The Legacy of the Black Soldiers of the Civil War

In honor of Black History Month
Jacques Fleury
Spare Change News

“Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once.”
— Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (II, ii, 32-37)

The contributions and achievements of black people throughout American History have often been overlooked in traditional history textbooks. Although I was educated in American schools from the eighth grade through college, an empirical and systematic knowledge of black history eluded me. I began to educate myself about African American history by pouring over history texts in public libraries.

It was during this time that I discovered the crucial role of black soldiers in securing victory for the Union during the Civil War, and in doing so, preserving the United States as we know it today. Black men, who had been considered disempowered chattel, partook in a winning army, aiding in the emancipation of four million slaves.

Scholars still debate the causes of the Civil War. Confederates contended that they fought for the right of secession and the capacity to build an autonomous nation. Unionists argued that they went to war to prevent Southerners from disassembling the United States. For black soldiers however, the war was about slavery, and the aim of war was its abolition.

Black men had to overcome many obstacles to join the Union Army, one such barrier being a law dating back to the late 1700s that precluded blacks from fighting in the U.S. Army. The first black volunteers were refused by white military leadership, who considered black men to be incorrigible, irresponsible and child-like barbarians, unfit to be soldiers. Eventually, the Union Army permitted black men to serve, but under draconian conditions. The first black soldiers were made to serve in segregated battalions under white commanding officers. The federal government attempted to pay black soldiers lower wages than whites, and they were subjected to blatant forms of prejudice and abuse on campgrounds.

Despite hardship and discrimination, the loyalty and tenacity of black soldiers upheld their merit on the battlefield; their performance was grudgingly extolled even by their Confederate adversaries.
One such group of black soldiers was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first all-black battalion recruited in the North.

“Six hundred Union soldiers raced towards Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The men were wet, tired and hungry. It was July 1863 and the 54th regiment was one of the first units of African American soldiers fighting in the Civil War.” So begins historian Carin T. Ford’s book, “African-American Soldiers in the Civil War: Fighting for Freedom.” The 54th regiment was led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a white man from a privileged Boston abolitionist family. Today, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment Company A is a Boston-Based non-profit organization. Members of the 54th take part in re-enactments and civic education efforts.

Last August, I attended the 54th’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War at Fort Warren on George’s Island. I had a chance to meet and speak with members of the 54th, some of whom are descendants of black Civil War soldiers. These soldiers’ pivotal roles in the outcome of the Civil War left a lasting legacy of intrepid defiance against racism and injustice. Historian Christian Samito argues that prior to the Civil War national citizenship existed only as a vague concept. Basic civil rights were far from universal, factors such as race, gender, slave-status, and immigration status determined the “rights and privileges” that an individual could enjoy.

The Union victory paved the way for the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865 which ended slavery in the United States, the 14th amendment, which awarded blacks equal protection under the law and the right to hold political office, and the 15th amendment, which granted black men the right to vote. These Civil War amendments created a new order by recognizing nearly 4.5 million blacks as national citizens and freed men as voters.

Although white and black soldiers — at least on the prima facie level — came together in battle, in the post-war years black men continued to be plagued by racism and inequality. Civil War historian Joseph T. Glatthaar claims that black soldiers saw their fight in the Civil War as a beacon of hope for equality in the coming years. Glatthaar believes that the continuation of racist policies and the failure of the reconstruction era to bring about meaningful changes “provoked a pattern of selective memory that continues to trouble America today.” He proclaims that blacks’ desire for equality after the war severed the hard-fought bonds forged between black and white soldiers during the war.

Some historians, such as Kenneth C. Davis, believe that “The Civil War never really ended.” In his book, “Don’t Know Much About the Civil War,” Davis writes that our country’s “racial chasm is the most pernicious legacy of America’s slave past and the Civil War.” Davis believes that the first step towards healing the wounds inflicted by slavery and racism is for Americans to understand them.

Today, we need Black History Month as a reminder of African American contributions to this country. But why should we think of black history only one month out of the year? African Americans’ contributions to the fabric of America are ongoing. America has shown much progress in overcoming racism by electing the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama. But as black Americans, we must not become complacent in our continuing quest for equality beyond the boundaries of status, class and race; Black History Month is a perfect reminder.

JACQUES FLEURY’s book: “Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir,” about life in Haiti & America, was featured in the Boston Globe. Contact him at: haitianfirefly@gmail.com and visit his website at: www.thehaitianfireflyproductions.com.

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