The Debate over African American troops in the Civil War.
22 November 2011
African American Troops
As war became inevitable in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century, much attention was drawn to the debate on whether or not African Americans were allowed to take up arms and help protect their country. The idea of blacks being used as troops was an idea that many had not thought about until the outbreak of war at Fort Sumter. This triggered many northern African Americans to want to volunteer for service in the Union Army. African Americans are humans under the constitution and should have every equality and right to fight in a war as any other human. They would be fighting for their own freedom which would make for a very strong army. African Americans saw this as their chance to become free men, whites thought this could have an extreme impact on society and the United States itself.
Many Americans argued against the use of African American troops in the United States. In the North, some argued that Black troops would negatively affect the army. “..that one negro regiment, in the present temper of things, put on equality with those who have the past year fought and suffered, will withdraw an amount of life and energy in our army equal to disbanding ten of the best regiments we can now raise.”(New York tribune, W&B, 257) In the South, African Americans ran most plantations and by removing them you remove the work force working on these crop fields. “Can we feed our soldiers and their families if the Negro men are taken from the plantations?.....When the Negro is taught the use of arms and the art of war, can we live in safety with them afterwards.”(Warren Akin, W&B, 270) Removing the slaves from their work fields would damage the southerner’s crop yield dramatically. Also some lived in fear that if taught the ways of war, the slaves would come back to pay their previous masters a visit. These were questions that Southerners did not know the answer to but didn’t want to find out by experiencing it firsthand. For if the Blacks are able to fight for American freedom they most certainly deserve their own. If blacks were given the right to fight in war, some argued it would be difficult to fight alongside them, since certain whites believed they were the cause of the war. “The feeling against nigars is intensely strong in this army as is plainly to be seen wherever and whenever they meet them they are looked upon as the principal cause of this war and this feeling is especially strong in the Irish regiments.”(Union solider letter, W&B, 263) Many whites though it would be extremely difficult to now fight alongside those that they had so recently had control over.
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Although there were many good reasons to keep blacks out of the army, there was also great reason for why they should pick up arms. Northern freed slaves were persistent on trying to earn the right to fight that some even wrote letters to the president trying to change his mind. “Men! Men! Send us Men! They scream, or the cause of the Union is gone; and yet these very officers, representing the people and the government, steadily and persistently refuse to receive the very class of men which have a deeper interest in the defeat and humiliation of the rebels, then all others.”(Fredrick Douglas, W&B, 252) These men would then be fighting to win their freedom which would make an extremely patriotic army, and also a good motivator to win the war. Americans in the South began to worry that if they did not let African Americans pick up arms and fight for their country, then United States enemies would use them against themselves. “We must either employ the Negroes ourselves, or the enemy will employ them against us.”(Montgomery, W&B, 266) This was a huge concern to all. It started to become extremely obvious that if not armed for the United States defense, the African Americans would definitely be made to fight against them.
On January 1, 1863, the President of the United States passed a proclamation that would change the history of America from that date onward. Slaves were finally given their right to freedom along with the right to be received into the armed services. “I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; I further declare that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed services of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”(Emancipation, W&B, 261) Even though this proclamation only freed slaves in states that the Union had no power over, Lincoln set into effect this proclamation because he knew it would cripple the south both morally and financially. The confederate states were highly opposed to this proclamation and opposed slaves being used for anything other than working on plantations. “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution.”(Howell Cobb, W&B, 273) They believed allowing slaves to be freed and fight for the same causes as whites were unconstitutional and disgraceful. “The day that the army of Virginia allows a Negro regiment to enter their lines as soldiers they will be degraded, ruined, and disgraced.”(Robert Toombs, W&B, 273)
The main reason that the confederate states finally agreed upon the use of African American troops was to provide additional soldiers. The numbers of an army are certainly not everything, but they defiantly help. “The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, that in order to provide additional forces to repel invasion, maintain the rightful possession of the Confederate States, secure their independence, and preserve their institutions, the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men as he may deem expedient, for and during the war, to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct.”(Confederate Congress, W&B, 275)
Though those in the North and the South agreed and disagreed on many topics regarding the use of African American troops, most agreed that using blacks in war would increase their army size by a good hundred thousand. Due to the Emancipation Proclamation slaves in states that the union had no control over were given the right to fight in war. It was not until the 13th Amendment that slavery was totally abolished. African Americans finally were given full citizenship with the pass of the 14th amendment. Freed slaves persevered in trying to persuade the President to pass the Proclamation which then caused a domino effect, which eventually led to all slaves’ freedom. African Americans are humans and are now protected by these Amendments, which started with their determination to be able to fight for there freedom.
William Bruce Wheeler, Susan D. Becker. Discovering the American Past: A Look at the Evidence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.