African-American Contribution Towards The Civil War

Throughout American history, African-Americans have often been oppressed and discriminated against. Upon their arrival to America, they were taken against their will and forced to work as laborers. Many of the African-Americans were given no pay and often physically torchered. African Americans fought for their freedom, and up until the Civil War it was rarely given to them. In the spring of 1861, the escalated tension between the northern and southern states of America ignited the outbreak of war. In the duration of the civil war, over 200,000 African Americans, equaling 10% of the entire military force in the north, served in the Union military. 37,000 died fighting for the Union (Nussbaum).

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As history has been reinterpreted through the years, views on African-American contribution towards the Civil War has changed significantly. In the early 1900s, white superiority and discrimination against blacks were heavily emphasized because of the social regulations such as the Jim Crow Laws, which explains why there is not nearly as much content of African Americans than in modern times. The large amount of bias and racism during the early 1900s prevented the ability to recognize African American contribution. In contrast, in modern day history, people are now able to look upon the Civil war through a more objective lense. Therefore, the contributions of the African Americans are more appreciated. It is important to evaluate the significance of the contributions of the African Americans because African Americans were arguably the most impacted by this conflict. Their contribution had a prominent impact on the civil war. This can be seen in the northern and southern economies, the military, and politics.

One aspect in which the African-American population contributed to the war was the economy of the northern states. Most commonly, they assisted through several forms of manual labor. Because of the north’s largely industrial economy, many African-Americans were factory workers or other unskillful workers. “Enslaved African-American women worked as laundresses, cooks and ‘matrons’,” (Ross) Although the Northern Republicans were more opposed to slavery than the Southern Democrats, there was still slavery present. During the time, African Americans that were enslaved often had to take on the menial tasks of the white slave owners. Although these tasks were menial, they were vital for everyday life. The northern economy also flourished during the war because of the cotton industry. Although there were not many plantations in the north, northern merchants still attained large sums by exporting the cotton to Britain and Europe. Throughout the war, the north had a thriving economy, which can be seen in the large production of war materials and equipment. Without the hardworking and cheap labor of African Americans, the north would have less of an economic advantage during the war.

The southern economy was also largely based on African-American labor. In the south, African Americans aided in the construction of southern railroads. “The railroad’s expansion, made possible by slave labor, perpetuated the plantation system by increasing the price of slaves, opening up interior lands for cultivation, and expanding cotton markets. ” (Johnson) The railroads allowed for more mobility in the transport of weapons and other resources which was also largely constructed by a slave labor force. “Of the four million slaves working in the South in 1860, about one million worked in homes or in industry, construction, mining, lumbering or transportation. The remaining three million worked in agriculture, two million of whom worked in cotton” (Schulman).

The cotton industry was a major force in the economy of the south which required a large number of slave labor. This major resource provided the south with fabric textiles, which could be made into clothing. None of this would have been possible without the large number of cheap labor force that the African Americans provided. Along with northern economy, African-Americans largely contributed to the Union army. By the end of the war, the U. S. Colored Troops (USCT) constituted approximately 10% of the Union Army (Avila). In 1862, Frederick Douglass, an African-American abolitionist, wrote… “Negroes have repeatedly threaded their way through the lines of the rebels exposing themselves to bullets” (Douglass) Besides their support in combat, African-Americans, in some cases, were also spies. “Scott discovered several Confederate companies, defended by an artillery battery” (Goodheart). Scott was a black soldier who became notable for his military intelligence gathered for the union army. It is obvious that African American participation in the war effort was noteworthy and in some instances very necessary. Liberty won by white men would lose half its luster. ‘Who would be free themselves must strike the blow’. (Douglass)African-American enlistment was not as common in the confederate army as opposed to the union army.

Although there were some cases of southern black men in combat, southern African- Americans helped more with other aspects of the Confederate war effort. Often times this was not a willful participation in the war effort, but rather a continuation of forced labor. The Virginia legislature passed a law in February 1862 authorizing the impressment of free black labor. “The majority of the laborers in the Confederate salt, iron, and lead mines, for example, were blacks” The black labor force supported the confederate war effort by producing raw materials to be used for the military. ‘The immediate impressment of five thousand free Negroes and Slaves to work on the defences of Richmond & Danville” (J. C. Shields) is an example of the African American contribution to the war “effort”. Even freed blacks were forced to now work to support the southern war effort. Even though they did not hold substantial political power due to their lack of voting rights, politically, African-Americans were aligned with the northern efforts to overthrow the slave economy.

By supporting the Republican party, there was hope for equality. Isaac Pleasants of Henrico County believed that ‘it was to the interest of all colored people to be in favor of the Yankees as I had an idea that slavery was a good deal at stake in the conflict between the states and that the success of the North would improve the condition of the slaves, at least. ‘ (Lee) It was in the African American people’s best interest to support the ideology of the north to ultimately improve their rights and liberties. In one letter, dated January 2, 1865, Taylor advocated for “equal privileges’ for black soldiers” (White) Confined at the headquarters of the 2nd U. S. Colored Infantry on November 15, 1864, Commissary Sergeant James T. S. Taylor, who was African-American, put pen to paper to write President Abraham Lincoln a letter in support of equal treatment of black soldiers in the army, setting precedence for equal rights and treatment in general society.

Whether or not African-Americans were forced to work or volunteered to contribute during the civil war, they made a significant impact. Without African-Americans in the north and the south, economic growth, vital combat advances, and support for the anti slavery movement would not have been possible. Historically, African American participation in the Civil War has been largely underrecognized. But it is important to correctly recognize the contribution made historically by the African Americans during the Civil War.

10 October 2020

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