In the Defense of the Republic


Some African Americans in Northern cities such as Pittsburgh, Boston, and New York had already formed military units. They saw the war as a means to end slavery, but the U.S. military would not accept their service. Many white Americans questioned their courage  and military ability, and Lincoln resisted black enlistment. African Americans saw this rejection as a racial prejudice that ignored their past contributions to the nation. “Colored men were good enough . . . to help win American independence,” noted abolitionist spokesman and former slave Frederick Douglass, “but they are not good enough to help preserve that independence against treason and rebellion.”

By 1862 the war’s staggering casualty rate and early Union defeats convinced Lincoln to reconsider his thinking. On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which authorized the recruitment of African Americans into Union forces. As a result, substantial numbers of black troops entered the U.S. military. Joseph E. Williams, a black Pennsylvanian, traveled to North Carolina and recruited former slaves to serve “as men in the defense of the Republic.” Speaking for many of the troops he raised, Williams observed, “I will ask no quarter, nor will I give any. With me there is but one question, which is life or death. And I will sacrifi ce everything in order to save the gift of freedom for my race.”

Yet race played a major role in the African American war experience. White offi cers commanded the black units. Black recruits received roughly half the pay of whites at the same rank. Black troops were also particularly vulnerable in combat, as Confederate forces took few blacks as prisoners and executed most black captives. One atrocity occurred in the spring of 1864 at the battle for the Confederate Fort Pillow in Tennessee. Only 62 of the original 262 African American troops survived. Many were killed after the fighting ended because Southern Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the war, ordered his soldiers to kill captured blacks. “Remember Fort Pillow” became a rallying cry for many Union soldiers.

Perhaps this helped to convince the federal government to finally equalize African American military pay, supplies, and medical care. In the South, African American slave labor produced most of the food supplies for the troops, and the Confederacy impressed both free blacks and slaves into service as laborers, teamsters, cooks, and servants to support the military.

Early in the war, Louisiana’s Confederate government sanctioned the Louisiana Native Guards, a militia unit formed by free blacks. Confederate authorities used the unit for public display and propaganda purposes, but it did not fight for the Confederacy. Instead, when Union forces invaded Louisiana and recruited Southern blacks to their ranks, at least 1,000 troops of the Native Guards joined the Union army. In late September 1862 they became the first officially sanctioned African American unit in the Union forces.

By the end of the war in 1865, some 200,000 blacks had served the Union cause. Twenty-five of them, including William Carney, Thomas Hawkins, and Alexander Kelly, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery.