"African Americans and the Civil War: Brave Standard Bearers"

By Moore, Alicia L.; Neal, La Vonne I. | Black History Bulletin, Summer-Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

"African Americans and the Civil War: Brave Standard Bearers"


Moore, Alicia L., Neal, La Vonne I., Black History Bulletin


Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States. (1)--Frederick Douglass

As an abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass understood that the path to freedom and full citizenship for African American men marched straight through the battlefields of the Civil War. Douglass reasoned that a government, which welcomed--and desperately needed--the enlistment of African American men to defend it could not then deny full citizenship to the same men who had helped preserve it. In May 1861, Douglass pressured President Lincoln to allow African American men to enlist, urging the government to " "[1]et the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army.'" (2) In 2011, we will commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War which will include contributions of African Americans, brave standard bearers.

That call for justice was answered with the issuance of the final Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day in 1863, which included a paragraph that, according to historian John David Smith, "signaled a major reversal in policy...cautiously, carefully, but consistently toward emancipation and the enlistment of African American soldiers." (3) Yet, it was not until August 10, 1863, that Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln would meet in person. (4) Lincoln welcomed Douglass--an outspoken critic--to the White House, and there, within the confines of our nation's capital, began a most auspicious relationship that would have tremendous implications for social justice in the United States. Perhaps, as suggested by historian Lerone Bennett, Jr., Lincoln was "Forced into Glory." (5)

Spurred by the promise of freedom and his hope for social change, Douglass urged African American men to support the Civil War and break the bonds of slavery. Two of his sons, Lewis and Charles, were among the more than 100 African American men that Douglass recruited for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the nation's first regiments of Black troops, while son Frederick Douglass, Jr., worked as a recruiter in Mississippi. (6) Douglass' older son, Lewis, was a first sergeant in the 54th,which included the likes of Sergeant William H. Carney, the first African American to be awarded the Medal of Honor. (7) Carney's heroism was chronicled by poet Olivia Ward Bush Banks, who often wrote about the struggles faced by African Americans and the need for social change in the post-Reconstruction era. Like Frederick Douglass, Olivia Ward Bush-Banks has emerged as a recognized voice of social justice.

Born after the end of the Civil War in 1869, Bush-Banks, a mixture of Montauk Indian and African American heritage, readily identified with both sides of her ancestral tree and often expressed her ideas for social justice through poetry. In particular, in her poem "Carney the Brave Standard Bearer," Bush-Banks recreates the heroic actions of Sergeant William H. Carney, an African American soldier of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, and draws the reader into the conflict:

   "Twas a time of fiercest conflict,
   Enmity and awful woe,
   "Twist the North, the friend of Freedom,
   And the South, its bitter foe.

   Day by day, the roar of battle
   Sounded forth its deathlike knell,
   Day by day the best and bravest
   Died, amid the shot and shell. (8)

Nearly 200,000 African American freedmen and runaway slaves are documented to have served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Notwithstanding Sherman's invasion of Georgia, African American soldiers marched in every major campaign between 1864 and 1865. (9) Although these African Americans made trustworthy soldiers, they suffered discrimination in pay, clothing allowances, and weaponry; furthermore, they suffered casualties that were 35%-50% greater than that of white soldiers, in spite of the fact that African Americans were not permitted to serve in the Army until 18 months after fighting had begun.

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