Historians in assessing the role of black soldiers in the Civil War until World War II and the Civil Rights Era rather consistently minimized or ignored the role of black soldiers in the Union army. Interpretations of the Civil War usually ignored the institution of slavery as a primary cause of the conflict. Since the Civil Rights Era there has been a fundamental shift in interpretive stance. Slavery as institution and the moral issue involved cannot be ignored when interpreting the coming and waging of the Civil War.
In my youth and high school years the role of the black soldier was ignored. As a graduate student at Minnesota University in the late sixties after a lecture on Civil War causation after class I asked the lecturer whether slavery was a fundamental cause. Rather dismissively he stated “nothing of the kind” insisting that. state rights and economic considerations were prime Obviously not in tune with the interprative shift already current I remained unconvinced. Interpretation today underscores the importance of the black soldiers earning their freedom on the battlefield. Black troops were known as The Sable Arm of the Union army. Numbering approximately 186,000 in an army of a million. More that 10% of Union forces they were scarcely mentioned by historians until some fifty years ago. Now many books treat the role of The Sable Arm in the Civil War and are readily available.
One historian writing in the twenties and thirties, produced a 500 page volume treating General Grant’s leadership. This work has only seven lines dealing with the black soldier in the Civil War. These seven lines contain six errors: use of black soldiers began in 1863 – first used at Vicksburg in July 1863 – numbered about 100, 000 – officers were not impressed – Sherman considered them a “joke” – were used only in the rear with the wagon trains.
Early in 1862 runaway slaves joined the Yankee army as the navy advanced southward along the seacoast. Ex-slave freedmen experienced deep prejudice which slowly diminished during the war with their proven use and value. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation January 1, 1863 after the decisive battle of Antietam proved the turning point. “Use of colored troops, Lincoln stated, (was the) heaviest blow against the rebellion.” Black soldiers were praised for their part in Sherman’s March to the Sea with the army living off the land. The Sable Army was the first to enter Charleston, the seat of rebellion with symbolic Fort Sumter in the harbor. Also the first to enter Richmond, capitol of the Confederacy. When Grant’s army invested the breastworks of Richmond in 1864-1865 the Negro 25th Corps impressed the general. At the Battle of the Crater, a failed attempt to tunnel under and breach with an explosion the rebel line south of Richmond, black soldiers were prominent in the advance.
The Sable Arm had a harder role than their white compatriots. Paid less until wars close they were the object of prejudice. They were stereotyped in South and North as sambo, the eternal male child incapable of leadership. This was a notion held as well by most of their white abolitionist supporters. They were led by white officers until near the close of hostilities. In brief the Sable Arm had a harsher role and treatment than white soldiers in the Civil War. At mustering out of the Union army the Sable Army numbered 123,156, or approximately 12% of the million man army. African-Americans have consistently represented 10% of the American population. The Sable Arm was proportionately more represented in the army than white troops.
Placing the foregoing aside the white and black abolitionists always knew that wearing a Yankee uniform would change the situation for blacks. Frederick Douglas, ex-slave abolitionist leader (high in my pantheon of American giants), from the very start understood that donning a Yankee uniform things would change for the black American. Douglas insisted from the start that Lincoln put the black in the army. With the Emancipation Proclamation war aims included not only preservation of the Union but, as well, the end of The Peculiar Institution of slavery. Douglas stated: “once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter US and an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket and there is not a power on earth that can deny him citizenship in the United States.” Beyond emancipation with freedom comes citizenship with equality as fundamental idealistic principle. This has been the burden of the ongoing American struggle for freedom, justice, equality and civil rights. From the Era of Reconstruction and advanced so nobly in the Civil Rights Era rremains our continuing task today. None of this would have been possible unless as General Morgan spoke of the Sable Arm: “Even the slave becomes a man”. The stereotype of the Sambo image is disproven.