When Delany returned to North America in 1860, he was confident that he could convince large numbers of blacks to resettle in Africa with him. He was joined by other organizations that urged free black Americans and Canadians to build new lives for themselves in Africa, the West Indies, and other areas of the world with large black populations. But as Cyril Griffith noted in The African Dream, "this pressure . . . to leave the continent came at the very moment when the Civil War presented them with the opportunity to participate in the struggle to free millions of their brethren [brothers] enslaved in the South."
The American Civil War began in April 1861, when differences between the nation's Southern and Northern states finally erupted into armed conflict. The two sides had been arguing over several issues—including slavery and the power of the national government to regulate it—for many years. Many Northerners believed that slavery was immoral. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a big role in the
Southern economy and culture. As a result, many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life. The two sides finally went to war when the Southern states tried to secede from (leave) the United States and form their own country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America.
In 1861 and 1862, Delany continued trying to arrange a mass exodus (departure) of free blacks to a region of western Nigeria called Yorubaland. But interest in his emigration plans faded, especially after President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865; see entry) issued his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. This proclamation declared that all slaves within the Confederacy were free and called for the inclusion of blacks into the United States armed services. When black Americans learned of Lincoln's announcement, they reacted with joy and expressed optimism for their future. As prospects for a brighter future in America increased, they became less interested in Delany's calls for relocating thousands of miles away.
Delany, meanwhile, contributed his efforts to the Union cause. In 1863, he began recruiting free blacks for several all-black Union army units. One of these units was the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts regiment, which eventually became one of the most famous fighting units of the entire war. Delany soon became known as one of the North's best recruiters. He tirelessly urged black volunteers to come forward, proclaiming that "millions of your brethren still in bondage implore [urgently request] you to strike for their freedom." Despite his recruiting work, however, Delany recognized that black soldiers often encountered discrimination even within the Union Army. He worked hard to change unfair rules and treatment wherever he found them.
In addition to his recruiting activities, Delany worked on behalf of blacks in other ways. He lobbied (attempted to influence) the Federal government to form an entirely independent army composed exclusively of black troops. He also urged the Union to promote deserving blacks to positions of authority (black men were not allowed to become officers at this time). In February 1865, he was granted a meeting with President Lincoln in which he explained his proposals. Lincoln was very impressed with Delany, and he agreed that blacks should not be disqualified for officer positions just because of the color of their skin. Lincoln quickly arranged to make Delany an officer in the U.S. Army. On February 27, 1865, Delany was commissioned (given official rank) as a major, becoming the first black man to hold a field command in American history.
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