Should African Americans Care About the Civil War?

On the 150th anniversary of the first shot fired, many blacks are indifferent. Here's why they're wrong.

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One thing above all others that we cannot discount about the Civil War is the 178,000 black volunteers who served in the Union Army, plus another 10,000 in the Union Navy. "The bare sight of fifty thousand armed and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once," Lincoln wrote in 1863. That was, as it turned out, overly optimistic (the Confederates fought on for another two years). But black soldiers distinguished themselves in more than 200 battles and skirmishes, from Milliken's Bend to Appomattox.

A convention of free blacks urged the black soldiers to treat the rebels with "warm lead and cold steel, duly administered by two hundred thousand black doctors." In the process, they won 16 Medals of Honor and 109 officers' commissions. Their treatment at the hands of other white soldiers may have ranged from indifference to contempt, but not even the worst bigot among white soldiers could deny that they were any white man's equal in battle. "I never believed in niggers before," admitted one Wisconsin cavalryman, "but by Jesus, they are hell in fighting."

We will welcome to our numbers
The loyal, true and brave,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
And although he may be poor
Not a man shall be a slave,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
 

It was not the Civil War that black Americans lost, but Reconstruction. On the day the 13th Amendment was passed by Congress, Lewis Douglass wrote to his father, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, "I wish you could have been here the day that the constitutional amendment was passed ... Such rejoicing I never before witnessed, cannons firing, people hugging and shaking hands, white people I mean, flags flying ... " But with Lincoln removed by a race-baiting assassin's bullet, the returning tide of indifference soon overwhelmed almost all that had been achieved by the war.

Almost, but not entirely. The white officers who commanded black troops often became their advocates in the postwar years, and Union veterans refused to celebrate postwar anniversaries if black veterans were excluded or ex-Confederates planned to display the Confederate flag. There was enough of the black man's Civil War still surviving in 1960 that the Goldsboro Four, when they sat down at a whites-only lunch counter and were asked who they thought they were, replied, "We the Union Army."

For a brief moment in the cauldron of the Civil War, black and white were forged into the first American rainbow for freedom. It is not a past to be forgotten, much less scorned. It's time to make the 150th anniversary of the Civil War the occasion for welding together a rainbow of remembrance. After all, who owns the deeds?

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College. He has written extensively about Abraham Lincoln.

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