Hayward Shepherd, a free black railway baggage master, became the first casualty of the Civil War when he was killed by mistake during John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in October, 1859. (Lanning 30) There would be many other African-American casualties - but not at the beginning of the Civil War. President Lincoln did not call for the abolition of slavery, nor for the enlistment of black soldiers at first (Lanning 35) - probably to keep the border states from seceding. Frederick Douglass, the most eloquent black freeman, stated “The side which first summons the Negro to its aid will conquer.” (Lanning 35)
The North heeded Douglass’ advice, though not for the best reasons. In 1862 the
Philadelphia North American
declared, “The lives of white men can and ought to be spared by the employment of blacks as soldiers.” (Lanning 36)
Shortly after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts formed two regiments of black volunteers under the leadership of Commander Robert Gould Shaw. These regiments, whose heroics were immortalized in the film
, became important to the Union war effort. They fought bravely, though in a losing cause, at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in July, 1863. Twenty-three year old sergeant William H. Carney became the first African-American to receive the Medal of Honor because of his bravery in combat. Many of his comrades and Commander Shaw died at Fort Wagner, but their bravery did not go unnoticed- even by the pro-slavery newspapers. (Lanning 45) One white officer declared, “You have no idea how my prejudices with regard to Negro troops have been dispelled by the battle the other day.” (Astor 37)
Racial equality both within and outside the military was still a long way off. The Conscription Act of 1863 allowed those drafted into the Union army to buy an exemption for three hundred dollars. Poor whites in the North, infuriated by this unfairness, used African-Americans as scapegoats, killing more than a hundred defenseless black civilians in New York City the same week that the Massachusetts 54
assaulted Fort Wagner. (Lanning 48) The Militia Act of 1862 stated specifically that African-American troops would receive less pay than their white counterparts, which sparked work stoppages by individual black soldiers. One of these soldiers, Sgt. William Walker, was tried, convicted, and executed. (Lanning 49-50)
Black women also supported the Union during the Civil War. Abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth served as nurses in Northern hospitals. Susie King became a teacher for black soldiers, later publishing her memoirs as Susie King Taylor. (Lanning 59-60)
Questions for Discussion:
In what ways did the Civil War experiences of African-Americans in the military reflect signs of racial progress?
In what ways did the Civil War experiences of African-Americans in the military show what was needed to achieve racial equality both within and outside the military?