From Enslaved to Liberators: African-Americans and the Civil War

Julie Holcomb. Civil War: People and Perspectives. Editor: Lisa Tendrich Frank. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that, as a black man, Dred Scott was not a citizen of the United States. Both a cause and an effect of sectional conflict, the Dred Scott decision surprised few Americans at the time, although it angered abolitionists who had consistently challenged the idea that African Americans—free or enslaved—were not citizens of the United States. In 1860, as the United States hovered on the brink of civil war, 4 million African Americans living in the South were legally defined as articles of property. As property, African American families could be separated at will by white masters, who wielded absolute power over their slaves. Laws excluded slaves from education, property ownership, and even the freedom to leave their master’s property. Conditions for the 250,000 free blacks living in the South were hardly better. Free Southern blacks had few civic rights, lacked the right to vote, and were generally as illiterate as the slaves. The 225,000 blacks who lived in the North enjoyed greater freedom and more economic opportunities than their Southern brethren, and, in a few states, even had the right to vote; however, their lives were closely circumscribed by racism and segregation and they were clearly defined as second-class citizens.

Fighting for Freedom

With the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and Union victory, the American Civil War represented a watershed in African American freedom; in four years, millions of African Americans moved from bondage to freedom through their own actions and those of the men on the battlefields. Many African Americans realized that they needed to participate personally in the fight to free the slaves. Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, like many African Americans at the time, recognized both the promise and the importance of black participation in the Union war effort:

Let the black man get upon his person the brass letters ‘U.S.’; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States. (Douglass as quoted in Litwack 1980, 72)

Others agreed. “God will help no one that refuses to help himself,” a Philadelphia man wrote the Anglo-African, a metropolitan weekly. He continued, “the prejudiced white man North or South never will respect us until they are forced to by deeds of our own.” (Alfred M. Green as quoted in McPherson 1982, 32). Free blacks had “great obligations,” African American relief organizer Elizabeth Keckley declared.

It has been asserted that we, as a people, do not sympathize with this oppressed portion of our race. Let us, my friends, by our benefactions, by words and by acts of kindness, disprove these assertions … great obligations rest upon us to do all we can to assist, both morally and physically, those whose lot has hitherto been cast in the dark, rough paths of life. (Keckley as quoted in Forbes 1998, 69).

As Douglass, Green, and Keckley recognized, patriotism, liberty, racial equality, and African American participation were inseparable. Whether on the home front or the battlefield, African American actions shaped the black experience of the Civil War and hastened the arrival of black emancipation.

At the outbreak of war in 1861, African American men and women offered their assistance to the war effort. However, Northern and Southern whites generally rejected all African American offers of assistance in the first two years of the war. Because secession, not slavery, was the pretext for the war, President Abraham Lincoln rejected any consideration of abolition or black military assistance through government means. Throughout his 1860 presidential campaign, Lincoln made numerous assurances that if elected he would not pose a threat to slavery where it existed. Even after Southern states seceded in the wake of his election, Lincoln continued to reassure all Americans that his only objective was preservation of the Union: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that,” Lincoln declared (Lincoln as quoted in Jenkins 2002, 3). Lincoln’s emphasis on preservation of the Union was part of a calculated effort to court the Border States of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky. He believed that the abolition of slavery or the arming of black soldiers might cause those states to secede and lend their support to the Confederate cause. Furthermore, the abolition of slavery or the arming of black soldiers potentially could arouse Northern prejudices and stiffen Confederate resistance. Throughout 1861 and into the early months of 1862, Lincoln maintained his conservative stance toward abolition and the use of black soldiers.

The Issue of Slavery and the War Effort

Still, the disruption of the Civil War, which forced men and women, black and white, free and enslaved, to labor in new settings and in new ways, ensured that black emancipation would be central to the war effort regardless of Lincoln’s assurances to the contrary. By the time the war officially began with the surrender of Union forces to the Confederates at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April 1861, the ideas of war and secession had already severely disrupted plantation life throughout the South. In late 1860 and early 1861, South Carolina slave owners removed slave men from plantations to build coastal defenses on Morris Island and Sullivan’s Island in Charleston Harbor. Large numbers of slave men were also moved to the South Carolina coast to increase Southern production of salt, which was vital to the war effort. Men were not the only slaves subject to forced removal, however, as coastal planters moved any of those slaves who were not needed on the coastline to protected interior areas to prevent slaves from escaping or being impressed by the Confederacy. The shifting of the slave population separated families and disrupted patterns of agriculture, domestic networks, and social relations.

Moreover, as the war progressed, Union occupation affected slave families for good and bad. The presence of Union troops and the exigencies of the Civil War provided an unprecedented opportunity for slaves to escape. Although the bulk of escaped slaves in the antebellum years were men, during wartime, large numbers of women, children, and older slaves escaped to safety behind Northern lines. Their escapes further disrupted life throughout the South. Furthermore, Union blockades and war demands led to shortages for free and slave families, as well as for white Southerners. The declining availability of cloth and its increasing cost meant that slaves often went without suitable clothing and often without shoes. As a result, the rate of sickness and death among slave families increased during the war. In addition, the absence of male slaves and the wartime shortages in textiles meant that slave mistresses often appropriated the fruits of women’s domestic production such as spinning and weaving. Planters cut food rations to their slaves as wartime shortages took a toll on the home front. Because slaves lacked supplies like shot, powder, and fish hooks, they frequently were unable to supplement their meager rations with self-caught game and fish. Slave men and women who remained on the plantation often resisted declining conditions and increased planter demands by slowing down production and engaging in other forms of passive resistance.

Slave resistance bolstered by the Union war effort helped undermine slavery in the early months of the war despite the lack of a federal proclamation on black emancipation. Indeed, because Lincoln refused to link black emancipation to the war effort, slaves in Union-occupied areas of the South faced an uncertain status. That ambiguity was exacerbated by the actions of Union commanders. In May 1861, Benjamin Butler refused to return three slaves to their owner, a Confederate colonel who had demanded their return under the provisions of the fugitive slave law. Butler said the law did not apply because Virginia had seceded and the three slaves had been working on Southern fortifications at the time of their escape. While Butler refused to return the fugitives, he carefully avoided the question of emancipation simply declaring the three “contraband of war” and putting them to work in his own camp.

Uncertain Status

The freed slaves still faced an ambiguous legal status, however. Although not legally emancipated, the contrabands received a wage for their work and enjoyed a relative amount of freedom. In a letter to her sister in June 1861, white Northerner Laura Hildreth described the situation as slaves flocked to Butler’s camp:

Negroes come in every day from outside, and one day as many as forty came into the backyard; of all ages from babies up to old men and women. It was a ludicrous and at the same time a sad sight to see the poor creatures, homeless, not knowing when or where they were to get their next meal. (Quoted in Silber 2005, 223)

For Northern whites, black freedom, however vague, carried a host of social problems that the federal government had yet to deal with. In August 1861, Congress voted on the First Confiscation Act in an attempt to deal with the contraband question. The act allowed only for the confiscation of property, including slaves, used directly in the Confederate war effort; it did not grant freedom or answer the question of freedom for slaves confiscated under the act’s authority. The act declared that any master who permitted his slave to labor in Confederate service forfeited his ownership of that slave. Despite the careful wording, all but three of the Democratic and Border State congressmen voted against the bill. Thus, although the act successfully passed Congress, the vote made it clear that emancipation was a Republican issue. However, despite the lack of an emancipation edict, slaves flocked to Union lines in hopes of gaining their freedom. By the end of July 1861, nearly 1,000 slaves had fled to Butler’s camp.

Major General John C. Frémont, commander of the Western department at St. Louis, Missouri, issued his own edict of freedom for the slaves during the same month that Congress voted on the Confiscation Act. Frémont had been the Republican presidential nominee in 1856 and a prominent member of the party’s antislavery wing in 1861. On August 30, Frémont placed the state of Missouri under martial law and declared all property of Missourians fighting against the United States confiscated and liable to use by the Union. He also pronounced the slaves of Confederate Missourians free. Frémont’s actions exceeded both the bounds of martial law and the First Confiscation Act. Moreover, his actions contributed to the severe dislocation suffered by slaves throughout the South, particularly as the federal government attempted to avoid any stance on black emancipation. Lincoln privately asked Frémont to modify his proclamation. When Frémont refused, Lincoln announced that he had altered Frémont’s proclamation to comply with the conditions of the First Confiscation Act passed six weeks earlier. Just weeks after Lincoln’s reversal, Frémont was removed from command of the Western Department and replaced by Major General David Hunter.

Despite these reversals, however, slaves continued to view Union soldiers as liberators and frequently used the presence of Union occupation forces as the impetus for and means to escape. In some cases, the government stepped in to make freedom a reality for these African Americans. For example, in November 1861, a Union fleet captured Port Royal Island and the rest of the South Carolina Sea Islands south of Charleston. Nearly all of the white inhabitants fled, leaving behind cotton-rich plantations and more than 8,000 slaves. Thus began the North’s first experiment in reconstructing the South and its slave economy. The Treasury Department sent agents to the Sea Islands to supervise contraband labor in the harvest of cotton for Northern mills. Abolitionists and other reformers—black and white—organized freedmen’s aid societies to educate these African Americans. At the same time, Major General David Hunter ran afoul of Lincoln’s conciliatory policy toward black emancipation. On March 31, Hunter was given command of the Department of the South, which covered the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia. Six weeks later, Hunter declared all slaves in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina free. Moreover, he requested his commanders to arm the freed slaves for military service. Hunter also organized the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first Union regiment organized among escaped slaves. Lincoln quickly disbanded the regiment over concern about public opinion, however, and also revoked Hunter’s order freeing the slaves.

In addition to Northern support, escaped slaves like Susie King helped their fellow runaways. King, who secretly had learned to read and write while enslaved, fled with her uncle to Union lines at Fort Pulaski, Georgia, in April 1862. She spent the remainder of the war teaching other freed slaves and working as a laundress in the Union camps on the Sea Islands. Thousands of other slave men, women, and children throughout the lowcountry fled to the Sea Islands and to Union lines. However, Union lines did not guarantee safety or better living conditions. As white contraband teacher Elizabeth Botume observed, “The refugees were vastly worse off than the plantation people. They literally had nothing to wear” (Botume as quoted in Schwalm 1997, 98). Former slaves lived in makeshift quarters, had few resources, and received inequitable pay. Moreover, slave women were frequently subject to rape or the threat of rape as Esther Hawk, a missionary and teacher with the Freedmen’s Aid Society noted: “[N]o colored woman or girl was safe from the brutal lusts of the [white] soldiers—and by soldiers I mean both officers and men.” Furthermore, “Mothers were brutally treated for trying to protect their daughters, and there are now several women in our little hospital who have been shot by soldiers for resisting their vile demands” (Hawk as quoted by Schwalm 1997, 102).

The Tide Turns

By mid-1862, the tide against emancipation had started to turn. In the summer of 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, which prohibited under penalty of court martial the return of fugitive slaves even to masters who claimed loyalty to the Union. Congress also abolished slavery in Washington, D.C. Events of 1861 and 1862 hastened this change. In the early months of the war, Northerners, most notably Lincoln, had believed victory would come quickly to powerful Northern forces. However, by mid-1862, Northerners were frustrated by the military stalemate. Significant Union defeats at First Bull Run in 1861 and the Seven Days’ Battle and Second Bull Run in 1862 sapped Northern morale. Lincoln and others realized that emancipation and recruitment of fugitive slaves could weaken the Confederate military while simultaneously strengthening Union forces. Lincoln also realized the inconsistency of fighting a government based on slavery without striking a blow at slavery. Slavery was indeed the core of Southern economic and social life; even though slaves were not engaged in combat, their service in support roles continued to aid the Southern cause. As emancipation increasingly became linked with military necessity, emancipation was also becoming detached from any moral imperative. However, Lincoln did not want to take action against slavery in the midst of Northern defeat. As the summer of 1862 wound down, Lincoln drafted his Emancipation Proclamation. Union success at Antietam on September 17, 1862, gave Lincoln the victory he needed and on September 22 he issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The final proclamation took effect on January 1.

Blacks and some whites greeted the Emancipation Proclamation with enthusiasm. Henry M. Turner, a freeborn African American and pastor of the Israel Bethel Church in Washington, D.C., described the reaction: “As many as could get around me lifted me to a great platform.” When he found himself unable to read the document because of breathlessness, he handed it to someone who, he reported, “read it with great force and clearness.” The large crowd was overwhelmed with emotion and

while he was reading every kind of demonstration and gesticulation was going on. Men squealed, women fainted, dogs barked, white and colored people shook hands, songs were sung, and by this time cannons began to fire at the navy-yard, and follow in the wake of the roar that had for some time been going on behind the White House. (Quoted in McPherson 1992, 20)

Furthermore, Turner observed the numerous black and white men who came to the White House and congratulated the president on the path-breaking proclamation.

Lincoln’s proclamation linked emancipation with the arming of blacks, thus striking a significant blow to the economic and social base of the South. However, in truth, Lincoln’s proclamation failed to free a single slave. Slaves in the Border States and in Union-controlled areas of the Confederacy were exempted from the proclamation, and it had no immediate effect in parts of the South still under Confederate control. Yet, the proclamation changed the tone of war. No longer was the North fighting solely to preserve the Union; the North now fought to establish a new United States free of slavery. That new Union would be formed in large part through the actions of slaves and free blacks.

African Americans recognized the implications of the Emancipation Proclamation and celebrated those who had brought about its existence. For slaves, the Union Army had always been seen as an army of liberation. As Susie King of Savannah, Georgia, recalled, “I wanted to see these wonderful ‘Yankees’ so much, as I heard my parents say the Yankee was going to set all the slaves free” (McPherson 1992, 26-27). After Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the army of liberation included a following of hundreds of runaway slaves and free blacks. The 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first black regiment formed under Lincoln’s new policy, was organized on November 7, 1862, under the command of white abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The success of the 1st South Carolina prepared the way for other black regiments authorized in 1863. In a letter to one of his commanders, Lincoln noted that “the colored population is the great available and yet unavailed of force for restoring the Union. The bare sight of 50,000 armed and drilled black soldiers upon the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once” (McPherson 1992, 60-61).

Still, many Northern whites feared the consequences of arming black soldiers to fight for black freedom. In the summer of 1863, draft riots broke out throughout the North, revealing class and racial lines. In New York City, antiblack and antidraft rioters burned a draft office and destroyed a black orphanage as well as the homes of well-known abolitionists and Republicans. Rioters linked black emancipation to amalgamation, a charge antiabolitionists had leveled against abolitionists since at least the 1830s. The New York City riots, fueled in part by fears of miscegenation and loss of jobs to free African Americans, targeted New York City blacks. One eyewitness known only as Mrs. Statts described the violence against one black woman and her newborn baby. She described how the rioters “broke through the front door with pick axes, and came rushing into the room where this poor woman lay, and commenced to pull the clothes off from her.” Later she “saw the innocent babe, of three days old, come crashing down into the yards; some of the rioters had dashed it out of the back window, killing it instantly.” Before the attack began, Statts and her young son had sought refuge in the basement of the unnamed woman’s home. Discovering Statts and her son, “Two ruffians seized him, while a third, armed with a crow-bar, deliberately struck him a heavy blow over the head.” Statts’s son died two days later (Statts as quoted in King 2006, 173-174). Rioters also burned an orphanage and otherwise terrorized the African American residents of the city and those who supported them.

Black Support for the Union Cause

Northern blacks’ support of the Union war effort was critical. Just as white women took action to support Union troops in 1861 and 1862 through volunteer efforts and aid societies, African American women similarly focused their voluntary efforts on helping other African Americans. Initially, they sent aid to former slaves in the South. After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, black women took a more active role in soldier relief. Just as white women had done at the outset of the war, African American women formed soldiers’ aid societies. For example, in Philadelphia, black women formed the Colored Women’s Sanitary Committee and the Ladies Sanitary Association of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Elizabeth Keckley of Boston formed the Contraband Relief Association to provide care for recently freed slaves. These were among the many soldier and contraband relief groups formed in the wake of freedom. The women who organized and ran these relief societies saw their work as more than aid to specific soldiers and often defined soldiers’ aid as a step in advancing the causes of emancipation and racial equality. For African American women, freedmen’s aid and soldier relief were “joint projects in the same struggle” (Silber 2005, 166-167).

African American women’s relief efforts on behalf of other African Americans differed markedly from those of white women. Because white Northern women worried about social control of a hitherto dependent group of people, they often placed conditions on their relief efforts to freed slaves. African American women, however, emphasized racial solidarity and generally did not place qualifications on their aid.

Black Northern support included military as well as home-front support. However, for the nearly 180,000 black men who fought in the Union Army, military service was a complex, ambiguous experience. Initially rejected and then finally actively recruited after Lincoln’s proclamation in 1862, blacks volunteered in large numbers to hasten their own liberation and that of their people. Union rosters list 166 black regiments: 145 infantry, 7 cavalry, 12 heavy artillery, 1 light artillery, and 1 engineer. On May 22, 1863, the Union War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops to oversee black recruitment and create examining boards to screen applicants for officer’s commissions. The U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) mustered 7,122 officers and 178,895 enlisted men. More than 80 percent of the enlisted men came from the Confederate states and were former slaves. By the end of the war, 110 African American men had received commissions; however, more than 70 were so badly harassed by their superiors that they resigned. Ninety percent of the USCT’s commissioned white officers were combat veterans who received their commissions after passing a rigorous exam. USCT commissions were highly sought after and widely accepted because they offered opportunities for promotion. The experienced leadership of the USCT meant African American soldiers had a higher quality of leadership than the average white soldier. By war’s end, African Americans made up 12 percent of the Union Army, had participated in 41 major battles and 449 smaller actions, and had earned 16 Medals of Honor.

Still, African American soldiers were subject to the persistent racism of the period. All black enlisted men, including noncommissioned officers, were paid $10 a month, $3 less than white privates. Additionally, black soldiers had another $3 per month deducted for their uniforms, while white soldiers were given their uniforms. Black soldiers protested the inequitable pay. Finally, on June 15, 1864, Congress voted for equal pay for USCT, but only for men who were free at the start of the war, thus further depressing morale and driving a deeper wedge between Northern and Southern blacks. This pay distinction remained in place until March 3, 1865.

African American soldiers had the greater share of fatigue duty. Indeed, many Union generals thought USCT units should be used as labor and garrison battalions. When African American soldiers went into combat, they often carried inferior weapons. Fatigue duty impaired morale, contributed to a higher disease rate, and wore out the soldiers as well as their meager supplies. Consequently, one in five African American servicemen died of disease compared with one in 12 whites. Ten black soldiers died of disease for every one who died in battle; for white soldiers the ratio was two to one.

In sharp contrast, African American sailors were an active part of the Union Navy from the beginning of the Civil War. Indeed, the navy provided African Americans the best opportunity to actively support the Union war effort. African American naval service dated back to the American Revolution, and many African Americans possessed maritime skills gained through service in the merchant marines in the first half of the 19th century. Unlike military service, naval service lacked any connotations of social uplift and generally sailors—white and black—were seen as the dregs of society. Black sailors fared better than their later military counterparts. The navy was fully integrated because segregation was difficult if not impossible to achieve on a ship. Black sailors received equal pay and an equal share of all prize money from captured Confederate merchant ships and blockade runners. An equal standard of equipment, decent medical care, similar opportunities to earn distinction in combat, and an equitable naval criminal justice system also ensured that black sailors had a better wartime experience than black soldiers. Furthermore, the navy retained control of its recruiting responsibilities, thus eliminating the racism that pervaded state recruitments for the army. Black sailors were primarily urban, Northern free blacks or foreign blacks, while black soldiers were largely rural slaves.

The Emancipation Proclamation also provided African American women with the opportunity to take a more active role in Republican rallies and activities as politicians realized that their support was critical to the Union cause. Because black men had been excluded from voting and from military service, Republicans had little incentive to seek their support. With emancipation and recruitment, however, the political climate changed. Several Northern black women served as recruiters for African American Union regiments. Black women expressed support and renewed faith in Lincoln and the remainder of the nation’s leaders. In late 1862, Frances Harper wrote to a friend that “We may thank God that in the hour when the nation’s life was convulsed … the President reached out his hand through the darkness to break the chains on which the rust of centuries had gathered” (quoted in Silber 2005, 140-141). Black schoolteacher Edmonia Highgate spoke in support of Lincoln at a meeting of the National Convention of Colored Men in the fall of 1864. One newspaper reporter said her public comments demonstrated that she was a “strong Lincoln MAN” (quoted in Silber 2005, 140-141).

Free African American women faced harsh economic conditions. The better-paying jobs were often denied to black women. As black soldiers were recruited for the Union Army, the lack of employment opportunities and the absence of male wage earners placed Northern black women in an acute economic position. David Demus, a soldier in the famed 54th Massachusetts, pleaded with his wife to stop doing field work for a local farmer. In a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Mrs. John Davis asked for a furlough for her husband, a member of the 102nd USCT: “I have no support except what I can earn by my own labor.” This problem resulted from the fact that her husband had received no pay, and it ensured that she was “completely distitute.” Rosanne Henson explained to Lincoln that “being a colored woman [I] do not get any state pay” (quoted in Silber 2005, 63-64). The federal government made some initial steps in relieving the economic plight of African American women after the massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow by amending pension laws so that wives of black soldiers could receive pensions. With greater economic opportunity came greater government oversight, however, as the federal government investigated “proper” and “improper” marriages among a people who had never been legally permitted to marry.

Blacks in the Army

Although black men were consistently barred from military service for the Union Army early in the war, they were included in the Confederate Army from the beginning. However, black Confederate military service was built on the conventions of Southern society, which put blacks to work performing the menial tasks of heavy labor. Harvey’s Scouts, a group that rode with Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Third Georgia Infantry, and the Louisiana Native Guards and who would later join the Union Army after Benjamin Butler’s occupation of New Orleans in 1862, all served support functions for the Confederate Army. The use of coerced or “voluntary” black military service for manual labor freed white Confederate soldiers for frontline duty and kept firearms from African Americans. The Confederate Congress passed several bills, including the Negro Musicians Bill (1862) and the Regimental Cooks Bills (1862 and 1863), ensuring that free and enslaved blacks filled support roles and did not serve as soldiers. Slaves and conscripted blacks also built fortifications, expanded river defenses, repaired railroads, and assisted in the manufacture of armaments. In the early years of the war, there was no talk in the Confederacy of arming slaves for combat.

Although Major General Patrick Cleburne called for the enlistment of slaves as soldiers in January 1864, Confederate president Jefferson Davis would not consider Cleburne’s plan. Later that year, Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin also called for the enlistment of blacks, and by January 1865, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee similarly called for the use of black soldiers to fill the thinning ranks of the Confederate States Army. On March 13, 1865, the Confederate Congress authorized recruitment of black soldiers promising a loosely defined emancipation in exchange for service. Few blacks were recruited, however, and the surrender documents at Appomattox one month later showed no black soldiers among those who surrendered. Generally, black soldiers who served the Confederacy did so because they were conscripted, coerced by their masters or other whites, or sought economic gain or protection for their families and communities. There is no evidence that blacks fought to support the South or its so-called peculiar institution.

Free and enslaved black men and women in both the North and South interacted with the Union and Confederate causes and troops in some way or another during the war, and thus the “world came to the plantation” (Bardaglio 1992, 219). Slave children’s workload increased as white men left for military service and black men were either impressed into service or ran away. The war meant more than an increased workload for African American children. The Civil War further destabilized African American families in a myriad of ways. Slave fathers’ control over their children could and often was trumped by the master’s absolute power over slave lives. During the Civil War, fathers and mothers ran away. When families reunited, fathers asserted their authority in ways that had been completely unknown under slavery. Families were destabilized and divided as slaves sought freedom behind Union lines. The military accepted male slaves into military service, particularly after 1862, but families were expected to remain behind on the plantation. Enslaved women and children who were left behind on the plantation were often brutalized by vengeful masters. Patsey Leach of Kentucky recalled how her master became particularly abusive after her husband left and later died on the battlefield: “When my husband was killed my master whipped me severely saying my husband had gone into the army to fight against white folks and he my master would let me know that I was foolish to let my husband go.” Leach was so badly beaten that “blood oozed from the lacerations” on her back. Desperate to escape, Leach fled without four of her children (Leach as quoted in Taylor 2005, 194).

Thus, for African American men and women the decision to flee or to stay, to fight or to sit idly by was fraught with painful choices. Adding to the chaos of African American family life was increased government interest in slave marriages, which marked a dramatic change for black families. As the federal government passed legislation allowing the wives of black soldiers to receive pensions, the government expressed a heightened interest in “proper” and “improper” marriages and “moral” and “immoral” activities of the widows. Still black families generally welcomed the intrusion of the public worlds of politics and war into their domestic affairs because they saw in such a blending of the public and private a means of achieving liberation.


The adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in January 1865 forever settled the status of slavery in the United States and “placed reunification at the forefront of ex-slave families’ quest for freedom” (Taylor 2005, 196). Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave, its implementation reinforced the movement for the destruction of slavery. With the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the provisions of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation could not be overturned by a future presidential administration, Congress, or the courts. Furthermore, the amendment prepared the way for the expansion of civil rights that were later guaranteed for African Americans in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, several versions of an antislavery constitutional amendment were considered. Missouri congressman John Henderson presented a draft proposal to Congress in January 1864. Charles Sumner also submitted a version of an abolition amendment. Congressman James Ashley of Ohio emerged as the leading spokesperson for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. Ashley argued that Congress had unrestricted amending power that allowed for the abolition of slavery. The final version of the amendment was prepared by the Senate Judiciary Committee under the direction of Lyman Trumbull of Illinois. Using language similar to that of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the committee’s version called simply for the prohibition of slavery. The committee believed the amendment accomplished the desires of abolitionists while avoiding the anger and potential loss of support from War Democrats. The Thirteenth Amendment was passed in the Senate in April 1864, but was voted down in the House of Representatives as Democrats rallied supporters under the banner of states’ rights.

Popular support for abolition grew as war casualties mounted. The elections in the fall of 1864 would provide the final impetus for passage of the amendment. Lincoln claimed his overwhelming victory in his reelection bid as a mandate on the abolition amendment. While Lincoln could have simply waited until March when the new, Republican-majority Congress was seated, he chose instead to push for passage of the amendment by the lame-duck Congress. Lincoln believed passage by a bipartisan majority would stand as a sign of wartime unity, and he used his prestige and his influence to persuade Democrats to change their votes. On January 31, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment finally passed the House with unanimous Republican support and many Democrats either reversing their position or absenting themselves from the vote. By December 1865, the requisite three-fourths of all states—Union and former Confederate states—had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment.

With ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment and Union victory in 1865, African Americans witnessed and participated in their transcendence from slavery to freedom. In February 1865, after Confederate evacuation of Charleston, South Carolina, the Twenty-First USCT and detachments of the Fifty-Fourth and Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts regiments were the first Union troops to enter the city. As Colonel Charles B. Fox of the Fifty-Fifth Massachusetts put it:

Words would fail to describe the scene which those who witnessed it will never forget—the welcome given to a regiment of colored troops by their people redeemed from slavery … Cheers, blessings, prayers, and songs were heard on every side. Men and women crowded to shake hands with men and officers. (Fox as quoted in McPherson 1992, 90)

The enslaved had become the liberators.