Few students of American history are aware of the critical role African Americans played in their own liberation – even “experts” who follow the Civil War rarely appreciate how critical their participation was.
At first, the Union carefully avoided any threat to slavery because of the need to cultivate the Border States and pacify Unionists who existed throughout the South – some whole counties refused to secede. As time went on, and the South made extensive use of blacks to build fortifications and roads, the federal government’s attitude changed. There was precedent for Africans serving in America’s armed forces: one-seventh of the Continental Army were blacks, and two black battalions distinguished themselves fighting with Andrew Jackson at New Orleans. But John C. Calhoun, as Secretary of War, had proscribed military service for blacks.
By the end of the war, some 180,000 black troops had been recruited into 175 regiments. This total amounted to more troops than the Confederates had in the field — anywhere — and was more soldiers than Meade commanded in the Army of the Potomac or Sherman had under his command in the entire western theater. The assessment of Union leaders makes their value as a combat asset clear:
General U. S. Grant wrote to President Lincoln in August 1863: “I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support… By arming the negro, we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and by taking them from the enemy weakens him in the same proportion they strengthen us. I am therefore most decidedly in favor of pushing this policy to the enlistment of a force sufficient to hold all of the South falling into our hands and to aid in capturing more.”
In December 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton observed: “Many persons believed, or pretended to believe, and confidently asserted, that freed slaves would not make good soldiers; that they would lack courage and could not be subjected to military discipline. Facts have shown how groundless were those apprehensions. The slave has proved his manhood, and his capacity as an infantry soldier, at Milliken’s Bend, at the assault upon Port Hudson, and at the storming of Fort Wagner.”
Near the war’s end, Abraham Lincoln observed: “We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving as soldiers, seamen and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force… Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”
Combat commander Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (African Descent) declared: “Instead of leaving their homes and families to fight, they are fighting for their homes and families, and they show resolution and sagacity which a personal purpose gives. It would have been madness to attempt with the bravest of white troops what was successfully accomplished with black ones.”
Their bravery and élan is evidenced by the fact that sixteen black soldiers earned the Congressional Medal of Honor.
But white supremacy and racism doubtless played a hand in totally erasing their major contribution from memory. Fifty years after Gettysburg, not a single black veteran was present at the Grand Reunion, not a surprise given President Woodrow Wilson’s racist attitude. Even a biography of Grant written in 1928 commented with breath-taking ignorance, “American negroes are the only people in the history of the world…that ever became free without any effort on their part.” !!!