Should African Americans Care About the Civil War?


Early in the predawn darkness of April 12 exactly 150 years ago, a signal gun from the artillery batteries ringing Charleston, S.C., harbor sent a shell sparkling into the air, to explode in a shower of splinters over Fort Sumter, the solitary U.S. outpost in the middle of the harbor. All of the cannons and mortars then opened up like an organ, and in 34 hours, they bombarded Fort Sumter into surrender. The American Civil War had begun. And 150 years later, many black Americans would give a collective shrug of the shoulders and say, "So what?"

It's a surprising answer, since the most obvious result of the Civil War was the emancipation of nearly 4 million black slaves, along with three amendments to the Constitution that abolished slavery and promised the freed people full and equal citizenship.


But as soon as I've said that, the skeptical snorts begin. Citizenship? Sure, we got the amendments, but we didn't get the reality of civil rights for another hundred years. Emancipation? Sure, but only as a political strategy hatched by Abraham Lincoln when it became clear that his real object — restoring the Union — was going down to defeat.

And while we're on the subject of Honest Abe, let's keep in mind that Lincoln had no intention of giving black people the vote, or any other civil rights, and would happily have deported every freed black man, woman and child to Africa or the Caribbean islands. Sure, Lincoln authorized the enlistment of black soldiers during the war. But once the war was over, their white Union comrades forgot all about them in order to cozy up fraternally with white Confederates and allow them to impose a century's worth of Jim Crow and the KKK.

Some people see something to celebrate about the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. But a lot of them like to dress in Confederate uniforms and deny that their ancestors were fighting to protect slavery. Why on earth, then, would black people want to join the celebration?

For one very good reason. Those people in the Confederate uniforms are wrong. And so are the skeptics. Be worried when black skeptics and white Confederates start saying the same things.

It's true that Abraham Lincoln and the Union went to war, as they said over and over again, to "preserve the Union." But that does not mean that Lincoln and the Union had no interest in ending slavery. The Confederates were trying to disrupt the Union precisely because they had heard too often for their liking that Lincoln was an enemy of slavery, and they decided to get out of the Union while the getting was still good for them and for slavery.

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."


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.