Books of the Month

Black troops had key role in revolutionary victory over slavocracy

July 23, 2018
Above, Black troops in Union Army, most freed slaves, in Second American Revolution. Some 200,000 fought, many taking on the most daring tasks. Inset, Black troops run an artillery battery.
Above, Black troops in Union Army, most freed slaves, in Second American Revolution. Some 200,000 fought, many taking on the most daring tasks. Inset, Black troops run an artillery battery.

Below is an excerpt from Blacks in America’s Wars by Robert W. Mullen. It is one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for July. This piece covers the role of Black troops in the Civil War, the Second American Revolution. The Lincoln administration at first opposed Blacks joining the war against the Confederacy. But this was reversed with the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, when the war took on a more revolutionary character. Black soldiers then played a decisive role in the Union overthrowing the slavocracy. Copyright © 1973 by Robert W. Mullen, Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.


In a war fought between Northern industrialists and slaveowners to determine who would have hegemony over the federal government and who would be able to expand into the new territories of the West, the question of maintaining slavery where it already existed was not in contention when the war began.

Despite the fact that the war would eventually end the system of slavery, Black men were not even allowed to fight in the Union army when the war began. Because Lincoln was anxious to maintain the loyalty of the border states, in which slavery existed, he was adamant in refusing to consider using Black troops since their use “would support the view that it was an abolitionist war.”

For almost two years after the beginning of the war, the Lincoln administration continued to refuse to accept Black soldiers, contending the war was between white men and had nothing to do with Blacks, slave or free.

Among the arguments used to exclude Blacks from military service in the Civil War were some that were completely contradictory. On the one hand, it was argued that Blacks were unwilling to fight, especially against white Southerners. On the other hand, it was argued that if Blacks were given arms they might engage in a crusade to end slavery in the South and end up massacring the slaveowners. As Frederick Douglass, the Black abolitionist, explained to a Cooper Institute audience in New York in February 1863, whites claimed in one breath that Blacks would not fight and in the next that if they were armed they would become dangerous.

Federal policy regarding slaves who ran away from their masters and came to the Union army was contradictory and confused in the first years of the war. Union officers often ordered fugitive slaves returned to their owners, and General Winfield Scott, writing in the name of President Lincoln in June 1861, even wrote Brigadier General McDowell asking him to allow owners of fugitive slaves in Virginia to cross the Potomac River in order to recover slaves who had escaped to Union territory.

Despite the official coolness to runaway slaves, whenever the Union army appeared in an area there was an immediate flood of runaway slaves who made their way to Union lines. In fact, the magnitude of the movement was such that it is not quite fitting to call the process running away in the sense that the term was used before the outbreak of the war. Rather, it was a mass exodus. Often all the slaves in an area just picked up and went to the Union army, and in such numbers that they couldn’t be returned.

The federal government and Union army only began to adopt a policy of allowing and even encouraging the recruitment of Blacks when it became clear that the war would be a long and drawn?out conflict in which it was essential to mobilize all the resources possible, and to weaken the enemy as much as possible.

In the early days of the war, in April 1861 when President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers, Northern Blacks responded in great numbers, foreseeing that in the war against the Southern slaveholders, the abolition of slavery would eventually have to be used as a weapon against that class. Black companies and regiments were formed and ready to serve.

But neither Lincoln nor the governors of the Northern states had any intention of making use of Black troops. Negroes who presented themselves to recruiters were thanked for their troubles and sent home. …

The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which freed all slaves in the rebel states and stipulated that freed slaves should be received into the armed forces of the United States, indicated that Lincoln had accepted the proposition that the North could only win the war by destroying the slave base of the Confederate States. …

Once the decision was made to permit the enlistment of Blacks in the army, Black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany began to act as recruiting agents for the Union army in the North, holding rallies to enlist Afro?Americans. Douglass urged his fellow Blacks to “fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave.” It was better to die free than to live as slaves, he said. …

Douglass saw that the freed slaves would have a powerful argument in their future demands for full rights of citizenship if they played a conspicuous role in the army. In his words, “Once let the Black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button … bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth … which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.” …

After the Emancipation Proclamation, however, the War Department moved rapidly to begin enlisting Blacks. In January 1863 it authorized Massachusetts to raise two Black regiments, the first officially authorized Black units. Eventually nearly 200,000 Black troops were to serve in the Union army, and another 300,000 served as army laborers, spies, servants, and helpers. Lincoln admitted that their participation was essential to the victory in the war.

Eventually there were 154 Black regiments in the army, including 140 infantry units. They saw action in 198 battles and skirmishes and suffered 68,178 fatalities on the battlefield in the course of the war.

Of the nearly 200,000 Black troops to take part, 93,000 came from the slave states that had seceded, about 40,000 came from the border slave states, and the remainder from the North.

By the end of the war there was scarcely a battle in which Black troops had not participated.