Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers during the Civil War

Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers during the Civil War

Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers during the Civil War

Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers during the Civil War

Excerpt

The Civil War liberated millions of slaves and radically changed the face of U.S. society. Black soldiers were active participants in this process of revolutionary change. Certainly Sgt. Alexander Newton, a former North Carolina slave, was acutely aware of the momentous changes that had been wrought by the triumph of Union arms. As he marched through the streets of New York in a victory parade, he proudly reflected upon the way the black soldiers' military service had helped to turn the tide of public opinion: “And we were inwardly revolving the thought that as Black men we had done our part in bringing about a change of sentiment that would make a new city out of New York and every other city in the Union. And we felt that it was but just that we should receive some of the plaudits of praise and reward. When we passed down Broadway in front of the St. Nicholas Hotel, the flags of the Nation and of the state were suddenly hoisted by a Colored man and we gave three lusty cheers for the flag and country and home.”

While Sergeant Newton may have exaggerated the change in racial attitudes brought by black war service, the sincerity of the “three lusty cheers for flag and country and home” could not be denied. It was a vocal affirmation of the soldiers' new status as free men. Black soldiers knew that the Union army had placed them at the vanguard of change, and for this reason the cheering was loud and long.

The Union army was an expression of the society from which it had sprung. The objectives for which it fought, and the way it fought, were determined largely by the North's expectations of war. As a formative institution, it left its mark on all recruits. The newly arrived German migrants from New York, the Ohio farmers, and the Boston Irish all had to adjust to army life. Although these soldiers never lost their ethnicity and antebellum cultural traditions, there was a sense in which military service changed their lives. The Union army was, therefore, an agent for social integration. When blacks entered in the army, they too were subjected to these powerful forces. However, because their cultural traditions were so alien to the society from which the army sprang, and because the legacy of racism was so strong, the . . .

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