This paper is fundamentally about the influence African Americans had on the Civil War. The subjects being addressed include black soldiers, the Underground Railroad, Frederick Douglass, religion, and the abolitionist movement. The integral importance of African Americans in the Civil War is that they changed the meaning and action of the war from being about unification to being about slavery, and the emancipation of slaves.
In the areas of participating in the war in both battle and lecturing, the paper delves into the reasons behind such action, and the national consequence of African American participation in all of the aforementioned areas. We were at times remarkable buoyant, singing Hymns, and making joyous exclamations, almost as Triumphant in their tone as if we had reached a land Of freedom and safety. A keen observer might have Detected in our repeated singing of O Cannan, sweet Canaan I am bound for the land of Canaan, Something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We Meant to reach the North, and the North was our
Canaan. -Frederick Douglass Introduction The importance of the black culture during the years of the Civil War cannot be expressed without a discussion of slavery, abolition, and the freedom the African American race faced. In the South as well as the North, prejudice abounded, and in that fact is found the fettered movement of the African Americans. In this paper, the issues of freed blacks in the Civil War will be addressed; these include but certainly are not limited to slavery, abolition, religion, black soldiers, the Underground Railroad and of course Frederick Douglass.
In the course of the next pages, these topics will be discussed with brief historical accounts using textual evidence, and the sentiments of the tension between, not only the master-slave relationship, but also the relationship of white officers and black soldiers. It is the duty of history to extol the accounts of the brave men and women who made freedom possible for an entire race; in this paper, a glimpse of those people and the adversity they challenged will be aggrandized and the essence of black culture and their contribution to their own rebellion will be dissected.
In the influence of African American mores and values and their command in history over a few decades during the Civil war, it is freedom and the right to express themselves without prejudice, that makes them a strong people, and in this paper those influences on America will be made explicit. Why are African Americans at War The idea of African Americans at war during the Civil War is an answer that can be found in the crescendo of abolitionist speeches.
Freed blacks wished to be at war to free their brothers and sisters who were still slaves; they were at war for many reasons. The call to war could not have been met with any more gusto than it was meet in the black community, as McPherson (1965) quotes You, white fellow-citizens, constitute a very large majority of the voters… Therefore we appeal to you to stand by us, and see that we are not unjustly punished…We are weak-you are strong. We are few in numbers – you are numerous. O, men of Massachusetts!
Tell us not that there are two kinds of rights; rights of the rich, which you respect because you must; rights of the poor, on which you trample because you dare… Freedom has been your legacy from birth; by some of us it has been achieved. We know what oppression is; protect us from this political oppression…Some of us have experienced the unutterable anguish of leaving our dear ones for the sake of freedom. We appeal to you to secure and protect us in the freedom which we have sought. Let us not be exiled form the State of our adoption… (15).
McPherson goes on to state that in the freed blacks their was a ferocity to be done with the injustice delivered to them, and the outlet for such animosity could be found in Lincoln’s call to arms for volunteers to staunch the south rebellion. The Union could only be re-united through war; African American roles were pivotal in the outcome. There could be no compromise in the issue of slavery; men were born free, not sold, not bartered. The African American influence in this regard was their quick approval of such sentiment and their quick action to restore themselves as human.
McPherson further emphasizes the innate reaction for action on the part of free blacks, As we sympathize with our white fellow-citizen at the present crisis, and to show that we can and do feel interested in the present state of affairs; and as we consider ourselves American citizens and interested in the Commonwealth of all our white fellow-citizens, although deprived of all our political rights, we yet wish the government of the United States to be sustained against the tyranny of slavery, and are willing to assist in any honorable way or manner to sustain the present Administration.
We therefore tender to the state the services of the Hannibal Guards (20). There should be not question as to why African Americans so whole-heartedly participated in the Civil War. In the following pages, their participation as soldiers, as Underground Railroad conductors and as a race ready to be educated and rid of the fetters that shackle them, will be explored, explained, and expounded upon. Black Soldiers It is often misjudged the amount of free blacks who participated in their own emancipation.
As slaves, African Americans were subject to ineffable amounts of torture and pain: Mothers and sisters were forced into prostitution, men were separated from their families and the entire race was thought of as less than human, a savagery of mankind. With these sentiments and the labor forced upon them, the simple act of combat in rebellion against such strife and animosity should come as little surprise when reading the history books. The driving force of export in the South was built upon black labor, and the disillusionment that such labor could be forever enslaved was ludicrous.
The types of influence that African Americans had during such a time were found in the ever-popular blues music, and gospel. While working in the fields it was song that men, women, and children would turn to, to pass the time and feel united. This however is only a small scope of the participation African Americans played during the infant conception of our country . During the Civil War, blacks were enlisted as soldiers. The sentiment was very diverse in this subject.
Some Northern whites did not agree with blacks participating with them, they held a dichotomy of views between wanting the blacks to be free and having them serve with them. In this regard, black regiments were incepted and it was agreed that the commanders of these regiments would be retired white military leaders so that the general populace still felt the commodity of ‘safety’ when thinking about blacks serving in the war with whites. Thus prejudice is proved to be very much alive even in the cultured North. In McPherson’s book The Negro’s Civil War (1965), he states,
Despite the fact that Negro soldiers had fought for the United States in the Revolution and in the War of 1812, a federal law barred colored men from serving in state militias, and there were no Negroes in the regular United States Army. A group of Boston Negroes met in the Twelfth Baptist Church on April 23 to call for the repeal of laws that kept colored men out of the army. Robert Morris, a Negro lawyer in Boston, declared that ‘if the Government would only take away the disability, there was not a man who would not leap for his knapsack and musket, and they would make it intolerable hot for Old Virginia’.
On April 29 a Negro drill company was organized in Boston, and in subsequent weeks the colored men of Massachusetts sent several petitions to the legislature praying for the repeal of discriminatory militia laws (20). In this quote is found the discriminatory actions of the side of the war that is supposed to be sympathetic towards the plight of African Americans. Though it could not considered direct hostility, the fact that at first blacks were denied to participate physically in their own emancipation was a deterring event in the process of freedom.
During the course of the war it should also be cited the black regiments proved themselves with valor and without trepidation. It is documented that the Secretary of War denied the right of blacks to participate in fighting . The general fears of the Northern states were negated, and this fact is found especially true for the victory in Port Hudson. Colonel Higginson’s regiment on May 27, 1863 (a black regiment) fought against a Confederate stronghold, and though they were not victorious, they gained the accolades of the white regiments for their bravado during the battle.
As McPherson quotes of this episode, “ ‘The self-forgetfulness, the undaunted heroism, and the great endurance of the negro, as exhibited that day, created a new chapter in American history for the colored man’” (185) . In this event, prejudice was all but vanquished from the white soldiers’ minds. The influence witnessed and recorded here proves undeniably that African Americans were essential in the fight against slavery, and the eventual event of their own freedom as well as staunching the belief system of the majority Northern sentimentality.
To further expound on these heroic traits brought forth by black regiments, and the clouded judgment of white soldiers and officers, McPherson offers these accounts on the prejudice and the overcoming of such bigotry, A white officer of engineers who had witnessed the assault declared that ‘you have no idea how my prejudices with regard to negro troops have been dispelled by the battle the other day. The brigade of negroes behaved magnificently and fought splendidly; could not have done better.
They are far superior in discipline to the white troops, and just as brave’. And the moderate New York Times, commenting on the reports of the battle, said that ‘this official testimony settles the question that the negro race can fight…It is no longer possible to doubt the bravery and steadiness of the colored race, when rightly led…A Philadelphia Negro wrote privately on June 11, 1863, that ‘public sentiment has undergone a great change in the past month or two, and more especially since the brilliant exploits of the several colored regiments (185-187)
Indubitably, the values the Northern states once held about blacks quickly vanished with word coming from the battle field of the African American’s own fortitude in fighting against their former oppressors.
Prior to the war, Northern states held similar attitudes that the Southern states exuded; that of African Americans being a weaker race, and thus justifiably enslaved, as Glatthaar expresses in Forged in Battle (1991), “Yet like Southerners, Northern whites had powerful prejudices against blacks…It was one thing, most Northerners reasoned, to regard the enslavement of the black race as cruel and inhumane; it was another to ask Northerners to regard blacks as their equals or welcome them as neighbors and friends” (11-12).
The small earthquake that the blacks gave to the whites during the Civil War was their unflinching determination during battle. To remedy the unjustified sentiments of the Northern populace, black regiments were mandated with white officers. This structure retarded the advancement of worthy black soldiers, and further impressed upon the African American race that they were oppressed. However, the struggle to be allowed to be soldiers was such that when granted the opportunity, the qualms of the arrangement were shadowed by the joy to actually be allowed to fight in battle.
Though the influence of black regiments during the Civil War is concrete in history, the conclusion of such an arrangement was debilitating to the idea of ending slavery. Black regiments were not at first allowed to be commanded by an African American officer, but as Glatthaar states, From the very beginning it was evident that white men would officer these new black units. Lincoln and the War Department believed they must make this program as palatable as possible to the Northern public and soldiery, to diminish the controversy in an already controversial proposal.
One of the best means to do that was to reassure Northern citizens that white men would always be in charge (35) In the false reasoning of these displays of military obstinacies, blacks were commanded by (as said prior) retired white officers . This arrangement furthered the absurdity of the assumed inferiority of blacks, as Glatthaar further extrapolates, Because most Americans had doubts about the innate ability of blacks to fight effectively, they hoped that highly competent white officers would significantly upgrade black units. Here again, blacks felt the severe constraint of prejudicial contradictions.
On the one hand, casting aside the numerous examples in American history in which blacks had fought well, substantial numbers of both soldiers and civilians believed that blacks were inferior humans, more akin to savages, and therefore would be extremely difficult to control once in a killing frenzy…the conclusion was that the best white men could handle the immense responsibility of commanding black soldiers…Of course, barring blacks from command positions stifled their opportunities for advancement, but ideally the selection process would secure quality officers , who in turn would help build outstanding black units…To ensure its continuation and success, for the benefit of all blacks, many believed it was best to give them the finest officers available-who happened to be whit veterans. Once the public began to accept black soldiers and acknowledge their wartime contributions, then they could resurrect the idea of black officers (35-36)
In the influence that black soldiers had on the Civil War it is apparent that the strides taken with the community of African Americans had an overwhelming effect on the preconceived notions both the North and the South had about blacks, and in this discovery is shown the strength of that race to prove not only to these sides but to themselves that united they could share in battle the fighting as well as the victory. The Underground Railroad With any discussion concerning the influence African Americans had on the Civil War and by extension on America it is in the Underground Railroad that a true staple of American history was ignited. African Americans not only found their way to freedom through the succor of sympathizers but were themselves strongly involved with aiding other slaves onto the road to a new and free life. There was a great throng of religious peoples involved in the success of the
Underground Railroad but African Americans were the third pillar of this unique system . In the Free states of the Union, especially those that bordered the Ohio River, their strength in numbers was overwhelming . The rivers surrounding Northern states were very reliant upon the water as a means of transportation and it helped escaped slaves cross over from Kentucky. Along with helping to aid the recently freed blacks, fellow African Americans were conductors, and agents helping to signal when and where a man should go, and other black hamlets, which abounded near the rivers, were key holding areas where fugitives could rest, and eat, regaining strength before continuing onto the next leg of the journey.
As Bordewich writes in Bound for Canaan (2005), “In the Sardinia area, north of Ripley, reputedly the most reliable conductor for many years was a freed slave named John D. Hudson, ‘a man of good intellect and powerful physique and when enraged of no more fear than a mad bull’ as Beck described him” (200). One extraordinary account of freed slaves is witnessed in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. This county was home to conservative Germans, Amish, and Mennonites as well as Quakers. This county was home to hundreds of fugitives, who were either just arriving or leaving to find their homes up North as far as Canada. Most of the fugitives, however, found themselves gainfully employed, and had even made houses for themselves. Since the population was growing with fugitives, the spot was a magnet for slave hunters.
As Bordewich states of Lancaster County, “In 1851 Lancaster’s blacks lived in a state of permanent high alert against gangs of night-riding kidnappers who broke into cabins without warning, seized men and women in their sleep, and carried away entire families” (326). 1851 was a year for great influence in the African American culture. Their work with the Underground Railroad had verified that their strength in numbers could bring about great change. Bordewich brings to the forefront of the railroad system the efforts of Lewis Hayden, Jermain Loguen, and William Parker and states, These men knew instinctively that the tide of history was running in their favor.
The Christiana resistance had been planned and carried out entirely by African Americans, who had faced down the federal government and won, showing for all to see that blacks could and would defend themselves on a field of battle…Blacks had always played an assertive and sometimes dominant role within the clandestine purlieus of the underground, but this was the first time that they had done so in the open, and in the heart of two major cities, no less (343). Bordewich describes the Underground Railroad, not as a fixed system that does not alter to changing needs, but as a diverse system abundant in adaptability and the precursor to rapidly change in a threatening event.
These changes were house, and shelter changes, as well route changes that the fugitives could travel to safety by. The immense influence the African Americans had in altering the Civil War is found not just by their escaping and using of the railroad, but also by their integral roles in aiding other fugitives in escape. Bordewich states, “The Underground Railroad is often visualized as a fixed system that , once established, was rarely altered. In actuality, routes were always in flux…Levi Coffin stated that during his lifetime he had directly and indirectly aided about thirty-three hundred fugitives to escape from slavery” (230). This number is just a small amount compared to all the fugitives aided by the Underground Railroad .