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The Civil War

black soldiers in the Civil WarOn November 6, 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States, an event that outraged southern states. The Republican party had run on an anti-slavery platform, and many southerners felt that there was no longer a place for them in the Union. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded. By February 1, 1861, six more states, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, had split from the Union. The seceded states created the Confederate States of America and elected Jefferson Davis, a Mississippi Senator, as their provisional president. On April 12th they attacked Fort Sumter, a federal stronghold in Charleston, South Carolina. Federal troops returned the fire. The Civil War had begun.

President Abraham Lincoln concluded his December 1, 1862 Message to Congress by stating in part: "In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free - honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope on earth." Under fire from rival Democrats and some members of his own Republican Party, the embattled Lincoln wrote those forthright words just one month before the formal signing of his Emancipation Proclamation. With the passage of that remarkable document, President Lincoln made perpetually free the nearly four million slaves living in bondage within the territories of the rebellious Confederate States of America.

Despite this expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately free a single slave, it fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators.

The Emancipation Proclamation dramatically changed forever, the direction of the American Civil War. With one mighty stroke of his pen, Lincoln transformed the war from one waged to restore the Union, to one fought to abolish the evil of Southern slavery. Lincoln's important declaration also paved the way for the official authorization and the raising of African American regiments to augment the already war-weary white Union forces. This audacious move proved to be a political powder keg for Lincoln.

The federal government had a hard time deciding what to do about escaping slaves. Because there was no consistent federal policy regarding fugitives, individual commanders made their own decisions. Some put them to work for the Union forces; others wanted to return them to their owners. Finally, on August 6, 1861, fugitive slaves were declared to be "contraband of war" if their labor had been used to aid the Confederacy in any way. And if found to be contraband, they were declared free.

On July 17, 1862, Congress passed two acts allowing the enlistment of African-Americans in the Civil War, but official enrollment occurred only after the September, 1862 issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. In general, white soldiers and officers believed that black men lacked the courage to fight and fight well. In October, 1862, African-American soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers silenced their critics by repulsing attacking Confederates at the battle of Island Mound, Missouri. By August, 1863, 14 Negro Regiments were in the field and ready for service. At the battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana, May 27, 1863, the African-American soldiers bravely advanced over open ground in the face of deadly artillery fire. Although the attack failed, the black solders proved their capability to withstand the heat of battle. Approximately 180,000 African-Americans comprising 163 units served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and many more African-Americans served in the Union Navy. Both free Africans-Americans and runaway slaves joined the fight.

Black Union soldiers in the American Civil warThe most widely known battle fought by African Americans was the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts on July 18, 1863. The 54th volunteered to lead the assault on the strongly-fortified Confederate positions. The soldiers of the 54th scaled the fort's parapet, and were only driven back after brutal hand-to-hand combat.

Although black soldiers proved themselves as reputable soldiers, discrimination in pay and other areas remained widespread. According to the Militia Act of 1862, soldiers of African descent were to receive $10.00 a month, plus a clothing allowance of $3.50. Many regiments struggled for equal pay, some refusing any money until June 15, 1864, when Congress granted equal pay for all black soldiers.

In January, 1864, General Patrick Cleburne and several other Confederate officers in the Army of the Tennessee proposed using slaves as soldiers since the Union was using black troops. Cleburne recommended offering slaves their freedom if they fought and survived. Confederate President Jefferson Davis refused to consider Cleburne's proposal and forbade further discussion of the idea. The concept, however, did not die. By the fall of 1864, the South was losing more and more ground, and some believed that only by arming the slaves could defeat be averted. On March 13, the Confederate Congress passed General Order 14, and President Davis signed the order into law. The order was issued March 23, 1865, but only a few African American companies were raised, and the war ended before they could be used in battle.

As the northern army pushed southward, thousands of fugitives fled across Union lines. Neither the federal authorities nor the army were prepared for the flood of people, and many of the refugees suffered as a result. Though the government attempted to provide them with confiscated land, there was not enough to go around. Many fugitives were put into crowded camps, where starvation and disease led to a high death rate. Northern citizens, black and white alike, stepped in to fill the gap. They organized relief societies and provided aid. They also organized schools to teach the freedmen, women, and children to read and write, thus giving an education to thousands of African Americans throughout the war.

A final goal the Emancipation Proclamation accomplished was to discourage England and France from entering the war on the South's side. They were supplied with cotton and tobacco by the South, and wanted them to win. However, when the war became an argument over slavery, the European nations, who were opposed to human bondage, gave their support to the Union, and the fight for freedom was eventually won. In April of 1865, General Lee surrendered and the war was over. When word of freedom finally reached the slaves in midsummer, they created Juneteenth to celebrate their emancipation, a holiday still celebrated in some areas today.

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