Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina's Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era

Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina's Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era

Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina's Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era

Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina's Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era

Synopsis

More than 5,000 North Carolina slaves escaped from their white owners to serve in the Union army during the Civil War. In Freedom for Themselves Richard Reid explores the stories of black soldiers from four regiments raised in North Carolina. Constructing a multidimensional portrait of the soldiers and their families, he provides a new understanding of the spectrum of black experience during and after the war.

Reid examines the processes by which black men enlisted and were trained, the history of each regiment, the lives of the soldiers' families during the war, and the postwar experiences of the veterans and their families living in an ex-Confederate state. By considering four regiments from a single state, Reid presents a cross section of a wide range of experiences and assesses what experiences proved largely universal among black troops. The full freedom they fought for and dreamed of having when the war ended did not materialize in their lifetimes, but Reid shows that many of them found in the army a kind of equality that was denied them in civilian life. The postwar benefits afforded to white veterans seldom crossed the color line. The accolades African American soldiers received, Reid demonstrates, came not from a new southern society, but from within their own communities, where black soldiers were seen and recognized as heroes.

Excerpt

In late September 1864 Gen. Benjamin F. Butler wrote to his wife from his headquarters at the intersection of the Varina and New Market roads, just outside of Richmond, Virginia. The day before, the men of Gen. Charles J. Paine’s all-black Third Division had taken part in an assault on Richmond’s outer defenses. Butler had written the letter after riding across the battlefield where the black soldiers under his overall command had attacked the Confederate entrenchments on New Market Heights. He had moved slowly across the field of carnage. The hundreds of bodies still lying there left a lasting impression on the Union general. The bravery and sacrifice of the black soldiers seemed at odds with the treatment they had received from the Federal government. “Poor fellows,” Butler observed to his wife, “they seem to have so little to fight for in this conflict, with the weight of prejudice loaded upon them, their lives given to a country which has given them not yet justice, not to say fostering care.” He could better understand why white troops were willing to risk all in the conflict. “To us, there is patriotism, fame, love of country, pride, ambition, all to spur us on, but to the negro, none of these for his guerdon of honor. But there is one boon they love to fight for, freedom for themselves, and their race forever.” Although Butler had not begun the war as a supporter of black recruitment, by 1864 he was deeply angered that some Northern officials belittled the idea that black troops had the ability or the will to fight well.

Butler’s growing respect for the contributions of black soldiers and his resentment of white Northern prejudice echoed the shifting attitudes toward race and slavery during the war years. Both the racial assumptions of white Americans and the Federal policies regarding African Americans underwent enormous change in the four bloody years after the firing on Fort Sumter. In 1861 the Federal government had refused the early offers of black men to enlist. Writers, ignoring historical precedents, argued that African Americans were unfit and unprepared for military service. According to President Abraham Lincoln, in response to the mere news in August 1861 that Gen. John C. Frémont (acting under his declaration of martial law) had freed the slaves of . . .

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