This is the fourth in a series of blogs of what I have been learning about African American History that I never learned in school.
The period of 1820-1860 was one of great reform in the nation. Many White and Black philosophers, ministers, writers, orators, and editors spoke out for justice for the oppressed. It paralleled a world-wide interest in reform. It also coincided with the on-going (1820-1870) religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening which led to such social changes as asylum and penal reform, temperance, women’s rights, reforms in public education, and the abolitionist movement to end slavery.
From the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln made it clear that his main motive was to preserve the Union. Whatever he did against slavery and for Black people it was to preserve the United States. In 1862, he wrote, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.” And to prevent slavery from becoming an issue, the president ordered Union generals to turn away slaves coming to their lines for safety or to serve in the Army.
However, so many Black men, women, and children sought safety with the Northern troops that, unofficially, attitudes began to change. Slaves served as guerrillas fighting against the Confederates. They also passed valuable information on to the Union army. In May 1862, an African American boat pilot actually stole a Confederate gunboat with an all African American crew of slaves and surrendered it to Union fleet. The boat pilot, Robert Smalls, and his crew were recognized by Congress for their exploit, and Smalls was invited to Washington to meet with “Uncle Abe” as he was called by many Blacks. Thus before the year 1862 was half over and before the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan 1, 1863), Lincoln changed his tune and his policy. He told a member of his cabinet that the war was a military necessity and it was “absolutely necessary for the salvation of the nation, that he must free the slaves.
Before the end of the war, over 200,000 African American served in the Union army and navy. Black troops liberated Charleston, Petersburg, Richmond, and Wilmington, NC. Without these Black troops Lincoln said, “we would be compelled to abandon the war in three week.” The success of the African American soldier was all the more amazing considering they were usually placed under white officers who were often prejudice, they were sent into battle with less training and inferior weapons, and their medical facilities were worse and their doctors fewer. They also were paid half as much as White soldiers. In fact, many of them refused pay until it was made equal—they continued to fight anyway.
Black women along with White women served behind the lines in relief agencies and in medical facilities. A freed slave, Susie King, was one of many Black nurses who worked alongside Clara Barton tending the sick and wounded.
Col. Thomas Wentworth wrote about his experience as the commander of the first official regiment of ex-slaves: “They had more to fight for than the White soldiers. Besides the flag and the Union, they had home, wife, and children. They fought with ropes around their necks [metaphorically], and when orders were issued that the officers of colored troops should be put to death upon capture, they took a grim satisfaction. It helped their sprit de corps immensely.”
Thanks The war emboldened Black demands for equality in the North. Illinois and California dropped their “Black Laws” that denied equal rights. Congress voted to allow African Americans to testify in court and approved the hiring of Black mail carriers. But not everyone in the North was in favor of such equality. In New York City, many poor Whites (many of them recent Irish immigrants) blamed Blacks for the war and for taking all the available jobs. Roving bands of these poor Whites would attack and lynch African American men, women, and children (a Black orphanage was burned to the ground). This took place in the North, mind you. And to add insult to injury, when Abraham Lincoln’s funeral took place in Washington, African American troops were left out of vast array of White soldiers who followed the casket.
I close this brief lesson in learning things I did not know about African American history with the words of Ellen Watkins Harper, a widely known Black poet, who wrote a letter a few days after Lincoln’s assassination: “Oh what a terrible lesson does this event read to us . . . Well, it may be in the providence of God this blow was needed to intensify this nation’s hatred of slavery, to show the utter fallacy of basing national reconstruction upon the votes of returned rebels and rejecting loyal black men . . . . Mr. Lincoln has led us up to another Red Sea to the table-land of triumphant victory, and God has seen fit to summon for the new era another man. Let the whole nation resolve that the whole virus shall be eliminated from its body; that in the future slavery will only be remembered as a thing of the past that shall never have the faintest hope of resurrection.”
Coming soon, Church History 101: Take a journey with me through the first 500 years of the history of the Christian Church. More info to follow…