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© 2009 WNET.ORG, Kunhardt McGee Productions, Inc., and Inkwell Films Inc.
This film is a production of WNET.ORG, Kunhardt McGee Productions and Inkwell Films in association with Ark Media.
When it was announced on January 1st, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a promise yet to be fulfilled. The Civil War still raged, and the Confederacy had no intention of abiding by President Abraham Lincoln’s laws; for the slaves to truly be freed, the Union would have to win the war.
Thousands of free African American men in the north had known this from the start. With the first news of Fort Sumter’s bombardment, they had rushed to enlist in the war against the South, only to be turned away. Although African American men had fought in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, a Federal law dating from 1792 banned them from U.S. military service.
For the first two years of the war Lincoln resisted the call to repeal this law, fearful that such a move would prompt the Union’s slave-holding border states to secede. By mid-1862, however, the grim logic of escalating casualties and a dwindling supply of white volunteers dictated the necessity of recruiting black troops. Concurrent with the first issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1962, African Americans were at last allowed to enlist.
Military service itself was fraught with discrimination for “U.S. Colored Troops,” who were paid much less than white troops and segregated into all-black units commanded by white officers. Moreover, most African American soldiers were denied the opportunity to fight in the front lines by commanders who preferred to keep them in mundane non-combat support roles as cooks, laborers, and supply troops.
Lincoln himself recognized this as a waste of military resources: “The colored population,” he remarked in March 1863, “is the great available and yet unavailed of force for restoring the Union." Eventually, military practicality triumphed over racial prejudice, and by war’s end, over 185,000 African American soldiers and sailors served in the US Army and Navy, of which 40,000 were killed in battle or died of disease. Twenty-three African Americans were awarded the nation’s highest military decoration—the Medal of Honor.
Frederick Douglass, in calling for black recruitment, eloquently captured what was at stake for African American soldiers of the Civil War, and why so many would go on to fight so hard for a nation that was only beginning to recognize them as Americans at all:
"Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship."
- According to Professor David Blight, what was Lincoln’s great fear in issuing an executive order freeing the slaves?
- Why did Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation NOT free the slaves in the slaveholding border states still loyal to the Union?
- Do you think Lincoln merits the heroic remembrance as “The Great Emancipator” that he’s traditionally been accorded by the African American community?