Why did it take Lincoln so long to allow blacks to join the military and fight for the north in the Civil War?

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Last updated: February 16, 2019

The inauspicious commencement of the Civil War signalled that the war would not be a brief affair, even if such briefness had earlier been anticipated. The first battle christened the Bull Run on July 21 1861, pitted federal troops numbering 30,000 under General Irvin McDonell against Confederate troops numbering 22,000 under General P.G.T.

Beauregard.1 The defensive superiority of the Confederates rent a major blow to the budding press corps. This was just the beginning.

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Even though the Union forces desired to increase their manpower concerns in the white American mind rent questions as regards the black man’s degree of intelligence, humanity and common sense. These questions and doubts created a situation in which the Lincoln administration was unsure of which side the African Americans slaves would take in the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy.Most whites believed that blacks could barely comprehend the nature of the war. Moreover, the degree of their loyalty to their slave masters rendered them irrelevant to the overall outcome of the conflict.1 These initial doubts to the recruitment of the black soldier were answered unambiguously just within the initial weeks of the war. As the Union forces advanced and occupied South Carolina Sea Islands, slaves escaped from the plantations and joined the Union army lines. To understand the developments in the Civil War, a concise exposition is worthwhile.The Civil War gave the slave population the opportunity to actively engage in their own emancipation and become free men.

Even though major slave uprisings were absent and not more than a quarter of the overall slave population made it in the Union lines, slavery disintegrated as the Union Armies moved with irreversible momentum into the slave territories.2 Through the act of seizing their freedom whenever opportune, African Americans became enshrined into a self-emancipation process. The process was to extend to almost all spheres of their lives leading into the reconstruction. After Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the black quest for freedom was converted into an official war aim.

Even though the proclamation was historically congruent to Lincoln’s constitutional scruples, the ramifications of the proclamation itself was lost on the general public who viewed it as nothing but a general moral anti-slavery crusade.However, blacks began to sense that the war against the Confederacy was a war for their own liberation; the war was caused by their being slaves and that the end result of the war would be their eventual freedom.3 Therefore as federal forces advanced, they acted as a magnet; attracting slaves from the adjacent areas. The first attraction of such kind occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah and Georgia. Geographically these areas covered rice and sea island plantations. As more and more blacks hurried into the Union enclaves, the surrounding areas which had hitherto been ripe in slavery collapsed.

As the Union armies moved into New Orleans, thousands of blacks moved into Union camps resulting in the collapse of slavery in the entire lower Mississippi. This ripple effect was repeated as the Union forces advanced into new areas. In New Orleans the Southern myths that blacks were docile were blown away when the black populations decided to release years of accumulated hostility and anger. The slaves seized the lands for their own use, drove off overseers, stopped working or fled to the Union camps.

4As blacks continued to pour into contraband camps, the mortality rates increased averaging approximately 25%. In line with the Union policy, these refugees received employment in whatever capacity that was deemed useful to the Union war effort. Both the Navy and the Army organized labour battalions of the increasing black population for work as teamsters, construction hands, laundresses, and cooks and so on. In practice, the employment was akin to imposition of forced labour controls by the military. Thus, the refugees received pay but these wages were way below what their white counterparts’ received. A greater number were also leased out, according to the terms of employment drawn by federal commanders and the conferences and local planters or superintendents representing Northern freedmen’s aid societies, to work in plantations that had been seized by the Union forces.Amid these employment options, the eagerness of blacks to fight for their cause could not be vanquished because since the war began, blacks had tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to register in enlist in the Union Navy and Army.

5 On April 23 1861; a black employee of the United States senate: Jacob Dobson drafted a letter to the Secretary of War to express his determination as well as that of other three hundred Black Americans to militarily play a part in defending their capital. In New York, Black men independently organized drilling sessions in preparation for the war. In a rally held in Boston in April 1861, blacks expressed their wish that the statutes prohibition their enlistment in the United States army be abolished. Despite all these, Lincoln still held profound doubts about the character of black males. He feared that if blacks were to be armed, then in a few weeks time the same arms would be in the hands of the rebels.

1On another occasion Lincoln reiterated that should blacks be enlisted in the army then it would be akin to betraying the political realities that existed at that time. He was disturbed that such an enlistment would turn the fifty thousand bayonets originating from the Border States that were loyal against the Union. During the war there existed a popular sentiment that the Civil War was a white mans war. Others feared that enlisting the black man into the army increased their probability of being successful in the battlefield hence making the black man gain additional respect that the white had no intention of extending to their black brethren. Added to these concerns, was the discriminatory attitudes among the white soldiers who believed that it was extremely deteriorating to fight alongside a race they considered too inferior. It is prudent to note that during this period, the white male was viewed as being too cowardly and an unthinking menial. Such an image was extrapolated to imply that they when recruited they would be poor soldiersIn 1863, Lincoln made a bold step that created the program for the enlistment of black soldiers into the federal forces.

At the onset of the program, the insecurities of the Northern white supremacist majority were immediately aroused as they thought that the Union and its gains may be tainted if blacks shed blood in their own defence or in the process of liberating the remaining slaves. This was one of the reasons that Lincoln had delayed the recruitment of blacks in the Union forces. The presence of political risks posed by white backlash as well as the military danger that such a move would lead to a drop in morale other challenges to the recruitment of blacks in the army. However, he overcame these challenges by successful implementing the policy whose main aim was to increase manpower in the Union armies. Eventually, the policy enabled the recruitment of 200,000 Afro-Americans in the Union military.2The recruitment of blacks into the military did not instantaneously transform the northern racial attitudes; in fact it exacerbated racial tensions and intensified the Democratic opposition to the emancipation. The black soldiers were segregated, given meagre pay, commanded by white officers and deemed fit for the labour battalions and the garrison.6 As blacks transformed the war into a revolution intent on throwing out the old order, Lincoln attitude towards the policy changed from that of reluctance to that of enthusiasm.

Blacks soldiers fighting for their own liberation signified the progress in the revolution that Lincoln had started by the Emancipation Proclamation.In the South, the response to black enlistment was ferocious both on paper and practically. Upon hearing of the policy, General Beauregard called for the execution of black Union soldiers. A sober analysis of the Generals policy prevented the enforcement of such an order but there were evidences of the execution of black soldiers in the South either in the battlefield or thereafter. Reports and rumours of such massacres caused a vexation among the Union authorities during the entire war period.

This was one of the main reasons why Lincoln had initially hesitated to enlist blacks in the Union army as combatants since they had a high risk of capture. Moreover, the Confederate utterly refused to treat black soldiers who were captured as legitimate prisoners of war. This refusal eventually led to the breakdown of prisoner of war exchanges.As the war strode on attitudes that has delayed their recruitment in the Union Army began to change.

There are those who believed that recruiting blacks was a sure way of saving whites from dying in the battlefield. Expanding the ranks with black men also served in hastening the war towards its end. Despite the difficulties these black soldiers faced such as discrimination from white soldiers, white men, bad food, cold winter quarters, boredom, loneliness, hard drilling hours, dirt and diseases, they endured them all. On the other hand, they were earning a reputation for exhibiting courage under fire, winning heroic invasions on Confederate territory.7 Numerous accounts of unflinching courage among colored regiments finally silenced the critics of the emancipation and black enlistment. However, from the first day that the blacks entered into the battlefield they faced greater perils than the white soldiers.

As prisoners of war, they were either shot or hanged. In reaction, Lincoln threatened the confederates that for every single soldier shot or hung, the same will be done to rebel prisoners of war. It was this threat that led to the cessation of prisoner exchanges as the South refused to hand over black prisoners of war and so the execution by the South continued, but these actions could not stop blacks from enlisting into the army. As the Civil war ended, between 180,000-200,000 African Americans had adorned the Union uniform; constituting 10% of the Northern Army.


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