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African-Americans In The American Civil War

Updated on March 3, 2013

When Slavery Existed On The High Street

This photo dates from 1863 and shows a slave trader's business in Atlanta, Georgia.
This photo dates from 1863 and shows a slave trader's business in Atlanta, Georgia. | Source

Liberia's First President

Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who became Liberia's first President in 1847.
Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who became Liberia's first President in 1847. | Source

Background

Right from its founding in 1818, the American Colonisation Society strove to send freed slaves and freed blacks from the North to foreign shores, in particular Liberia. The reason for this was that it was believed, not only by stakeholders, but also by some abolitionists, that blacks and whites could not ultimately coexist in the United States. The only successful colony was Liberia in West Africa, which became an independent state in 1847. Abraham Lincoln himself was a known proponent of colonisation before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and supported several schemes during the war, most of which ended in tragedy for the emigrants.

Before the war, only Massachusetts legally extended full voting rights to its black citizens. Some other New England states allowed black male suffrage, and in New York those with $250 worth of property could vote. To have a vote in Ohio, over half a citizen’s ancestry had to be white. No other state allowed black people to vote.

During the war, some gains were made in civil rights. Blacks could ride alongside whites in Philadelphia and Washington streetcars and in 1864 they were allowed to appear as both witnesses and lawyers in federal courts, but further reforms would have to wait for the 14th Amendment.

Where Is Liberia?

The Full History Of Slavery In America

Union Policy

Union policy towards slaves and escaped slaves in the rebellious states wavered between decisive, proactive measures and lethargic inaction or neglect. Overall, the government was slow to implement a coherent policy. The Union army, U.S. Treasury Department, various philanthropic organisations, the President, and Congress all got involved and had different, often competing proposals and procedures on how to deal with the number of freedmen (freed slaves) or soon-to-be freedmen. Power ultimately rested with the military officers in any given area, and as early as the summer of 1861, Union commanders were confronted with large numbers of escaped slaves who had to run to safety within their lines.

Permanently Scarred

However badly they were treated when they came North, nothing could compare with the brutality and cruelty slaves had suffered at the hands of their owners. This former slave was photographed after he escaped to the North.
However badly they were treated when they came North, nothing could compare with the brutality and cruelty slaves had suffered at the hands of their owners. This former slave was photographed after he escaped to the North. | Source

Horrors Of The 'Contraband' Camps

These early refugees from slavery became known as ‘contraband of war,’ a phrase coined by Brigadier General Benjamin Butler, commander of Fortress Monroe in Virginia. It meant that the slaves did not have to be returned to their owners as fugitives under federal law. However, their fate varied considerably from one theatre of war to another.

Many of the former slaves were rounded up and placed in special ‘contraband camps,’ where sanitation was poor and medical care even worse. Death rates were as high as 25 per cent, and despite the presence of well-meaning missionaries, who provided spiritual and educational guidance, life in the camps was miserable.

In 1861-63, the camps followed the advances of the Union armies, and as time wore on, conditions improved slightly as Union officers found employment for large numbers of contrabands. The men worked as dockworkers, pioneers, trench-diggers, teamsters, and personal servants. Also, some of the women served as cooks and laundresses for the soldiers. In such capacities they performed the same functions as slaves did for the Confederate armies, but at least they earned a ‘wage,’ even though this could simply be room, board, and clothing. The families of the employed lived in the local camp or precariously hung around the margins of the Union picket lines.

Wage Slavery Under The Unionists

Marginally more fortunate were former slaves on abandoned plantations that the Unionists confiscated and returned to working order. Early in the war, the Union army overran some of the South’s best plantation districts, including the Sea Islands off Charleston, southern Louisiana, and the fertile lands of the Mississippi River Valley. Owners ran to safety behind Confederate lines and simply left their land and slaves to their fate.

Realising the potential profits to be had, Northern civilian entrepreneurs responded eagerly to the federal government’s offers to manage these plantations. In theory, the government would receive the lion’s share of the sale of cotton, sugar, or other staple crops, and the former slaves would be paid a fair wage. In reality, plantation managers and local Union army officers conspired to split most of the profits among themselves, and often paid the labourers just enough to keep them working. After ‘deductions’ for food, housing, and clothing, most earned absolutely nothing, and therefore lived an existence akin to slavery. Local military laws that forbade blacks from being unemployed forced many of them back into the cotton or cane fields, or otherwise face imprisonment.

By the last 18 months of the war, under pressure from both Northern abolitionists and missionaries who were outraged at the ‘wage slavery’ that existed in the Union-occupied South, both Congress and the Union army began to change their policies. Land was the key issue behind this new direction.

Through various pieces of legislation, or under the supervision of Yankee generals, almost 20 per cent of the former Confederate territory captured by the Union was given to African-Americans. The prominent abolitionist Wendell Phillips wrote, ‘Let me confiscate the land of the South, and put it into the hands of the black and white men who fought for it, and I have planted a Union sure to grow as an acorn to become an oak.’ However, the question remained whether the freedmen would be able to hold on to any land they had gained after the war was over.

Toiling In the Fields

African-Americans working in the North actually earned a wage, but as a result of deductions, they basically lived more or less like slaves. It became known as 'wage slavery.'
African-Americans working in the North actually earned a wage, but as a result of deductions, they basically lived more or less like slaves. It became known as 'wage slavery.' | Source

A Documentary About African-Americans Who Fought For The Confederacy

Black Confederates

The vast majority of blacks under Confederate control were slaves who, either by coercion or suggestion, remained on plantations or farms until liberated by invading Union forces. It is difficult to determine how many wished to stay with their masters, serving in the army as servants, teamsters, or labourers, or remain at home as fieldworkers and house servants. Few Confederate enlisted men owned slaves and so never brought them along to war; a sizeable percentage of officers, especially early on in the conflict, did bring a slave with them, but this declined significantly as the war dragged on. As an institution, slavery was irrevocably weakened after the Emancipation Proclamation, and by the last year of the war, many slaves, even those in unconquered areas of the South refused to work, or had no incentive to do so, as the majority of white men had left home. White female or black overseers, increasingly common by 1864, could not maintain discipline, and as slavery began to die so, too did the remaining economic power of the Confederacy.

Escape To 'Freedom'

Escaped slaves were placed in camps which followed the Union army and both men and women found work helping the officers and soldiers. However, for many the reality of life away from the plantations was harsh.
Escaped slaves were placed in camps which followed the Union army and both men and women found work helping the officers and soldiers. However, for many the reality of life away from the plantations was harsh. | Source

Too Little, Too Late

As the Confederate army lost more and more fighting men, the idea of enlisting slaves into the ranks was finally accepted by the Confederate Congress in Richmond. However, prior to this certain Rebel generals including Richard Ewell, Patrick Cleburne, and ultimately, Robert E. Lee, proposed at different points in the conflict that the Richmond government grant freedom in return for slaves’ military service. Even President Davis offered a bill in November 1864 extending emancipation to future enlisted slaves, but Congress refused to consider it.

By February 1865, facing imminent defeat, and with the powerful backing of both Lee and Davis, the Congress grudgingly agreed to a limited form of emancipation for slaves who fought. Some companies of black Confederate soldiers were actually drilling in the streets of Richmond right before the city fell, but it was too little, too late.

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    • USHISTORY4YOU profile image

      Anthony Carrell 4 years ago from Lemoore California

      Well done.

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 4 years ago from Southern Georgia

      A very concise article about this important time in the US when good and bad seemed to be melded together. In many cases, blacks were much worse off after their freedom because they were now exposed to being taken advantage of by the general public. The sharecropper system--which existed until well into the 20th century--was almost as bad as slavery, and in some cases worse.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Randy, in many ways I suppose it wasn't Abe Lincoln that freed African-Americans from the tyranny of racist whites, but Martin Luther King. And of course today, the problem still persists to an extent.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 4 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      I like how Randy said that.

      While Lincoln was clearly a heroic sort of guy....he also truly did believe blacks were inferior persons.

      Guess the good outweighed the bad -or perhaps Lincoln said things to play both sides of the fence.

      In any case, he also did well by ridding us over here of international banking for a time.

      You sure do lots of good work, James!

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

      Very interesting hub James, really enjoyed reading it. I'm reading a book about the Red Coats at the momrnt, really into American history. I did an 'Exclusive' Civil War hub but it has not made google yet! Sometimes feel like I'm wasting my time. Hope this one gets some good readership, excellent detail and great photos.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 4 years ago from Florida

      Your Hub was very interesting and informative. Abe Lincoln intended to free the slaves, but I ask: are they really free???? Even today when we still see racial discrimination every where.

      I wrote a Hub about racial discrimination in the South when I was a child. We treated the Black terribly.

      I voted this UP, etc.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yep he did Wesman, but then of course, all of that went out of the window in 1913 with the creation of the Federal Reserve. And yes he was a racist, but through his actions he marked himself out as one of America's best ever Presidents. Thanks for popping by.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Julie, don't fret about it, I'm sure Google will find your hub in time. Just keep doing what you're good at and it'll all fall into place.

      Like you, I'm really getting into American history, it's a shame that we don't study it more over here, but I suppose it's not relevant enough. Thanks for popping by Julie and keep on writing quality hubs.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      You make a very good point Mary, I've read a couple of John Steinbeck's books, and even though they're set 70 years after the end of the Civil War, it's clear that Black people were still treated like an inferior form of life. We have to remember though, that discrimination occurs right across the board, and that it's a problem that will sadly never fully disappear. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

      James, you're a sweetheart! You've picked me up a bit after than comment :o)

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No problem Julie, glad to be of service. :)

    • USHISTORY4YOU profile image

      Anthony Carrell 4 years ago from Lemoore California

      Lincoln was a man of his times.He did not believe that Blacks and White were equal. He did not believe that freed slaves would ever be assimilated into American culture or accepted as equals by whites.He was strongly in favor of sending the free slaves back to Africa. But like I said,he was a man of his times,and his times were the 1830's 40's and 1850s. Today he would be considered a borderline racist by many. His Presidency was consumed by the Civil War. I doubt if Lincoln ever spent a happy day in the White House.It's to bad too because he was a good and decent man who tried to do what he thought was right for his Country.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yep, totally agree with you USHISTORY4YOU. Thanks for the taking the time to pop by and comment.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 4 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Thanks for a great and well researched article James.

      It's amazing the lengths that people will go to in order to avoid giving other people their rights.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Indeed Chris, what's even more astonishing is that such lengths are still sadly common in the 21st century. Thanks for popping by.

    • humanitiesmentor profile image

      humanitiesmentor 4 years ago from New England

      Really, really well done!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much.

    • Marquis profile image

      Marquis 4 years ago from Ann Arbor, MI

      Not every person who is Black would like to be called African American. I consider myself to be Black.

      The Blacks in America are generations removed from Africa. Second, I have met Whites as well as Arabs from Africa.

      Shouldn't they be called African Americans?

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      In an ideal world Marquis, such categorising wouldn't exist, because we all belong to one species, Homo sapiens. But unfortunately we humans like to categorise and separate, often using faulty criteria. I used the term African Americans because the majority of black people in America at the time were descended from West African peoples. Also, there's a big possibility that many white Americans have West African ancestors, as many freed slaves married into the established white population.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      The attempt of the Confederate government to enlist slaves as soldiers in the last weeks of the war was truly a last gasp of desperation. When Patrick Cleburne suggested it to officers of the Army of Tennessee in January 1864, Jefferson Davis ruthlessly suppressed the proposal. Even when Davis was driven by dire circumstances to enlist black soldiers, his Congress couldn't bring itself to actually set slaves free - the soldiers would remain slaves unless their masters freed them as a reward for service. The level of wishful thinking evident in Southerners’ belief that blacks wouldn't see through this "fight for us and we'll think about freeing you (but not your family)" proposition is astounding.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much for your input Ron. It's clear that you have extensive knowledge of this particular period in history. Appreciate you taking the time to pop by!

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