(Editor's note: April 12 will mark the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. In conjunction with sesquicentennial observances, the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History designated the February 2011 Black History Month theme as "African Americans in the Civil War.")
Former Georgia slaves played a critical but little-known role in the historic struggle that pried open the door to black enlistment in the U.S. military during the Civil War.
The courage and bravery of the men who served in experimental all-black regiments helped convince President Abraham Lincoln to rewrite his historic Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln's revision was the catalyst for the enlistment of 200,000 black men in the Union Army and Navy, and transformed the conflict over states' rights into a crusade to abolish American slavery.
SHORTLY AFTER the first shots were fired in April 1861, free black men in the North began to form militia units and volunteer for service in the Union army. Black volunteers were convinced that military service afforded them an unprecedented opportunity to prove their patriotism and manhood in a war against Southern slaveholders.
However, before black men could march off to fight for the liberation of their enslaved brethren, they first had to fight for the right to join the U.S. military. A federal statute enacted in 1792 prohibited blacks from serving in state militias or the U.S. Army and Navy.
At the war's outset, Lincoln assured whites in the North and South that the war arose out of political differences concerning states' rights rather than a desire to interfere with slavery. Despite a string of devastating military setbacks, a dwindling pool of white recruits and growing anti-war sentiment, on July 4, 1862, the president reassured Congress that his only goal was to preserve the Union.
The most persuasive voice in favor of black enlistment belonged to Frederick Douglass, an outspoken black abolitionist. Douglass angrily denounced the federal government's prescription against black soldiers as a "spectacle of blind, unreasoning prejudice," and he ridiculed the Union for fighting with its "white hand" while allowing its "black hand" to remain tied.
To the chagrin of Northern abolitionists, Lincoln continued to argue that the Civil War was and should remain a "white man's war." In September 1862, the president predicted black enlistment would turn 50,000 bayonets from the loyal slaveholding border states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and Delaware against the Union.
DESPITE OFFICIAL government opposition to black enlistment, a handful of Northern generals organized experimental all-black regiments. The first systematic attempt was conducted by Gen. David Hunter, an ardent abolitionist, who assumed command of Union forces occupying key coastal towns and islands off Georgia, South Carolina and north Florida on March 31, 1862.
Acting on vague U. S. War Department orders, Hunter issued a proclamation of emancipation and set in motion a controversial plan to enlist blacks in the Union Army. Hunter's recruitment was aided by the Rev. Abraham Murchinson, a former Savannah slave who called a meeting of black men living on Cockspur Island, Ga. Approximately 150 former Georgia slaves volunteered to enlist. The regiment eventually reached full strength at 1,035 soldiers commanded by white officers.
Hunter's actions angered Union soldiers, federal officials and Lincoln, who promptly issued a terse statement disclaiming knowledge of his actions. After failing to receive War Department authorization to recruit black soldiers, Hunter disbanded all but one 38-man company of his regiment.
Although Lincoln refused to officially embrace Hunter's initiatives, the president could not ignore the firestorm of indignation that arose throughout the Union after "Hunter's Regiment" was disbanded. Neither could he ignore the fact that the growing need for additional Union troops was beginning to soften white opposition to black enlistment.
DURING THE SUMMER of 1862, Lincoln confided in his most trusted advisors that he had decided to take full advantage of the "slave element" by issuing a proclamation of emancipation.
Although only a few blacks fought for the rebels, a vast army of slave laborers were forced to support the Confederate war effort as nurses, orderlies, teamsters and pioneers. On the home front, slaves supplied the labor for plantations, factories, arsenals and mines. Military necessity required that this important component of the Southern war machine be removed from Confederate control.
Following the limited Union victory at the battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862. The document stated that on Jan. 1, 1863, all people being held as slaves in states still in rebellion against the Union on that date would be free. In other words, if the rebels would surrender and rejoin the Union, slave owners would be able to keep their slaves. However, this final plea for compromise was ignored by Confederate leaders.
On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Although few, if any, Southern slaves were freed by the historic document, it contained a clause, not included in the preliminary proclamation, authorizing enlistment of blacks into the U.S. military.
Prior to the issuance of Lincoln's proclamation, only a few "unofficial" efforts to organize black regiments had been initiated, in South Carolina, Kansas and Louisiana. The eventual enlistment of 200,000 black soldiers, including several thousand Georgians, provided the North with a fresh source of manpower and a decided strategic advantage. In fact, Lincoln repeatedly asserted from mid-1863 until his assassination that without the advent of black soldiers, the Union would not have been preserved.
(The writer is the former Georgia commissioner of labor, and was the Democratic Party's nominee for U.S. Senate in 2010.)