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Black Soldiers in the Union Army

during the Civil War

Black Soldiers in the Civil War During the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and part

of the Nineteenth Century the White people of North America used the

Black people of Africa as slaves to benefit their interests. White people

created a climate of superiority of their race over the Black African race that

in some places, still lingers on today. The American Civil War however, was

a key turning point for the Black African race. Through their actions and the

political actions of President Lincoln and his administration, Black Africans

set a presedent for their freedom, equality and liberation. A very important

aspect of Blacks proving themselves was that of the Black Man acting as a

soldier in the Civil War. During the Civil War the official decision to use

Blacks as soldiers in the Union Army was a slow gradual process and a

series of strategic political decisions. The actual use of Blacks as soldiers in

the Union Army was completed by a series of actions the Black Man

performed that won him the respect of becoming a soldier. The two differ in

that it was to President Lincoln’s benefit to enlist Blacks as soldiers when he

did. Whereas the later was the Black Man’s will to fight for his freedom and

prove himself as an equal human being. However, because the Black

population was barred from entering the army under a 1792 law(4) the Black

Man becoming a soldier was not officially recognized until late 1862. “There

was strong anti-Black prejudice among most people in the free states, and in

the loyal slave states the idea of arming the Black man was anthema”(1). This

statement directly reflects the generally held fear White people had about

putting Blacks on the fighting line of the armies in the Civil War. Whites felt

that the Civil War was a war started upon the White Man’s issues and what

possible reason would the Black Man have for wanting to fight in this war.

On the contrary The Black Man saw The Civil War as an opportunity to win

freedom and gain respect(2). Blacks in the North who were free from slavery

willingly pledged their service to fight in the Union Army however, their

allegiance was denied by President Lincoln on political grounds. Lincoln

realized that the issue of Black soldiers would be intolerable by the public and

would not be accepted. Initially, the Union Army utilized Northern Blacks

from the free states to relieve Whites from daily tasks that were essential to

maintain the armies, thus freeing up White soldiers for battle. As the Union

Armies began to move further into Confederate territory however, they

encountered many runaway slave Blacks. These Blacks were the ones that

contributed most to the Union effort. This was true for two reasons. First,

there were many more Blacks in the South compared to the North, roughly

four million compared to two hundred thousand. Secondly, the Black people

in the South had more at stake, once they left the Confederate side to join

The Union there was no turning back. Not only would they be deemed as

trators but runaways as well and were likely to face death if they where

caught.(3) In the beginning, when Union Armies would encounter runaway

slaves they would either hold them until their owner retrieved them or they

would return these people to the proper Confederate Officials(1). This

became a major burden to the Union. Many generals did not want to be

regarded as “slave catchers” they realized their duty to be much more.

Because of this obstacle many Commanders enlisted the runaway Blacks for

their services without the consent of the Lincoln Administration. One instance

in particular, a precedent was set that would change the policy of using

Blacks in the Union army. Brig. Gen. Benjamin Butler had encountered

several runaway slaves. When A Confederate Officer under a flag of truce

had come to retrieve the slaves, Butler refused on the grounds that slaves

used by the Confederate Army during war was no different than the use of

machinery or any other tool to aid in their progress. Therefore, the Slaves

would be considered contraband just as any other tool would be(2). Shortly

after this precedent was set The Lincoln Administration passed The

Confiscation Act which stated that all Blacks encountered in confederate

territory were to be taken in and used at the Commanders descretion(1). This

proved to be a great help to the Union Army while a huge blow to the

Confederates. The Union was gaining manpower in direct proportion to the

Confederates loosing it. This alone played a huge factor in the success of the

Union Armies. Eventually the confiscation of southern slaves began to present

a problem for the Union. The amount of Blacks fleeing from the Confederate

side began to overwhelm the Union Armies. There were so many Blacks

fleeing from the Confederate side that Union Armies soon had more people

than they knew what to do with. The Union Armies had to find a place for

these people, so consequently a decision had to be made. Many of the men

and most all of the women and children were put to use on deserted

Confederate plantations. Of coarse there was always a threat of Confederate

rebels attacking these once owned plantations and retrieving their slaves, so

the Union allocated soldiers to protect these plantations. This proved to

become a real asset for The Union. Not only where they commandeering

new land and moving further into Confederate territory, The Union utilized

this rich land and labor to supply it’s armies with foodstuffs and other

resources.(3) As the use of Blacks became more commonplace in the Union

Armies their position began to evolve. Many Generals prematurely began to

use the Black Man as a soldier. Without consent from Washington these

Generals armed the Black Man and put them into a soldiers position. This

action was not supported by Lincoln and in fact looked down upon.

However, this began to happen throughout many of the Union Armies and

became so prevalent that Lincoln could not ignore it(1). Lincoln was caught

between a rock and a hard place. On one hand the reality was obvious that

the war was not going to end and that the Union Armies needed more man

power. On the other, Lincoln knew that the public was not ready to see the

Black Man armed and used as a soldier. Being the keen politician that

Lincoln was he made a small step towards the inevitable. Lincoln declared a

“general arming” could be used to employ the Blacks in security measures so

they could further protect the lines of the Union Armies(1). This was the

official beginning in the progression of the Black Man to becoming a soldier in

the Civil War.


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