African Americans and the Civil War
When the Civil War began in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln’s paramount goal was the preservation of the union not the abolition of slavery. Though Lincoln detested slavery, viewed it as a moral sin, and believed it should not expand into new territories in the West, he, like many of his predecessors, hoped slavery would die a slow, natural death in the future. He regarded immediate abolition as too radical and unconstitutional. During the early years of the war, Lincoln also believed that any slaves freed as a consequence of the war, or by the volition of their masters, should be resettled outside of the United States. Not only did Lincoln not endorse abolition during the first year of the war, he did not believe freed black people could or should become citizens of the United States.
During the war, African-Americans—slave and free, in the North and South—forced President Lincoln to reconsider the meaning of the war. Black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass challenged Lincoln to fight not just the Confederate Army but the lifeblood of the Confederate states – their slave system. At the same time, slaves ran away from their masters into Union Army camps forcing the United States to develop policies that led to their emancipation during the war. Close to 200,000 black men, both former slaves and people born free, fought in all-black Union Army regiments during the war and distinguished themselves on and off the battlefield. Their bravery and commitment also eventually forced Lincoln to recognize the necessity of ensuring their freedom when the war ended as well as the freedom of all slaves.
Before his assassination in April 1865, Lincoln had dispensed with his proposal to colonize black people abroad and began to make provisional plans for Reconstruction that included extending voting rights to some black men, including Union Army veterans. African-Americans played a crucial role in shifting the meaning of the Civil War. Rather than a war simply about union, their actions made it into a war about emancipation, freedom, and citizenship. (1)
This module addresses the following Course Learning Outcomes listed in the Syllabus for this course:
- To provide students with a general understanding of the history of African Americans within the context of American History.
- To motivate students to become interested and active in African American history by comparing current events with historical information.(1)
Additional learning outcomes associated with this module are:
- The student will be able to discuss the origins, evolution, and spread of racial slavery.
- The student will be able to describe the creation of a distinct African-American culture and how that culture became part of the broader American culture.
- The student will be able to describe how African-American, during times of war, have forced America to live up to its promise of freedom and equality (1)
Upon completion of this module, the student will be able to:
Use primary historical documents to explain why and how African Americans fought to make the Civil War about freedom and emancipation. (1)
Readings and Resources
Learning Unit: African Americans and the Civil War (see below) (1)