Summary Objective 17

Students will examine the evolving Union policies concerning slavery and African-American military service and understand how free black and enslaved communities affected the Civil War. Maps to Key Concepts 2, 3, 5, 7, 9 & 10


What else should my students know?

17.A Union policy relating to slavery evolved over time. Initially, northern prejudice and the need to appease border states where slavery was legal within the Union made Lincoln reluctant to make ending slavery an objective of the war. As increasing numbers of enslaved people risked their lives to escape slavery and join the Union lines, the military accepted them as contraband property, a classification that negated any legal claims of ownership by enslavers and set important precedents for more general emancipation.

17.B While the experience of black soldiers was never free from prejudice, the Union’s position on black military service did evolve over time. Initially, Union military officials were reluctant to accept African-American men who wanted to serve. It was largely through the persistence of the African-American community that this policy changed. Eventually, the 180,000 black soldiers who served-, including the 98,500 formerly enslaved men-, provided a crucial service to the Union Army. 

17.C In the South, enslaved men, women and children left plantations in large numbers. Their departures removed laborers from the fields, affecting the Confederacy’s ability to supply its army and feed its civilians. It also had a dramatic impact on Confederate morale as the civilian population at home felt betrayed by the departure of those they had enslaved.

17.D Many enslaved people who remained on southern plantations and farms colluded with Union forces to hinder the Confederate military by providing valuable information on troop numbers and positions. Trying to control this espionage network required the Confederacy to divert military forces away from the front-line battles with the Union. 

17.E The Emancipation Proclamation was the culmination of evolving Union policy. Lincoln’s proclamation freed enslaved people in areas of seceded states not under Union control. The Emancipation Proclamation was the result of several factors: Lincoln’s opposition to slavery, the changing sentiment in the North about the necessity of ending slavery as a way to end the war, the valor of the African-American soldiers who fought for freedom, and the self-emancipation of hundreds of thousands of enslaved Southerners  who had already fled to Union lines. 


How can I teach this?

  • The archives of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project website house a number of letters that can serve as primary documents for student interpretation.
  • On the need to maintain the loyalty of the border states where slavery was legal, see an 1861 letter from a Missouri Unionist to the commander of the Department of the West and the commander’s reply. In the letter, Thomas T. Gantt asks whether the federal government will interfere with slavery.
  • A widely republished 1861 letter from black Ohioan William A. Jones to the Secretary of War discusses the formation and preparation of a black regiment that was waiting for the opportunity to fight.
  • In 1862, John Boston, a fugitive from Maryland, writes to tell his wife that he has enlisted in a Brooklyn regiment.
  • An 1863 letter “to the Commander of a Louisiana Black Brigade” describes the service of African-American soldiers during the Battle of Port Hudson and offers firsthand accounts of the bravery of these troops.
  • The First and Second Confiscation Acts offer opportunities to examine evolving Union policy. The First Confiscation Act (1861) allowed the Union Army to "confiscate" enslaved people as property, legally negating enslavers’ claims to ownership. However, the law did not clarify if, once "confiscated," these formerly enslaved people were free. The Second Confiscation Act (1862) freed everyone enslaved by a member of the Confederate military or government.
  • The Militia Act of July, 1862 allowed African-American men to serve in the army.
  • In his September 1861 editorial, “Fighting Rebels With Only One Hand,” Frederick Douglass makes a persuasive argument for black service in the Union army.
  • For one example of the impact of black service, see accounts of Harriet Tubman’s Combahee River expedition. Tubman, along with a regiment of African-American Union soldiers, led a raid to disrupt Confederate supply lines and free hundreds of enslaved people. In the end, Tubman’s mission freed 700 enslaved people. She gave an account of the Combahee River raid to Sarah Bradford, who published it in Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman.
  • Letters to and from President Lincoln may also prove useful.
  • On the unequal pay of black soldiers, see the letter from 54th MA Corporal James Henry Gooding to the president. Gooding asks Lincoln to intervene to ensure that he and his fellow soldiers are fairly paid. Black soldiers were paid $10 per month while white soldiers were paid $13. 
  • Lincoln stresses how critical black service is to the Union in an 1864 letter to Isaac M. Schermerhorn. He writes that “[a]ny different policy in regard to the colored man, deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear. We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seaman, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and Steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.” 
  • One last resource is the widely available diary of Mary Chesnut. An elite white woman living in South Carolina, Chesnut provided accounts of enslaved peoples’ rebellions during the war. Students should be aware that Chesnut’s presentation of these events is intensely biased and includes racist ideas and language. Significant dates in the diary include:
  • October 7, 1861. In this passage, Chesnut talks about the murder of Mrs. Witherspoon by the people she enslaved. 
  • July 13, 1862. Chesnut recounts a story of enslaved laborers in South Carolina attempting to inform a Union solider of the location of a Confederate camp.
  • January 9, 1864. Chesnut records the escape of two enslaved people from the household of C.S.A. President Jefferson Davis. She notes the surprise of Davis’ wife, Varina, at their leaving. 

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