44 Black Soldiers and Union War Victories (1864—1865)

Black Soldiers and Union War Victories (1864—1865)

Following the victory at Vicksburg, President Abraham Lincoln wrote to General Ulysses S. Grant, encouraging him to expand recruit of freed slaves into the Union Army. Lincoln now recognized that black soldiers were critical to eventual Union victory. He told Grant that they were “a resource which, if vigorously applied now, will soon close the contest. It works doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us.” Grant agreed. He conveyed his “hearty support” for “arming the negro” to Lincoln.

This, with emancipation of the negro, is the heavyest [sic] blow yet given the Confederacy…. By arming the negro we have added a powerful ally.(McPherson, “Tried by War” 202)

In May of 1864 African American soldiers accompanied Union General William Tecumseh Sherman as he fought to take Atlanta, Georgia from Confederate forces and then began his march through the heart of Georgia and to the Atlantic coast where he captured Savannah and eventually Charleston, South Carolina in the winter of 1864 and 1865. Sherman and his troops burned and destroyed nearly everything in their path and freed thousands of slaves in the process. Further to the west, a black soldier from a Rhode Island regiment wrote about the fury he saw in the eyes of the white population of another occupied Southern city, New Orleans, Louisiana, when they saw black troops. At the same time, he expressed the pride he felt as he walked the streets of the occupied city:

In the city of New Orleans, we could see signs of smothered hate and prejudice to both our color and present character as Union soldiers. But, for once in his life, your humble correspondent walked fearlessly and boldly through the streets of a southern city! And he did this without being required to take off his cap at every step, or to give all the side–walks to those lordly princes of the sunny south, the planters’ sons! (McPherson, “Negro’s Civil War”: 213–14; Carson et al. 226)

Lincoln in a carriage driven by a black man and being greeted by the city’s black residents. The men are taking off their hats and holding them in the air. One woman is offering Lincoln flowers.
Lincoln arriving in the abandoned Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.Figure 9–10: President Lincoln Riding through Richmond, April 4, Amid the Enthusiastic Cheers of the Inhabitants by Library of Congress is in the Public Domain .

In early April 1865, the Confederacy was in its death throes. The President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, evacuated Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital on Sunday, April 2 as Union forces approached. Two days later, President Abraham Lincoln walked through the streets of the vanquished city. Black slaves celebrated the arrival of the President and the Union army. Black Union soldiers, many of them former slaves, joined the slaves near a former slave auction site and jail. While the crowd listened to a black army chaplain preach a message of universal freedom, they suddenly heard the shouts of imprisoned slaves who were left behind when the Confederates evacuated. The black soldiers released the men and women who praised God or “master Abe” as they walked the streets of Richmond as free people.(Davis, 298)(1)

Soon after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865, black soldiers returned home in jubilation. In West Chester, Pennsylvania black soldiers rang the courthouse bell. In the New York, they led a parade. A black journalist from Philadelphia reported that, “The colored population was wild with enthusiasm. Old men thanked God in a very boisterous manner, and old women shouted upon the pavement as high as they ever had done at a religious revival.” (Carson et al. 227–28)

Even before the war came to an official end African Americans envisioned a world without slavery, one in which they owned their own labor and land and determined their future. In January 1865, soon after the capture of Savannah, Georgia, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton traveled to the city to talk with General Sherman and local black leaders about how the Union Army could best support newly freed black families. “The way we can best take care of ourselves,” they responded to Stanton, “is to have land, and turn in and till it by our labor…. We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it, and make it our own.” Sherman and Stanton agreed. Sherman responded by issuing his now infamous “Special Field Orders, No. 15,” which set aside the Sea Islands along the Atlantic coast from Charleston south to Jacksonville, once the heart of the South’s rice cotton growing region, for settlement by newly freed slaves. (1)

Under the order, each family could be given title to forty acres of land. Eventually, the Union Army settled some 40,000 free black people on lands once owned by white planters and slaveholders. The hope and promise offered by Sherman’s order was short lived, however. Following Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, less than a week after the war’s conclusion, his Vice President Andrew Johnson, a conservative Democrat from Tennessee, became president. Johnson eventually revoked Sherman’s order and restored the land rights of former Confederates by arguing that the lands had never been truly abandoned and legally seized. Therefore, Sherman’s order, which was merely a war measure, could be overturned during peacetime. The dream of an independent black yeomanry living on lands where they once worked as slaves quickly faded. (McPherson, “Battle Cry” 841–42; Freehling 166; Weigley, 410; Carson et al, 227)

Freedom continued to bring African-Americans mixtures of joy and sorrow as they struggled to survive in a region devastated and impoverished in the aftermath of the war. They also faced hostility and resistance from whites who could not imagine or tolerate black freedom or even the suggestion of equality. “Nobody had his bearings,” according to one former slave from Florida. Frank Bell, a black man from New Orleans, recalled how whites tried to reinstitute control and even ignore the legal abolition of slavery. His former master would not free him and told him, “Nigger, you’s supposed to be free but I’ll pay you a dollar a week and iffen you runs off I’ll kill you.” (Carson et al. 228)

To ensure the permanent legal end of slavery, Republicans drafted the Thirteenth Amendment during the war at President Lincoln’s behest. (2)Lincoln’s fervent desire to amend the Constitution in order to forever end slavery in the United States, something the Emancipation Proclamation could not do since it was only a war measure, was in many ways a result of the dedication and courage black soldiers displayed on the battlefield in 1863 and 1864. Lincoln received frequent pressure from conservative Northern Democrats to negotiate a peace to end the brutal war without guaranteeing the abolition of slavery. The president refused by pointing out the sacrifices made by black Union troops. “If they stake their lives for us they must be prompted by the strongest motive—even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.” If he turned his back on these “black warriors,” he said, he “should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will.” (Lincoln quoted in McPherson, “Battle Cry” 769) (1)

Yet the end of legal slavery did not mean the end of racial injustice. After the war, the Republican Reconstruction program of guaranteeing black rights succumbed to persistent racism and southern white violence. Long after 1865, most black southerners continued to labor on plantations, albeit as nominally free tenants or sharecroppers, while facing public segregation and voting discrimination. The effects of slavery endured long after emancipation. (2)

The central scene shows the interior of a freedman's home with the family gathered around a “Union” wood stove. The father bounces his small child on his knee while his wife and others look on. On the wall near the mantel hang a picture of Abraham Lincoln and a banjo. Below this scene is an oval portrait of Lincoln and above it, Thomas Crawford's statue of “Freedom.” On either side of the central picture are scenes contrasting black life in the South under the Confederacy (left) with visions of the freedman's life after the war (right). At top left fugitive slaves are hunted down in a coastal swamp. Below, a black man is sold, apart from his wife and children, on a public auction block. At bottom a black woman is flogged, and a male slave branded. Above, two hags, one holding the three-headed hellhound, Cerberus, preside over these scenes, and flee from the gleaming apparition of Freedom. In contrast, on the right, a woman with an olive branch and scales of justice stands triumphant. Here, a freedman's cottage can be seen in a peaceful landscape. Below, a black mother sends her children off to “Public School.” At bottom a free Negro receives his pay from a cashier. Two smaller scenes flank Lincoln's portrait. In one a mounted overseer flogs a black field slave (left); in the other a foreman politely greets Negro cotton-field workers.” (10)
This 1865 colored illustration celebrates the emancipation of slaves with the end of the Civil War. “Nast envisions a somewhat optimistic picture of the future of free blacks in the United States.”Figure 9–11: Emancipation by Th. Nast, King & Baird is in the Public Domain .


As battlefields fell silent in 1865, the question of secession had been answered, slavery had been eradicated, and America was once again territorially united. (2) African-Americans, North and Slave, slave and free, soldiers and civilians, had effectively forced President Abraham Lincoln, and the United States, to recognize emancipation and freedom as central to the military effort and meaning of the Civil War. As Lincoln said in his immortal Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of a Union cemetery there, “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Lincoln, 1863) But the war’s end brought questions about how to secure that freedom and construct a new bi–racial democracy. (1) Northern and southern soldiers returned home with broken bodies, broken spirits, and broken minds. Plantation owners had land but not labor. Recently freed African Americans had their labor but no land. Former slaves faced a world of possibilities–legal marriage, family reunions, employment, and fresh starts—but also a racist world of bitterness, violence, and limited opportunity. The war may have been over, but the battles for the peace were just beginning. (2)


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