The Black Soldier in the Civil War

“Hello, Massa. Bottom rail on top this time.”  – ­Black Union soldier spotting his former master in chains in a Union prison camp.

As I have written before, a chief aim of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln officially issued this week (Jan. 1) in 1863, was to entice those slaves in the rebellious Confederate states to desert the farms they were working on in the South and head to the Union North, where they might help the Union win the Civil War.

For starters, if slaves abandoned the southern farms that they had been working, it would force Confederate soldiers to choose between deserting the army in order to work those farms their slaves had abandoned, or see their families back home suffer hardship and deprivation.  That would definitely assist the Union’s war effort.

But Lincoln also thought these runaway slaves might help the war effort by actually joining the Union Army.  Which many of them did, and despite serious misgivings by the white soldiers in that army — prejudice against blacks was not confined to the South in the 1860s — for the most part black soldiers in the Union Army performed admirably, as the movie “Glory,” starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick, nicely captures.

Indeed, the movie’s main plotline centers on the 54th Massachusetts, an all-black volunteer infantry (the officers were white) that in July of 1863 launched a fierce and bloody attack against Ft. Wagner, a Confederate stronghold that protected the southern approach to Charleston, South Carolina.  During that attack, Sgt. William Carney became the first black soldier to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving the American flag during the battle and returning it to the Union lines despite being shot in the head, chest, leg and arm.  Carney was the first of 23 former slaves to earn the Medal of Honor (although he did not actually receive the award until 1900).

“Boys, I only did my duty,” Carney modestly said about his actions at Ft. Wagner, which was the prevailing belief of every black soldier in the Civil War. And percentage-wise, they were a significant force.   Although free blacks and runaway slaves comprised only about 1 percent of the North’s population in 1863, by the end of the war they would comprise nearly 10 percent of the Union Army.

In fact, 85 percent of the eligible black male population in the North — some 180,000 men — joined the Union Army, and although not all of them saw combat, every single one of them had joined for the same reason.  They aimed to free their people from bondage, while making it crystal clear that they considered the United States to be their home, too.