African Americans and the Civil War
How should the African-American story of the Civil War be told?
While slavery was the major issue separating the North and South, it was not slavery itself that sparked the conflict. The South wanted to secede from the Union, and the North refused. While President Abraham Lincoln personally opposed slavery, he recognized that it was legal under the U.S. Constitution at the time. He also recognized that few in the North were ready to go to war to free the slaves. For Lincoln and the northern majority, preservation of the Union was the foremost goal.
Freed Slaves during the Civil War
The "Negro question," as it was called, became an important issue early in the conflict. Most slaves were in fact "liberated" when the Union Army eliminated the local southern forces that kept them in slavery. They simply left their plantations to seek their freedom under the protection of northern military units. Union commanders had to decide how to deal with them. Early in the fighting in border states, slaves were sometimes returned to their masters in the hope of encouraging support for the Union.
However, as more and more slaves walked to freedom, the army made provisions to use them as a resource. The army hired many to work in non-military roles — cooks, wagon drivers, blacksmiths, laundresses — but until later in the conflict, racial prejudice prevented arming former slaves and allowing to fight. As the war progressed, however, African Americans could sign up for combat units. By the end of the Civil War, some 179,000 African-American men served in the Union army, equal to 10 percent of the entire force. Of these, 40,000 African-American soldiers died, including 30,000 of infection or disease.
The Confederate armies did not treat captured African-American soldiers under the normal "Prisoner of War" rules. At Fort Pillow, Tennessee, there are claims that 300 African-American Union soldiers were massacred after they surrendered when they were badly outmatched by southern forces. This led President Lincoln to warn the South that the North would not participate in prisoner exchanges that were common wartime practice unless all Union soldiers of whatever race were treated by POW rules.
Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freeing all slaves in territories controlled by Union armies. He justified the program under his wartime powers declaring that slaves contributed substantially to the support of the Confederacy. Eliminating slave labor, the Proclamation reasoned, would severely undercut the southern rebellion.
At the close of the war, it was obvious that slavery was over. Most African Americans had walked away from their bondage, and there was no sentiment in the North to reward southern slaveholders with the return of their slaves. The new debate was about status of African Americans in American society. The radical wing of the Republican Party pushed the federal government to keep troops in the South to insure African-American rights, including suffrage. Congress proposed three constitutional amendments that would promote African-American equality. The 13th Amendment forbade slavery. The 14th Amendment required all states to abide by due process for all citizens, and the 15th Amendment denied states the right to impose voting restrictions based on race or previous condition or servitude (slavery). The government and private organizations sponsored schools to teach African-American children and trade schools for adults.
However, in 1876, a stand-off in the presidential election created a constitutional crisis. As a compromise, Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican, became president but federal troops were withdrawn from Confederate states. This opened the way for white majorities in these states to reimpose laws that discriminated against African Americans. In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld a law that allowed states to create "separate but equal" schools and other institutions based on race, and segregation tightened its grip on the American South.
How did President Abraham Lincoln and Congress' approach to handling slavery evolve throughout the Civil War?
- "The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine," 1861 (Political Cartoon)
- President Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, March 9, 1861 (Document)
- First Confiscation Act: "Chap. LX - An act to confiscate Property used for Insurrectionary Purposes," August 6, 1861 (Document)
- "I'm sorry to have to drop you, Sambo, but this concern won't carry us both!" October 12, 1961 (Political Cartoon)
- Proclamation Revoking General David Hunter’s General Order No. 11 on Military Emancipation of Slaves, May 19, 1862 (Document)
- Second Confiscation Act: "Chap. CXCV - An Act to Suppress Insurrection, to Punish Treason and Rebellion...," July 17, 1862 (Document)
- Militia Act, July 17, 1862 (Document)
- President Abraham Lincoln's Letter to Horace Greeley, August 29, 1862 (Document)
- First Edition of President Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, September 22, 1862 (Document)
- President Abraham Lincoln's Letter to Albert G. Hodges, April 30, 1864 (Document)
- Print of Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, 1865 (Document)
- Joint Resolution Submitting the 13th Amendment to the States, February 1, 1865 (Document)
What contributions did slaves and free African Americans make to the Union war effort?
- Contributions Behind Rebel Lines
- Contributions of Physical Labor
- Contributions of Service to Union Soldiers
- Contributions in Combat
After a Union victory and the close of the war, what possibilities did the future hold for all African Americans?
- Acceptance as an Equal, Fellow Man
- "Men of Color to Arms! Now or Never!" Broadside, 1863 (Document)
- "One Cause, One Country - 45th Regt. U.S. Colored Troops," between 1863 and 1865 (Image)
- "Emancipation," 1865 (Image)
- "Give Me Your Hand, Comrade," April 22, 1865 (Political Cartoon)
- "The True Defenders of the Constitution," November 11, 1865 (Image)
- Political Equality
- Economic Freedom
"The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine," 1861
President Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, March 9, 1861
First Confiscation Act: "Chap. LX - An act to confiscate Property used for Insurrectionary Purposes," August 6, 1861
"I'm sorry to have to drop you, Sambo, but this concern won't carry us both!" October 12, 1961
Proclamation Revoking General David Hunter’s General Order No. 11 on Military Emancipation of Slaves, May 19, 1862
Second Confiscation Act: "Chap. CXCV - An Act to Suppress Insurrection, to Punish Treason and Rebellion...," July 17, 1862
Militia Act, July 17, 1862
President Abraham Lincoln's Letter to Horace Greeley, August 29, 1862
First Edition of President Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, September 22, 1862
President Abraham Lincoln's Letter to Albert G. Hodges, April 30, 1864
Print of Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, 1865
Joint Resolution Submitting the 13th Amendment to the States, February 1, 1865
"Negroes Leaving the Plough," March 26, 1864
Portrait of Harriet Tubman, between ca. 1871 and 1876
Men Standing On Railroad Track in Northern Virginia, ca. 1862
African-American Teamsters in Bermuda Hundred, Virginia, 1864
African Americans Collecting Bones of Soldiers Killed in Cold Harbor, Virginia, April 1865
Group of Soldiers in Front of Tent in Camp Cameron, between 1861 and 1865
"Polishing the General's Britches," between 1861 and 1865
Officers from the 4th Colored Infantry at Fort Slocum, April 1865
Storming Fort Wagner, July 5, 1890
"The Negro as a Soldier in the War of the Rebellion" Pamphlet, 1897
"Men of Color to Arms! Now or Never!" Broadside, 1863
"One Cause, One Country - 45th Regt. U.S. Colored Troops," between 1863 and 1865
"Give Me Your Hand, Comrade," April 22, 1865
"The True Defenders of the Constitution," November 11, 1865
"24th Regt. U.S. Colored Troops. Let Soldiers in War, Be Citizens in Peace," ca. 1865
"Pardon. Franchise Columbia," August 5, 1865
"The Darkies Rally" Song, 1863
Narrative of Former Slave Felix Haywood, 1936
- African-American Soldiers in the U.S. Military During the Civil War
This National Archives resource is brief, yet informative and summarizes the obstacles, challenges and successes of African Americans serving in the Civil War.
- The Civil War Trust’s Video Collection
The Civil War Trust has created over 300 brief, but informative videos featuring historians discussing a variety of Civil War topics. These resources provide background knowledge and historical context to the Civil War. The following seven resources, in particular, directly relate to the source set: "African-Americans and the Early War Effort," "Contraband: African-Americans," "Black Soldiers in 4 Minutes," "The Road to Emancipation," "Drafting the Proclamation," "The Emancipation Proclamation in 4 Minutes" and "Reactions to the Emancipation Proclamation."
- Harper’s Weekly Reports on Black America, 1857-1874 - Civil War Timeline
The Civil War timeline spans from the election of 1860 to the ratification of the 13th Amendment, all the while directing its focus toward decisions, legislation and proclamations made by the federal government related to slaves and free African Americans.
- An Evolving Nation
This feature, written for the Civil War Trust by Hari Jones of the African-American Civil War Museum, traces the road toward full emancipation from prior to the Civil War up until the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation
This essay can be found within the Library of Congress' Abraham Lincoln Papers Collection. It sheds light on Lincoln's own actions and decisions in relation to emancipation. A useful timeline can also be found on the left side of the page.
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (9th-12th Grade)
Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are elementary-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for students 9th through 12th grade.
- SS-US.9-12.13. Analyze how diverse ideologies impacted political and social institutions during eras such as Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, and the Civil Rights movement.
- SS-US.9-12.15. Assess the impact of individuals and reform movements on changes to civil rights and liberties.
- SS-US.9-12.21. Analyze change, continuity and context across eras and places of study from Civil War to modern America.
- SS-US.9-12.24. Critique primary and secondary sources of information with attention to the source of the document, its context, accuracy, and usefulness such as the Reconstruction amendments, Emancipation Proclamation, Treaty of Fort Laramie, Chinese Exclusion Act, Roosevelt’s Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, New Deal program acts, Roosevelt’s declaration of war, Executive Order 9066, the Truman Doctrine, Eisenhower’s farewell speech, Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Test Ban Treaty of 1963, Brown v. Board of Education decision, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
- SS-US.9-12.25. Analyze how regional, racial, ethnic and gender perspectives influenced American history and culture.