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African Americans In The Civil War Essay Topics

The Blacks in the Civil War

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The Blacks in the Civil War


For the beginning, in the middle and in the ending of the Civil War in the United States, the Black Americans were central as soldier and civilian. At first, people tried hard to get around this fact. Even President Abraham Lincoln administration sent Black volunteers home with an understanding that the war was a ''White man's war". The policy was eventually changed not because of humanitarianism but because of the Confederation's battlefield brilliance. The South brought the North to a realization that it was in a real brawl that it needed all the weapons it could lay hands on.
The First Louisiana Native Guards became the first Black regiment to receive official recognition from the government. The Union brass had initially prevented the Blacks from seeing action in the war. Colonel Robert Shaw and his men of the Massachusetts 54th had to overcome fear, mockery and racism before they were allowed to fight. By the end of 1863, many thousands Blacks found employment in the Union Army. There were some 50, 000 Black soldiers in the ranks. Although Black soldiers were promised $13 a month, they were insulted with an offer of $7 a month. Black soldiers and sailors became indispensable elements in a war that could not have been won without their help. The triumph of the Union forces was due to a number of factors, including Northern technology and the spirit of the age. But the most preeminent factor was the contribution of slaves and freedmen who provided the margin of difference that turned the tide against the Confederate forces in 1864 and 1865. According to official records, there were 185, 000 Black soldiers in the Union Army. Their mortality rate was disproportionately high, 21% of the total number of Black soldiers. Equally visible and heroic were the sailors in the Union Navy. One out of every four Union sailors was black, they served on Union ships as coal heavers, stewards, boatswains, firemen and gunners. In addition the North was forwarded by more than 200,000 civilians, mostly freed slaves. They served as spies and scouts. The most remarkable of all Union spies was a woman named Harriet Tubman.

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She organized slave intelligence networks behind enemy lines and led scouting raids. With the defeat of Confederate forces, the Black South exploded in a series of Jubilees that continued until the winter of 1865. But without the means to realize their freedom, most freedmen were driven back to the plantation by hunger and violence. The Civil War was the bloodiest in U.S. history. More Americans died fighting each other than died in all its other wars.



African Americans had been enslaved in what became the United States since early in the 17th century. Even so, by the time of the American Revolution and eventual adoption of the new Constitution in 1787, slavery was actually a dying institution. As part of the compromises that allowed the Constitution to be written and adopted, the founders agreed to end the importation of slaves into the United States by 1808.

By 1800 or so, however, African American slavery was once again a thriving institution, especially in the Southern United States. One of the primary reasons for the reinvigoration of slavery was the invention and rapid widespread adoption of the cotton gin. This machine allowed Southern planters to grow a variety of cotton--short staple cotton--that was especially well suited to the climate of the Deep South. The bottle neck in growing this crop had always been the labor needed to remove the seeds from the cotton fibers. But Eli Whitney's gin made it much easier and more economical to do. This fact made cotton production much more profitable and hence very attractive to planters and farmers in the South. Still, growing cotton was very labor intensive and cotton growers needed a large supply of labor to tend the fields. African American slaves supplied this labor.

It is important to remember, however, that not all slaves worked on large cotton plantations. African American slaves also worked in many other types of agriculture, including tobacco, hemp (for rope-making), corn, and livestock. Many slaves also worked in Southern cities, working at a variety of skilled trades as well as common laborers. It was not unusual for slaves working in the cities to put away enough money to buy their freedom. Indeed, Southern cities, as well as many in the North, had large so-called free black populations.

A slave's day usually consisted of long hours of physical labor. For a field hand, the workday usually began before dawn and ended well after sunset, often with a two-hour break for the noon meal. Many free white farmers in the South (and North) also put in very long work-days, but the great difference was they were working for themselves and controlled their own work time. African American slaves had no such control and they worked under constant supervision and the threat of physical punishment by their overseers. Indeed, no matter how kindly a slave owner might have been, the slaves did not possess that which Americans most prizedãtheir freedom.

Despite overall harsh conditions and the absence of freedom, slaves were not just powerless victims of their owners and the slave system. Slave families and communities became very important institutions. Slaves on large plantations also lived in a community that extended well beyond the family and in many cases beyond the single plantation or farm. The slave cabins (or "quarters") provided one of the few places where slaves could be more or less free from constant supervision by slave overseers. There the slaves created a vibrant social and cultural life beyond the reach of their masters.

While no rational person would wish to be a slave, the slaves were active agents in their own lives. And though their lives were circumscribed in many significant ways, they sought to make the best of their circumstances. They succeeded to a remarkable extent, a testimonial to the endurance of the human spirit.

When searching American Memory for additional primary sources on this topic, use such terms as slave(s), slavery, plantation(s), and Negro, among others.
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