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.

The slaves themselves knew better than the skeptics. When the Union Navy steamed into Port Royal, S.C., in November of 1861, a slave child who heard their guns was puzzled at what he thought was thunder in a cloudless sky. “Son,” his mother corrected, “That ain’t no thunder; that’s Yankee come to give you freedom.”

It’s also true that Lincoln waited an entire year and a half to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, and even then, the Proclamation freed slaves only in rebel-held areas that were still resisting Union authority. But Lincoln had actually been experimenting with emancipation plans just six months after the war began. And since the only legal mechanism he could find to work was a “war powers” proclamation, using his authority as commander in chief to deal with “military necessity,” he could free the slaves only in those areas of the Confederacy that were still resisting Union forces.

But by 1864, Lincoln was finally able to induce Congress to act on a constitutional amendment (the 13th Amendment) to abolish slavery entirely. Lincoln did make one stab at colonization in 1863. But it was a voluntary measure, involving only about 300 black recruits to Haiti and Panama, and after six months of frustration, Lincoln brought the colonists back (and never raised the subject again). Instead, he began talking about black voting rights, and his last speech in 1865 called on the new postwar governments in the defeated South to begin granting equal civil rights to blacks.

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.”