"This is a white man's war" was the oft-repeated refrain during the first two years of the Civil War, as blacks were told over and over again to stay out of it. Throughout this period, President Lincoln steadfastly refused to enlist men of African descent. He was attempting to preserve the Union without dealing with the question of slavery, and he did not want to alienate the border slave states that remained in the Union.
The most persistent advocate of arming blacks was the outspoken abolitionist Frederick Douglass. "Colored men," he complained, "were good enough to fight under Washington, but they are not good enough to fight under McClellan." He further stated that "liberty won only by white men would lose half of its luster."
The first organization of blacks took place in Cincinnati, Ohio, a pro-slavery city in which prejudice was cruelly manifested. The Black Brigade was organized but, due to the irate attitude of the White citizens, was forced to disband shortly thereafter. The proprietor of the place selected as the recruiting station was forced to remove the American flag. The proprietor of another meeting place was told by the police, "We want you damned niggers to keep out of this; this is a white man's war."
Thousands of fugitive slaves flooded the Union lines wherever federal forces penetrated new areas in the south. Without a general governmental policy, many commanders tried to send the fugitives back to their masters, forbade them to enter Union lines, or permitted masters and their agents to enter Union lines to retrieve their property.
General David Hunter, Commander of the Department of the South, issued an Emancipation Proclamation freeing all of the enslaved in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida in May 1862. The act was repudiated by the Lincoln administration. Shortly thereafter, General Hunter, without permission, began recruiting ex-slaves from the Sea Islands area for formation of the 1st Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers. The regiment attracted much attention and helped prepare the country to accept black troops.
The United States Colored Troops participated in 449 engagements, of which 39 were major battles. The most active units in the South and West were the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry (79th USCI) with 14 engagements, and the 1st Mississippi Cavalry (3rd USCC) with 10 engagements. The contributions of these African-American units were crucial to saving the Union.
- Adapted from an article by Bennie McRae. Copyright 1995. LWF Publications. Reprinted from the April, 1995 edition of Lest We Forget.