exam. USCT commissions were highly sought after and widely accepted because they offered opportunities for promotion. The experienced leadership of the USCT meant African American soldiers had a higher quality of leadership than the average white soldier. By war's end, African Americans made up 12 percent of the Union Army, had participated in 41 major battles and 449 smaller actions, and had earned 16 Medals of Honor.
Still, African American soldiers were subject to the persistent racism of the period. All black enlisted men, including noncommissioned officers, were paid $10 a month, $3 less than white privates. Additionally, black soldiers had another $3 per month deducted for their uniforms, while white soldiers were given their uniforms. Black soldiers protested the inequitable pay. Finally, on June 15, 1864, Congress voted for equal pay for USCT, but only for men who were free at the start of the war, thus further depressing morale and driving a deeper wedge between Northern and Southern blacks. This pay distinction remained in place until March 3, 1865.
African American soldiers had the greater share of fatigue duty. Indeed, many Union generals thought USCT units should be used as labor with the Van Wagenen family, who bought out her remaining time as a slave.
In 1828, Truth became the first black woman to sue a white man in a New York court. Truth's son Peter had been illegally sold to an Alabama plantation owner. She prevailed in court and secured her son's freedom. In 1835, Truth sought justice in the court system again when she sued for slander and won damages of $135.
In 1843, Truth adopted her well-known name and began her life as a traveling preacher. Soon after, she relocated to Northampton, Massachusetts, where she worked with other social and antislavery reformers, including Frederick Douglass. In 1850, with the aid of a white friend, she published her autobiography.
During the Civil War, Truth remained a prominent and active reformer. She recruited
African American soldiers for the Union Army, nursed black soldiers in Washington, D.C., hospitals, and aided newly freed slaves. She also met with Abraham Lincoln as well as with Harriet Tubman, who had visited black solders in South Carolina. Truth was responsible for initiating the lawsuit that led to the desegregation of Washington, D.C., streetcars.
After the Civil War, Truth continued to aid freedpeople, helping them to relocate throughout the North. She called for the distribution of western lands to former slaves. She died in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1883.
and garrison battalions. When African American soldiers went into combat, they often carried inferior weapons. Fatigue duty impaired morale, contributed to a higher disease rate, and wore out the soldiers as well as their meager supplies. Consequently, one in five African American servicemen died of disease compared with one in 12 whites. Ten black soldiers died of disease for every one who died in battle; for white soldiers the ratio was two to one.
In sharp contrast, African American sailors were an active part of the Union Navy from the beginning of the Civil War. Indeed, the navy provided African Americans the best opportunity to actively support the Union war effort. African American naval service dated back to the American Revolution, and many African Americans possessed maritime skills gained through service in the merchant marines in the first half of the 19th century. Unlike military service, naval service lacked any connotations of social uplift and generally sailors—white and black—were seen as the dregs of society. Black sailors fared better than their later military counterparts. The navy was fully integrated because segregation was difficult if not impossible to achieve on a ship. Black sailors received equal pay and an equal share of all prize money from captured Confederate merchant ships and blockade runners. An equal standard of equipment, decent
medical care, similar opportunities to earn distinction in combat, and an equitable naval criminal justice system also ensured that black sailors had a better wartime experience than black soldiers. Furthermore, the navy retained control of its recruiting responsibilities, thus eliminating the racism that pervaded state recruitments for the army. Black sailors were primarily urban, Northern free blacks or foreign blacks, while black soldiers were largely rural slaves.
The Emancipation Proclamation also provided African American women with the opportunity to take a more active role in Republican rallies and activities as politicians realized that their support was critical to the Union cause. Because black men had been excluded from voting and from military service, Republicans had little incentive to seek their support. With emancipation and recruitment, however, the political climate changed. Several Northern black women served as recruiters for African American Union regiments. Black women expressed support and renewed faith in Lincoln and the remainder of the nation's leaders. In late 1862, Frances Harper wrote to a friend that ''We may thank God that in the hour when the nation's life was convulsed . . . the President reached out his hand through the darkness to break the chains on which the rust of centuries had gathered'' (quoted in Silber 2005, 140-141). Black schoolteacher Edmonia Highgate spoke in support of Lincoln at a meeting of the National Convention of Colored Men in the fall of 1864. One newspaper reporter said her public comments demonstrated that she was a ''strong Lincoln MAN'' (quoted in Silber 2005, 140-141).
Free African American women faced harsh economic conditions. The better-paying jobs were often denied to black women. As black soldiers were recruited for the Union Army, the lack of employment opportunities and the absence of male wage earners placed Northern black women in an acute economic position. David Demus, a soldier in the famed 54th Massachusetts, pleaded with his wife to stop doing field work for a local farmer. In a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Mrs. John Davis asked for a furlough for her husband, a member of the 102nd USCT: ''I have no support except what I can earn by my own labor.'' This problem resulted from the fact that her husband had received no pay, and it ensured that she was ''completely distitute.'' Rosanne Henson explained to Lincoln that ''being a colored woman [I] do not get any state pay'' (quoted in Silber 2005, 6364). The federal government made some initial steps in relieving the economic plight of African American women after the massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow by amending pension laws so that wives of black soldiers could receive pensions. With greater economic opportunity came greater government oversight, however, as the federal government investigated ''proper'' and ''improper'' marriages among a people who had never been legally permitted to marry.
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