Equality and Civil Rights: a Chronology of Black History di Giulia Tomasi Cont, Davide Pignata

American Civil War


Looking ahead

At the end of this section, you will be able to:

- know the role of black people in the Civil War

- know what Emancipation Proclamation is

- be aware of the 13th Amendment

American Civil War [E1] [I1] [F1] [ES1] was fought between April 1861 and May 1865 between United States of America (also called “the Union”) and the Southern slave states of the newly formed Confederate States of America. The causes of the conflict are deeper and more complex than one could imagine at first. Anyway, we’re not going to focus on these elements. What we are interested in is the fact that the main reason for the war wasn’t exactly slavery. It can be found in the Industrial Revolution. Technical advancements led a part of the society to progress and to industrialize itself. The North exploded economically and demographically. During this very transition, the South maintained its political power, but the North gradually claimed it. The conflict was caused by interests. The issue of slavery [ES1] followed as a factor that wasn’t necessary from a structural point of view. North people didn’t have a moral problem, but an economical one: with its political actions, the South made things difficult for economical and industrial interests of the North. This danger had to be appeased.


During the early months of the war, neither sides allowed blacks – free or slaves – to serve. Slaves who ran away to the Union lines were usually returned to their owners. A few northern generals kept runaways and used them as cooks, drivers, nurses, scouts, or spies. By 1862, however, Union casualties were mounting and it was becoming difficult to recruit white soldiers. That summer the Union began accepting blacks volunteers into its army and navy. Blacks enlisted with enthusiasm. However, once in uniform they met with much discrimination and resistance from white soldiers and officers alike. Discrimination [E1] [I1] [F1] [ES1] means unequal treatment. Most blacks were given jobs as cooks or drivers. They did not receive as much military training or medical care as white soldiers.
Until 1864, black soldiers were paid less than whites. A white soldier received $13 a month, while a black soldier was paid $7. White soldiers refused to serve in the same regiments as blacks. Some states, such as Massachusetts, formed all-black regiments. Most of these, however, were led by white officers, because only a small number of blacks were allowed to become officers. However, two regiments under General Benjamin Butler were led by blacks as were several other regiments. Officers’ commissions were given to a number of black doctors and chaplains.
In all, over 186,000 blacks served the Union. About 30,000 saw action in the navy. After the opening months of the war, few battles were fought in which blacks did not take part. Many blacks were awarded medals for their bravery under fire. For example, a Massachusetts soldier, William H. Carney, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for his part in the Union attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Carney was one of twenty blacks during the war who received this honour. There were many such acts of bravery, especially among runaway slaves who fought for the Union. Robert Smalls was a slave who piloted boats in Charleston Harbour before the war. In 1861, he sailed one of this boats out of the harbour and turned it and himself over the Union. The Union Navy used Smalls and the boat in the northern war effort.
The South did not enlist blacks as soldiers until March 1865, and few actually fought. However, had it not been for the slaves who took the place of white males, the South could not have fielded so large a white army. Slaves were either hired from their owners or forced into service. They built trenches and earthworks for defence and worked as butchers, drivers, and nurses. Some slaves were sent from their plantations to work in factories and mines. Iron works in Virginia and Alabama used slave labour throughout the war.


From the start of the war, abolitionists had urged Lincoln to make immediate freedom for slaves a Union war goal. But Lincoln, although he hated slavery, had been unwilling. He feared that emancipation, or freeing the slaves, would drive the border states into the Confederacy. He also realized that many northern workers opposed emancipation. They feared freed blacks would move North and take their jobs by agreeing to work for lower wages. This was one reason for the draft riots. Finally, Lincoln himself differed with abolitionists on one point. He believed that slaves owners as property owners should be paid for the slaves they freed.
As the war dragged on, pressure grew for Lincoln to free the slaves. More and more Northerners joined with Radicals in calling for emancipation. Some wanted to punish the South for the war by freeing the slaves. Others hoped that emancipation would encourage the slaves to revolt and possibly end the war more quickly.
By summer 1862, Lincoln was convinced that he had to make some statement about freeing the slaves. He wanted to satisfy the growing number of Americans who favoured emancipation. But he also wanted to win support from Great Britain. Because the British government opposed slavery, Lincoln hoped emancipation would discourage British merchants from trading with the Confederacy.
At first, Lincoln offered to have the federal government pay slave owners in the border states to free their slaves. But the slave owners refused the money and refused to free their slaves. On September 22nd, 1862, five days after the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation [E1] [I1]. The President had waited for a Union victory so that he would appear to be issuing the proclamation from a position of strength. The proclamation promised to free all slaves in those states or parts of states still in rebellion on January 1st, 1863.
The Emancipation Proclamation did not affect slaves in border states or in southern areas occupied by Union troops. In reality, the proclamation had no effect on slaves in areas controlled by the Confederacy either. Lincoln’s purpose in issuing the proclamation was to pressure those parts of the Confederacy that were still fighting. He hoped the proclamation would force them into ending the war.
Southerners saw the proclamation as an attempt to create slave revolts. Northern abolitionists cheered but thought that the proclamation did not go far enough. They argued that it should have included slaves in border states. Democrats accused the President of changing the goal of the war from restoring the Union to freeing slaves.


In the presidential election of 1864, the Republicans nominated Lincoln over the protests of the Radicals in the party. Lincoln won easily. The Republicans had opened western lands for settlement, reorganized the banking system, and raised the tariff. These acts won support from all parts of the Union.
While the war was still being fought, President Lincoln announced his plan for Reconstruction. Among the other issues, Congress also took up the matter of the rights of the former slaves. In January 1865, it proposed the 13th Amendment [E1] to the Constitution. This amendment abolished slavery in the U.S. It was ratified in December by the necessary 27 states.
On April 9th, 1865, the fighting ended, but the Union’s victory was soon clouded by tragedy. On April 14th President Lincoln was shot and died the morning after. Vice-President Andrew Johnson, a former Senator from Tennessee and a Jacksonian Democrat who believed strongly in states’ rights, succeeded Lincoln.

Looking Back

- Which were the two main factions involved in the Civil War?

- What were the effects of Civil War on slavery?

- What is the Emancipation Proclamation about?

- Why was the 13th Amendment ratified?



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