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Participation Of Blacks In The Civil War

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The foundation for black participation in the Civil War began more than a hundred years before the outbreak of the war. Blacks in America had been in bondage since early colonial times. In 1776, when Jefferson proclaimed mankind's inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the institution of slavery had become firmly established in America. Blacks worked in the tobacco fields of Virginia, in the rice fields of South Carolina, and toiled in small farms and shops in the North. The Library of Congress stated that "In 1776, slaves composed forty percent of the population of the colonies from Maryland south to Georgia, but well below ten percent in the colonies to the North." The fact that African Americans made up a majority of the American population during the 1800's had a definite role in the Civil war.

The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 provided a demand for cotton thus increasing the demand for slaves (Horton). By the 1800's slavery was a foundation throughout the South, a foundation in which slaves had few rights, and could be sold or rented by their owners. They lacked any voice in the government and lived a life of hardship.

Considering these circumstances, the slave population never deserted the desire for freedom or the determination to refuse to accept control by the slave owners. The slave's reaction to this desire and determination resulted in uprisings and individual acts of defiance. Still, some people place the strongest reaction in the enlisting of blacks into the war. Individual acts of defiance ranged from the use of the Underground Railroad, a secret organized network of people who helped slaves reach the Northern states and Canada; to the daily resistance or sabotage found on the plantations. Wilson agrees with the existence of the Underground Railroad but disagrees with other historians as to its importance. He notes that it never became as well organized or as successful as the South believed (Wilson). The widespread racial tension in America in 1860 found it ridiculous that blacks would bear arms against white Americans. Nonetheless, by 1865 these black soldiers had proven their value. Wilson writes in great detail describing the struggles and achievements of the black soldiers in his book The Black Phalanx.

McPherson discusses in The Negro's Civil War that widespread resistance by the use of blacks as soldiers prevailed among northern whites. Wilson credits three regiments of blacks as the first officially colored ranks in the Union. North Carolina and Kansas also organized additional black units where small battles proved to be successful. The first state in the Union to adopt training and fighting of black regiments was the state of Kansas.

Up to this point President Lincoln had opposed the idea of blacks fighting for the Union but after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that slaves in states still in rebellion on January 1, 1863, "shall be then, thence forward, and forever free," he reversed his thinking (Horton). At the end of the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln announced that the freed blacks "would be received into the armed service of the United States...." Lincoln planned to tap into a new source of fighting individuals (Civil War). Lincoln thought this would both weaken the enemy and strengthen the Union. The recruitment of the blacks took laborers from the South and placed them in the Union army in places that would have been filled with white men. Lincoln also felt that seeing the blacks fighting against the Confederacy would have a psychological effect upon the South. With the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, freeing the slaves, the North began recruiting black soldiers but, as Horton states, this was a slow recruitment at first.

In the spring of 1863 only two black regiments existed, however, this had grown to sixty by the end of 1863. By 1864 this had expanded to 80 more regiments. One of the first black regiments to fight for the Union Army, the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment, numbered at least 1,000 soldiers. This all-volunteer regiment, lead by a white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, helped open the 22 month land and sea assault on Charleston, South Carolina (Civil War). Which lead to an unsuccessful hand-to-hand attack on Fort Wagner in Charleston, this regiment engaged in one of the most famous black actions of the Civil War and suffered approximately 44 percent casualties, including Colonel Shaw (Civil War). Their performance in this battle helped to make African Americans more accepted in the Union army. One of the black soldiers even received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Eventually twenty-three other black soldiers earned this honor over the rest of the civil war (Horton).

The fights at Fort Wagner and throughout the war increased the enlistment of blacks into the Union Army. Historians differ in the actual number of blacks in the Union Army. There are many discrepancies on the true number of African Americans in the Civil War. McPherson reported that by the end of the war approximately 190,000 blacks had served in the Union Army and Navy, while Wilson notes that there were 300,000 black soldiers and 166 regiments and Horton believed there was 250,000 black soldiers and sailors.

Even though blacks had numerous numbers present during the war they were still treated poorly by white commanders. McPherson stated that if a black solder died in the war the commanding officers would simply put another man in his place and have him answer to the dead man's name. Wilson calls the raising of the black regiments one of the "most remarkable, even revolutionary, developments of the whole war." Even though these soldiers were fighting for the North and trying to escape the grasp of slavery and gain freedom, discrimination still existed in the Army.

The soldiers fought in segregated companies with white commanders. The Blacks were not equal to the whites. They received lower pay, performed harsh duties and tedious labor, such as cleaning quarters, laundry, cleaning boots and cooking. Black soldiers, regardless of their rank, earned $10 a month minus $3 for clothing, while white soldiers earned $13 a month plus clothing (LOC). Ex-slaves could not advance into the ranks of high ranking officers until the end of the war. McPherson notes that less than 100 African Americans in the Civil War ever became officers and none ranked higher than captain.

McPherson, who agrees with other historians that the blacks were considered second class soldiers, cites statistics to support this theory. He shows the contrast in the number of white and black soldiers killed in action and in the rate of death from disease among the white and black soldiers. The black soldiers faced the prospect of execution or sale into slavery

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