Blacks in America’s Formative Wars: Racism from Without and Within

The Revolutionary and Civil Wars

Racism against Black soldiers began even before independence from Great Britain.  In the beginning of the war, General George Washington advised the Continental Congress not to allow Blacks, criminals, and other vagabonds to enlist in the Continental Army.  However, in November 1775, the royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, declared that any slave who joined the Redcoats would earn their freedom.2  Washington, sensing military necessity, reversed his earlier decision.  As the war, and enlistment, waned, some northerners, including General Nathanael Greene, advocated that the Southern states allow Blacks to enlist.3  Nothing came of this proposal due to the fact that nothing frightened a southerner more than an armed slave.  Racism in the Revolutionary War was mainly internal.  There were racists in both armies, but everyone needed soldiers and no responsible leader was willing to alienate any potential source of manpower.

This was not the case in the Civil War.  Despite their effectiveness in previous wars, President Lincoln did not allow Blacks to join the Union Army.4  As causalities mounted, military necessity again dictated social policy and Blacks were allowed to join the Union Army.  Although there was prejudice against Blacks in Union camps, it paled in comparison with the intensity of Southerners’ hatred toward free Blacks.  Although Southern Whites strongly disliked Northerners, there was something especially infuriating about braving the gunfire of a race inferior to one’s own.  Because of this, captured Black soldiers were not regarded as prisoners of war, but as escaped slaves deserving re-enslavement or death.5

This led to one of the greatest atrocities of the American Civil War, the Fort Pillow Massacre.  Fort Pillow’s garrison was mixed in color; half the soldiers being Black and half being White.  The attacking Confederates were led by General Nathan Bedford Forrest, perhaps the greatest cavalryman in American history and a man so thoroughly racist that he helped found, and became the first Grand Wizard of, the Ku Klux Klan.6  He had made his fortune as a slave trader and had no doubts concerning the inferiority of Blacks.7  The Confederates attacked and captured Fort Pillow, shouting racial slurs and shooting down Union soldiers in the act of surrendering.  Although Blacks were not the only Union soldiers to die that day, racism was clearly apparent.  Forrest, one of history’s most racist men, very deliberately chose a garrison with a large contingent of Black soldiers.  The profanities and epithets should make his intentions quite obvious.  Also, twice as many Black soldiers were killed than White.8  There should be no mistake that the Fort Pillow Massacre was as heinous an act as there was in the Civil War and a chilling precursor to the lynch mobs still to come.

According to Dr. Lockett, the Confederate No-Quarter Policy actually backfired because

They knew if captured, they would not be considered prisoners of war…they would be designated as slaves captured in arms, and thus liable to execution or slavery. Consequently, the fear of capture, as well as the hope of freedom, inspired Negro soldiers to fight with extraordinary fury, tenacity, and resoluteness, buttressed by an unofficial policy of no surrender.9

Black soldiers also had to deal with racism before they made it to the front.  Segregation was the policy of the Union Army.  Black soldiers could not become officers.  If Blacks wanted to form a regiment, they needed to find or be found by a White officer willing to train them and lead them into battle.  Black soldiers also had to fight pay discrimination.  In 1862, a law was passed labeling Black soldiers as “laborers,” which allowed the government to pay them less than White soldiers.10  Democrats blocked any equalization of pay until two years later, when only Black soldiers who enlisted before the war were able to receive full, retroactive equalization of pay.  According to the United States government, the worth of a person willing to lay down their life for their country was fully dependent on the color of their skin.


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