By Michael Bradley
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Architects of their own liberation

This article is over 16 years, 5 months old
Much has been written about the American Civil War, but less is known about the decisive role of black soldiers in the conflict. Michael Bradley unearths the role of free blacks and escaped slaves whose heroism helped secure victory against the Confederate South and ended slavery.
Issue 318

The American Civil War of 1861-65 was the world’s first truly industrial conflict. It saw the mobilisation of huge economic resources and resulted in the death of some 600,000 people. Northern supporters of “free labour” fought the Southern planter elite to decide which system would dominate the country’s future.

The election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 was the final straw for the “Slaveocracy”. Lincoln was committed to keeping slavery out of new territories and supported its eventual demise. He originally argued that the war was to save the union, not to end slavery, and only a few radicals imagined the freeing of slaves or the arming of black troops. But the logic of “total war” led to the unimaginable. By the end of the war over 180,000 black soldiers had served the federal government, although until recently their role in attaining victory has been almost invisible.

Southern wealth came from cotton, and the Confederacy couldn’t hope to fight the industrialised North without its army of plantation slaves. In 1861 four million blacks were in bondage and half a million more lived as “free men” but with limited rights. But as the war began the South’s slaves began to melt away in what has been described as a “general strike” against the Confederacy. The commanding general of Union forces, Henry W Halleck, argued of the flow of slaves to Union lines: “In the hands of the enemy [the slaves] are used with great effect against us. In our hands we must try to use them with the best possible effect against the rebels.”

Lincoln constantly battled with radical elements of his administration over the issue of emancipation. Radicals like black leader and former slave Fredrick Douglass argued the fight for union and the battle against slavery were one. Arming blacks was a natural step in undermining Confederate power, although Lincoln fought to keep “loyal” slave states in the Union and refused to make moves that might push them towards the Confederacy. But as the conflict developed, Lincoln and moderate Republicans were convinced that strong measures would be needed to bring it to a close.

The rivers of volunteers that flooded recruitment offices in 1861 soon dried up. Bounties were needed to entice men to enlist as many saw the conflict as a “rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight”. Wealthy men could pay for substitutes to fight for them.

By mid-1862, with thousands dead and no end to the killing in sight, Lincoln took a truly radical step. He proposed, initially only to his cabinet, the emancipation of slaves in Confederate territory, and went on to direct the recruitment of black troops.

Championing black soldiers

For radicals the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t go far enough. For many others it went too far. One despairing officer wrote to Lincoln, “A decided majority of our officers… have no sympathy with your policy… they hate the Negro more than they love the union.” The bitterness stirred by the Emancipation Proclamation was matched by hostility to the arming of black troops. Black soldiers were only to be led by white officers, many of whom held anti-slavery sentiments.

In March 1863 General Halleck wrote to General Grant, “The character of the war has very much changed… there is now no possible hope of reconciliation with the rebels… there can be no peace but that which is enforced by the sword… the North must either destroy the slave oligarchy, or become slaves.” This statement reflected the mood of Federal officers and men. A feeling grew that the South had to feel the full consequences of secession. Something amazing was happening. A few years earlier the abolitionist John Brown had been tried and hanged for arming the slaves – now it was government policy.

Lincoln’s early caution turned to enthusiasm. Whatever his limitations he played a key role in championing black soldiers and taking increasingly radical measures. Lincoln was leading a second American revolution.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis promised to turn over captured officers leading black troops to state governments as “criminals engaged in inciting servile insurrection”, punishable by death. The possibility of Federal retaliation led the Confederate authorities to pull back from such actions but the threat of summary justice hung over those serving in black regiments, including white officers.

Southern guerrillas used violence and intimidation against blacks and their families to prevent recruitment. Despite all this Southern blacks still joined in their tens of thousands. And 34,000 Northern blacks served in the Union army – 15 percent of the entire free black population.

Black soldiers still faced discrimination, but attitudes held by whites were challenged by life alongside black soldiers. “Many have the idea that the entire Negro race are vastly their inferiors,” wrote one white officer. “A few weeks of calm unprejudiced life here would disabuse them… I know that many of them are vastly the superiors of those who would condemn them.”

The most important test came with the assault on Fort Wagner by the 54th

Massachusetts regiment in June 1863. The 54th was a showpiece black regiment supported by radical abolitionists and led by Robert Gould Shaw, son of wealthy abolitionist Francis George Shaw. Its performance affected the future of every black soldier. Governor Andrew of Massachusetts pulled together an experienced and politicised cadre of white officers to lead the regiment, although he was refused permission to commission blacks. Many of the “rank and file” were from the families of black activists.

By the end of May they set off to South Carolina, with cheering crowds lining the streets of Boston. In June the 54th suffered a real setback. It was announced that despite previous pledges black troops would be paid $3 less than whites, who earned $13 a month. The men refused pay as did white officers like Shaw in solidarity. The 54th and other black troops would have to fight for equal pay for the next year and a half. Severe punishment, even execution, was the price of resistance. The struggle for equal pay continued until June 1864 when Congress equalised black soldiers’ pay: free blacks from the time of their enlistment, ex-slaves – unbelievably – only from the date of emancipation, 1 January 1863.

On 16 July the 54th were involved in a clash on James Island. They fought alongside the 10th Connecticut (white) regiment. Fierce resistance to a Confederate attack by the 54th allowed the Connecticut regiment to avoid being outflanked and destroyed.

The 54th won plaudits for its performance, particularly from the white unit they had saved. “But for the bravery of three companies of the Massachusetts 54th (coloured) our whole regiment would have been captured… they fought like heroes,” one member of the 10th Connecticut wrote to his mother.

Within days of the clash on James Island the 54th were thrown into their historic assault on Fort Wagner. Any attacking force had to approach across hundreds of yards of open beach. Inside the fort 1,800 defenders waited in bomb proof positions. The 54th and five other regiments were given the task of storming the bastion. The 54th were offered the chance to lead the assault. Shaw accepted the honour.

As the 54th closed on the defences the fort’s guns opened up. “A sheet of flame, followed by a running fire, like electric sparks, swept along the parapet.” Despite heavy losses the 54th drove Confederate defenders off the parapet, but Shaw and the few who survived to follow him were cut down. One of the most severely injured men was Sergeant William Carney. He was the first of 23 black civil war soldiers to win the Congressional Medal of Honour. After the failed attack Union officers asked for the return of Shaw’s body. The fort commander refused, replying, “We have buried him with his niggers.”

The charge made by the 54th at Fort Wagner opened the door to the recruitment of the 180,000 black soldiers who were to fight for the Union. “You say you will not fight for Negroes,” argued Lincoln to Democrats who opposed arming black troops. “Some of them seem willing to fight for you.”

The Southern elite lost the war but fought hard to win the peace, while black people who had won freedom wanted to win their full rights as citizens. The process of “Reconstruction” in the former Confederacy was a decade-long battle for the future of the Southern states. Symbolic of the revolutionary change that had occurred was the election of black men to represent their states. But the riposte was bloody. The old elite sponsored the growth of the Ku Klux Klan and the eventual victory of “Redeemer” governments, meaning much of the Confederate leadership was returned to power.

Federal troops were withdrawn from Southern states, leaving blacks to the mercy of the Ku Klux Klan. But despite all this the tens of thousands of black soldiers and the millions of black people who resisted slavery won a real victory in a battle for civil rights that goes on through Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to today.

Frederick Douglass argued months before the charge at Fort Wagner, “The iron gate of our prison stands half open. One gallant rush… will fling it wide.” The 54th made that rush and despite the distortions of history their story shows that even the most oppressed can be the architects of their own liberation.

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