African americans and the civil war, 1861-1865

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In 1861, Lincoln’s primary aim was to restore the Union, without regard to freeing the slaves. In fact, Lincoln did not want to frighten the four remaining slave states into the Confederacy. Union policy toward blacks reflected this caution. Initially, Union officers returned slaves to their masters, or treated them as “contraband” of war. Lincoln, meanwhile, continued to advocate colonization as an option for blacks. By the summer of 1862, however, Lincoln’s thinking had changed, and he decided to free certain slaves, primarily in an effort to hurt Southern resources under the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863, met with severe Northern opposition and cost Lincoln’s party significant political power in Congress. Although limited, the Emancipation Proclamation had a dramatic effect on the South, eliminating chances of foreign support and undermining their labor source. Lincoln’s ideas about black military service also changed. With the Emancipation Proclamation, he authorized black military enlistment as well. Blacks enthusiastically joined the First and Second South Carolina Volunteers, the 54th Massachusetts, and the Navy, although they continued to encounter racism and discrimination throughout their service. Although many Northern whites felt that blacks were incapable of anything but menial labor, the 54th Massachusetts in the bloody assault on Battery Wagner proved the bravery and heroism of black soldiers to many whites. Confederates were hardly as charitable, refusing to treat captured blacks as prisoners of war and even engaging in abusive behavior and murder, as seen at Ft. Pillow. Some Northern responses, such as the violent New York City Draft Riot, proved just as brutal as the South. Although rare, blacks also fought for the Confederacy. Often forced into service, the Confederacy began to contemplate the use of black soldiers as their manpower and prospects deteriorated. Some blacks, however, who had their economic interests tied to the Southern system, did voluntarily serve. Southerners highly publicized such efforts as proof of the loyal and happy slave. In reality, though, few blacks supported the Confederate cause.


1. Understand Lincoln’s early policies toward slaves and black military service.

2. Understand the Emancipation Proclamation, including its terms, why it was issued, as well as its effect and reaction.

3. Understand the role of black men in the Northern military, as well as the difficulties they faced.

4. Understand the Confederate and Northern white reaction to blacks gaining in status and being allowed in the Northern military.

5. Understand the role blacks played in gaining freedom themselves.

6. Understand the role of slaves and blacks for the Confederates.

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