The War That Ended Slavery in America ... and Blacks' Part in It

Article excerpt

This month (April), the United States will begin a four-year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, the war that ended slavery in the country. From Washington DC, Leslie Goffe reports that the next four years will be testing for both white and black Confederates--African-Americans proud of their ancestors who fought for the South in the war.

THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR, which started on 12 April 1861 and ended on 9 April 1865, was fought between the North, which wanted to preserve the Union and end slavery, and the South, which chose secession and war rather than give up slavery, which the South called its "peculiar institution".

The North, with the help of freed slaves who joined its Union Army, defeated the South's Confederate Army and liberated millions of enslaved Africans held in captivity on sugar plantations in Louisiana, cotton plantations in Alabama, rice plantations in South Carolina, and tobacco plantations in Virginia.

To mark the Civil War's 150th anniversary, the US is planning a host of historical events, among them reenactments of key Civil War battles, some of which featured black Union Army units and regiments with names such as the Corps d'Afrique and the First Mississippi Regiment (African Descent).

African-Americans enlisted in the fight because they were told they would be well paid, receive good food and clothing and get a chance to strike a blow against whites who had kept black people in bondage. "TO COLORED MEN! Freedom, Protection, Pay and a Call to Military Duty!" read one Union Army recruitment poster. "MEN OF COLOR--To Arms! To Arms! --FALL NOW, & OUR RACE IS DOOMED," read another. Hundreds of thousands of African-Americans--both freedmen and runaway slaves--enlisted in the Union Army. The best known of the army's black units was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Described by one observer as the most "robust, strong and healthy set of men" ever to serve in the US Army, the 54th saw action in many of the fiercest battles of the war. Poems and songs were written about the unit's bravery. The 54th was inspiration, too, for Hollywood film Glory. Thanks to the film, released in 1989, which stars Denzel Washington as a runaway slave turned soldier in the Union Army, the world discovered that African-Americans actually fought in the American Civil War.

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In fact, had it not been for black soldiers, the Union forces might have lost the war. President Abraham Lincoln admitted this in a letter to a newspaper publisher in 1863. He wrote that the Union army might have been defeated had it not been for the "aid of black soldiers" who constituted "the heaviest blow yet dealt to the Rebellion".

This was quite a turnaround for Lincoln, who had originally opposed the enlistment of African-Americans. He feared their inclusion in the Union Army would discourage whites from enlisting. But he changed his mind when it seemed the South was winning the war. "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery," Lincoln, the so-called "Great Emancipator", admitted in his letter. "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

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African-Americans made up 10%, or around 200,000, of the Union Army's two million soldiers. They fought in more than 500 battles. They paid a high price. Of the $60,000 Union soldiers killed in the war, 40,000 were black. In recognition of their bravery, a dozen black Union soldiers were awarded America's highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor. But the role African-Americans played in the Union Army is only part of the story of the Civil War. Some claim African-Americans also fought for the pro-slavery Confederate states, too. …