"The Freedom to Fight"
by D. Andrew Yamato
- Remind students that when it was announced on January 1st, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was a promise yet to be fulfilled. The Civil War still raged, and the Confederacy had no intention of abiding by President Abraham Lincoln's laws. For the slaves to truly be freed, the Union would have to win the war.
- Write or project the following quotation on a blackboard or whiteboard:
"The colored population is the great available and yet unavailed of force for restoring the Union."
Ask students: did Lincoln write these words before or after the Emancipation Proclamation? (Three months after.) How might the Emancipation Proclamation have made the recruitment of African American volunteers easier? (It extended the cause for which the North was fighting, from a political concern to preserve the Union to a more idealistic struggle to end slavery. It also created a larger African American recruitment pool by the addition of former slaves—who would eventually constitute about half of the African American regiments raised during the Civil War.)
- President Abraham Lincoln, March 26, 1863
- Tell students they will now be role-playing President Lincoln in an interactive game exploring his dilemma about whether or not to recruit African Americans to fight in the Union army. Load the following bookmarked URL:
"Abraham Lincoln's Crossroads: Black Troops" at
Provide the class with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to determine what Frederick Douglass thought about importance of African American military service.
Before the class makes its choice to "Enlist Black Troops" or not, check for comprehension by asking: What is Douglass saying about the importance of military service for African Americans? (Douglass thinks that fighting for the Union will help African Americans gain respect and rights as American citizens.) As a class, have students make the choice Lincoln made at the bottom of the screen. (The correct answer is "Enlist Black Troops.") Do NOT proceed to the next chapter of the game.
- Explain that the "U.S. Colored Troops" (as they were then known) in the Civil War were paid much less than white troops, and they were segregated in all-black units commanded by white officers. Ask students why they think African Americans would have enlisted to fight under such conditions? (Answers should include a desire to defeat the Confederate Army, which was fighting for the perpetuation of slavery.)
- Tell the class that they will now be viewing two segments from the PBS series African American Lives 2, in which host Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. interviews prominent African Americans and presents his team's research into their families' ancestral and genealogical history. The first clip they'll be looking at will be Dr. Gates speaking with actor Don Cheadle. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to identify what was "the dream" Cheadle believes his great-great grandfather fought for? PLAY Clip 1, "US Colored Troops," for the class.
Insert thumbnail of clip 1 here.
Check for comprehension by asking students what was "the dream" Cheadle believes his great-great grandfather fought for? (Student answers will vary, but should include freedom, democracy, equality, and an America BETTER than the one that actually existed at the time.)
- Tell students that they will next be watching a clip of Dr. Gates with actor Chris Rock. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking students to identify what assumption Chris Rock makes about how African American soldiers were used during the Civil War? PLAY Clip 2 "The First Act of Freedom," for the class.
Insert thumbnail of clip 2 here.
Check for comprehension, and ask students what assumption Chris Rock made about how the Union Army used African American soldiers were used by the Union Army during the Civil War? (Rock's joke assumes that African American soldiers were used as cannon fodder, and deliberately placed in the front lines of battle to protect white soldiers.)
- Explain that while many African American volunteers like Kennelly and Tinghman indeed wanted to fight on the front lines, most African American soldiers were denied the opportunity to do so. The Union Army preferred to keep them in non-combat support roles as cooks, laborers, and supply troops. Ask students why they think this might have been the case? (Accept all answers, but guide students to the following:
Explain to students that eventually, military practicality triumphed over racial prejudice, and by war's end, over 185,000 African American soldiers and sailors served in the US Army and Navy-of which 40,000 were killed in battle or died of disease. Twenty three African Americans were awarded the nation's highest military decoration—the Medal of Honor.
- Fear of arming former slaves
- Doubts about how African Americans would perform in battle
- Desire to preserve the "honor" and "glory" of battle for white troops,
- Fear that military service would encourage a demand for full citizenship among African Americans)
- Divide the class into the same four groups they were in for the Introductory Activity. Distribute the "African American Soldiers in the Civil War" Student Organizer to each student. Assign each of the group to the following battle:
Group 1: Port Hudson
Group 2: Milliken's Bend
Group 3: Fort Wagner
Group 4: Battle of the Crater
Ask each group to load up the "African American Soldiers" Web site, available at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/lincolns/atwar/es_aaregiments.html. If internet access is not available, distribute to each group a printout of the Web site. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to review the Web site and analyze the quotations about African American military service at their assigned battle. Students should complete the "African American Soldiers in the Civil War" Student Organizer as they review the Web site.
Give your students 10-15 minutes to complete this task.
Check for comprehension, and ask each group to report to the class on the quotations they reviewed about African American military service at their assigned battle. Ask each group how they determined their answers? Review the "African American Soldiers in the Civil War" Student Organizer Answer Key to ensure major themes and information for each quote have been adequately covered by student groups.
- Ask students if they think the performance of African American troops--helping to ensure Northern victory and the freeing of the slaves--changed the US government's attitude about allowing African Americans to fight in the military. (Accept all answers)
Tell the class they're about to see a clip from the PBS series THE WAR describing the experience of African American soldiers in World War II-almost 80 years after the Civil War ended. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to predict how the experience of African American soldiers during World War II had changed—or had not changed—since the Civil War? (Accept all student answers.) Ask your students to check their predictions against the film segment. Load the bookmarked URL for "African American Troops in Training" at http://www.pbs.org/thewar/detail_5373.htm.
PLAY the segment. Check for comprehension by asking students how the experience of African American soldiers in World War II had changed—or had not changed—since the Civil War. (By World War II, African Americans were more accepted as Americans citizens, but the military was still segregated, and most African Americans were still not allowed to be combatants.)
- Ask students if they know when racial desegregation happened throughout American society? (1950s.) What major events helped accomplish this? (Students may suggest various elements of the Civil Rights movement, such as the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954.) Ask students if they think the American military was desegregated before or after public schools? (Accept all answers.)
Explain that President Harry S Truman desegregated the US military by Executive Order on July 26, 1948—six years before Brown vs. Board of Education. The Korean War, which began two years later, would be the first war in which African American and white troops served and fought side by side.
Load up the following URL of a front page from the African American newspaper The Chicago Defender announcing Truman's order: "President Truman Wipes Out Segregation in Armed Forces" at
Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them what the newspaper page tells us about racial attitudes in America at the time of the military's desegregation? (Draw students' attention to the lynchings article—clear evidence that racism was very much evident in certain parts of American society.) Explain that America was still deeply divided over race after World War II, but as during the Civil War, military advances in racial equality preceded those in society more generally. Ask students why this might be. (Answers will vary, but encourage the understanding that the military functions by a system of strict orders and hierarchical authority, which allows change to be imposed from above much more easily than is the case throughout a free society.)