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Racial Injustices and the Cost of Civil War: The African American Perspective Essay

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Updated: Nov 28th, 2019


The American Civil War continues to engage historians and mainstream commentators alike, as they endeavour to understand the real meaning and essence of slavery, race, and violence that characterize the nation’s history. While much has been written about the specific battles and the officers involved, less is known about the role of African American soldiers who took up arms to free themselves, their families, and their fellow slaves from the entrapment of slavery (Roberts 1455).

Arguably, less is also known about the price the enslaved people had to pay in the achievement of freedom through warfare rather than peacetime processes, and also how racial injustices perpetuated by whites during the Civil War and Reconstruction era inflated the cost paid by people of African ancestry (Schwalm 21).

Owing to the fact that academic interest in the Civil War has grown substantially in recent years, it is of immense importance to look into the racial injustices and the cost of Civil War from the African American perspective, with the view to dispelling the commonly held perception by war historians that enslaved people were the beneficiaries of this war, rather than victims.

Contextualising the Issue

Soon after the eruption of the Civil War, leaders of black communities and well-known white abolitionists in the North insisted that blacks be permitted to enlist in the Union Army and pursue war rather than peacetime processes, with the view to paving the way towards the attainment of emancipation for slaves and enhanced rights for blacks.

As the Northern white-dominated soldiers progressed into the antebellum South, hundreds of thousands of slaves escaped to the regions commanded by the Union Army, availing the Union with a prospective pool of military resources and capability (Lee 429-430).

Available literature shows that “over the course of the war, some 400,000 to 500,000 of the South’s 4 million enslaved people fled their masters to approach the Union army or Union lines” (Schwalm 22). A history scholar asserts that African Americans, most notably Frederick Douglas, requested for consent so that their people could fight from the first days of the Civil War (DeRoche 32).

The federal government in general and the War Department in particular were ill-prepared to deal with the surge of black men, women and children who advanced toward Union troops, defences, border cities and other Union-occupied areas of the South, in large part because the initial instructions for the Union army from President Lincoln was to engage in the war while leaving slavery in one piece.

It is clear from the reviewed war scholarship that white civilians and soldiers alike were astonished by the sheer determination of the enslaved people to achieve their independence and to support a war on slavery, hence allowed many black soldiers to enlist in the war though their justifications for doing so were often profoundly shaped by the racist ideologies of the mid-nineteenth century and a presumption to understand what would best serve the former slaves (Schwalm 22).

It is documented that “the eagerness of African American men (free and enslaved) to fight as soldiers on behalf of the Union cause, and the army’s need for growing number of enlistments, culminated in the enlistment of close to 200,000 African Americans, three-quarters of them just out of slavery” (Schwalm 23).

While such types of enlistments reinforced the Union’s dedication to emancipation and offered a promise of citizenship, it can be progressively argued that this newfound “freedom” would cost tens of thousands of black lives and entrench racial injustices even further, as demonstrated in subsequent sections.

Wartime Emancipation and Misconception of Freedom

Available war literature demonstrates that wartime emancipation was a direct consequence of two interrelated developments, namely “the gradual collapse of southern slavery under the worsening conditions created by the Confederate war effort and Union invasion, and […] the destruction of slavery through the actions of enslaved people and the reluctant, haphazard evolution of federal and military policy towards emancipation” (Schwalm 21).

Although enslaved people in the South had to come up with innovative ways to endure both developments if they were to achieve and enjoy their freedom, many did not when the war finally came to an end for the simple reason that most of the soldiers favoured emancipation for military justifications but not for racial or social equality (DeRoche 24).

For instance, most Maine soldiers supported emancipation for the objectives that it would assist Southern whites financially, save the Union and improve Southern whites’ morality, rather than as a means to initiate racial equality (DeRoche 30).

However, as witnessed by the works of Frederick Douglass and other former slaves and abolitionists, emancipation was fuelled by the promise of freedom and hope for social change. It was these tenets that saw Douglass urge African American men to fully support the Civil War, with the view to breaking the bonds of slavery (Moore & Neal 4).

Available wartime scholarship demonstrates that “during the Civil War millions of African Americans gained freedom – some with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the rest with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865” (DeRoche 24). This particular author argues that while African American soldiers played a critical role in bringing freedom, the most instrumental factor in stopping the slavery was the white-dominated Northern armies.

Other scholars argue that the Union and its white-dominated armies were not committed to ending slavery; rather, it was the war that increasingly weakened the ‘peculiar’ institution of the enslaved people to a point where they became actively determined to escape its grasp despite the main ills bedevilling them, including illness and malnutrition (Schwalm 22).

Overall, however, while it is clear that slavery eventually collapsed under the heavyweight of the ongoing Civil War, scholars have exercised caution in insinuating that African Americans were able to achieve the level of freedom they so much desired.

Dissecting the Racial Injustices

It is documented in the literature that “most soldiers viewed African Americans as peculiar at best, and many considered them inferior” (DeRoche 25). It is evident that attitudes of respect and concern for African Americans were extremely uncommon among the Whites, and only a few soldiers entered the army with unwavering conviction that African Americans were equal human beings.

In the battlefront, “white soldiers appreciated African Americans contribution to the cause as soldiers but were not ready to treat them as equal people” (DeRoche 33).

This predisposition perhaps explains why African Americans were denied voting rights immediately after the Civil War even after black soldiers significantly aided the cause of saving the Union. Indeed, available scholarship shows that although African Americans made trustworthy soldiers during the Civil War, they suffered discrimination-oriented setbacks that related to pay, clothing allowances, and weaponry (Moore & Neal 4).

Available scholarship shows how the Confederates perceived the engagement of African American soldiers with disdain to such a level that they felt morally and spiritually absolved from any responsibility to treat black troops and their mostly abolitionist white officers as honourable opponents on the war front.

Indeed, one particular documentation portrays the racial picture in its right context by claiming that the Confederates were very keen on exterminating rebellious slaves and white abolitionist advocators as a warning to other blacks and also to keep in place a social and economic system grounded on racial subordination (Urwin 210).

Racist policies on black soldiers continued on the war front. Compared to white soldiers in predominantly white army regiments, exceedingly few black soldiers in predominantly black regiments had access to “a full or qualified roster of medical officers, and surgeons attached to black regiments frequently treated their patients harshly and sometimes cruelly” (Schwalm 23).

This author further acknowledges that while white nursing professionals could volunteer for service with white regiments, most could not do the same for black soldiers in predominantly black regiments, and the black women who would have willingly cared for their black counterparts were basically constrained to low-status jobs as laundresses and cooks.

Black soldiers were more likely to be served by insufficient hospital facilities and were also far more likely to be assigned fatigue duty (Schwalm 23). However, despite all these racial prejudices and other operational setbacks such as lack of training and inadequate arms, black men fought as courageously as white soldiers to guarantee their freedom (Roberts 1457).

The issue of racial lynching during and after the Civil War has received widespread attention in the literature. The lynching of African Americans was a travesty which begs to be addressed in the context of racial-related injustices. Recent scholarship on the subject has emphasised that “the draft riots, which included numerous mob beatings and hangings of African Americans, constitute merely the highest tide of reactionary racial violence in the North during the Civil War and Reconstruction” (Pfeifer 621).

It should be recalled that racially-motivated violence against African Americans was not a new phenomenon in the 1860s as historical accounts depict how white southerners had jointly killed African Americans during the slavery era, engaging in extra-judicial executions by hanging and lynching at least forty-four black slaves in the South from 1824-1862 (Pfeifer 622).

It is reported in the literature that lynching seized the attention of many Americans during and after the Civil War specifically because it was such an extraordinary savage and successful manner of disgrace and mortification directed against African Americans by whites (Brundage 28).

Indeed, according to this particular author, the whites took part in the hanging and lynching of African Americans during this era due to their misplaced racial antipathy, patriarchal privilege, economic-oriented apprehensions, and religiously motivated sense of retributive justice that gave them the license to public aggression of almost unrestrained ferociousness against blacks.

Although the whites would want to buy into the idea that lynching was done to punish lawbreakers or violators of the local custom, the blatant correlation between lynching and race, especially in the American South, removed any doubts about its role in reinforcing indiscriminate racial oppression (Brundage 28).

Moving on, it is evident that the Confederacy may have perished at the epitome of the Civil War; however, the determination to maintain the white supremacy did not as witnessed by how the southern conservative whites struggled to gain control over the political and economic order that took shape during the Reconstruction era.

In this period spanning over a decade, the conservative whites ejected black southerners from any meaningful participation in political life not only by creating and remorselessly enforcing a system of racial apartheid but also using extensive violence to maintain iron control over the African American labour force (Grimsley 7).

Indeed, this author rightly suggests that the conservative whites throttled all momentous efforts by black southerners to carve out for themselves any enclave of economic independence, resulting in the continuation of racially-oriented injustices targeted against the former slaves and African American soldiers.

Costs Associated With the Civil War for African Americans

History scholars are of the opinion that slavery and racial injustices became much worse during the Civil War than in peacetime, with malnutrition, disease, and heightened violence increasing the suffering among the enslaved (Schwalm 22).

As argued by scholars, wartime emancipation became a threat to the existence and survival of former slaves due to the severe conditions in refugee camps, which included lack of shelter, medical care, food, firewood and clothing, injuries related to the complicated escapes from slavery, as well as disease outbreaks such as diarrhoea, dysentery, malaria, cholera, typhoid, measles, mumps, smallpox, yellow fever and tuberculosis (Lee 432; Schwalm 22).

Indeed, it is reported that “because of the higher disease rates, black soldiers had frequent encounters with the army’s medical staff, which was overwhelmingly white, and largely shared the view that black humanity was different from and inferior to white counterparts” (Schwalm 24). Many of the former slaves had to pay the ultimate price of death in these contraband refugee camps due to miserable living conditions, sickness, and lack of the commonest necessities of life.

Unlike the popular perception that black men experienced the brunt of the civil war, evidential documentation demonstrates that it was women and children who shouldered the difficulties associated with war.

Indeed, while fugitive black men were employed as military labourers by the Union army, and hence were sometimes fed and housed despite being exposed to severe conditions and hard labour, the situation was severely wanting for women, children, the elderly and infirm, who were characteristically excluded from Union lines or removed to separate contraband camps to look for their resources.

It is reported in the literature that black refugees suffered very high rates of illness and mortality during the war, with scholars asserting that one-quarter of the black civilian refugees in contraband camps may have perished (Schwalm 23).

It is often argued that “the lack of army preparedness, the inadequate response by local officers who felt that civilian populations should not be their responsibility, and the racist treatment offered by many white officers and soldiers exacerbated the health crisis that the war brought to black refugees” (Schwalm 23).

It has also been noted that the wartime casualty by disease was much higher for African American recruits than for white soldiers, with the significant causes of death reported being typhoid, smallpox, measles, diarrhoea, pneumonia, malaria and tuberculosis (Lee 434). Indeed, results from a study conducted by this author demonstrate that “disease was by far the predominant cause of wartime mortality for black men, accounting for 10 of every 11 deaths” (Lee 434).

It is reported elsewhere that African American soldiers “suffered casualties that were 35%-50% greater than that of white soldiers, in spite of the fact that [they] were not permitted to serve in the Army until 18 months after fighting had begun” (Moore & Neal 4). An analysis of the triggers of the health crises facing black soldiers revealed that slavery left black men weak and vulnerable to disease and that the poor living conditions experienced by black soldiers were also to blame.

Indeed, black recruits were exposed to a multiplicity of poor working conditions that could have contributed to compromising their physical, mental and psychological health, such as lack of adequate and properly trained medical personnel in the black regiments, stationing of black soldiers at particularly unhealthy posts, excessively high fatigue duty, nutritional deficiencies, and unsympathetic treatment from white army commanders (Carson 740; Lee 434).

It is also clear that the lynching phenomenon occasioned untold psychological and social costs to African Americans during and after the Civil War. It is documented in the literature that white-dominated lynches men “sought a form of summary justice that allowed for both popular participation and unlimited violence and humiliation” (Brundage 29).

The lynch mobs exploited any available occasion to emphasise the symbolic humiliation of their victims and their race, particularly in light of the fact that they hanged their mostly African American victims on the same trees that had been used in previous lynchings, murdered their victims near black worshiping places, or even forced black communities to witness the killings.

An analysis of this method of humiliation directed at African Americans by whites’ shows that it was aimed at conveying a message of degradation and innumerable psychological suffering of victims and their communities.

For example, lynch mobs once dealt with a black man accused of murdering a white girl after the Civil War by cutting off his fingers and toes, pulling out his teeth with pliers, repeatedly stabbing him in the mouth using a pointed pole, castrating the black man to collect his testicles as souvenirs, and eventually incinerating him (Brundage 29).

Such ritualised humiliation, mockery and morbid humour went a long way not only in disgracing the victims but also in adversely affecting the psychological and social orientations of African Americans as a community (Pfeifer 625).

History scholars acknowledge the fact that African Americans continued to be directly affected by the political and economic costs of the Civil War many years later, and it took a second insurgency comprising Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s to effectively end the system (Grimsley 7-8).

The former slaves continued to suffer political isolation and economic dependency long after the Civil War due to the deeply-held savagery convictions by many whites that African Americans did not deserve to be treated as equals. A sizeable number of assertive blacks who dared to press for political equality and economic freedom in the decades after the Civil War were killed savagely, at least until the Civil Rights Movement came into being (Urwin 210).


The present paper assesses the racial injustices and the cost of Civil War from an African American perspective, with the view to dispelling the commonly held viewpoint that enslaved people were the beneficiaries of this war, rather than victims. It has been well documented that the Confederacy and deeply entrenched slavery may have perished at the epitome of the Civil war, but African Americans neither got the freedom they so much desired, nor achieved integration in the country’s leading political and economic processes until much later.

Cases of blatant racial injustices against black soldiers in the Union Army and blacks in refugee camps are evident of a system that wanted to maintain the status quo even after blacks volunteered in large numbers to join the war and assist to defeat the Confederacy. Most black soldiers lay down their lives for a just cause, but this paper has found that the favour was hardly returned due to racial injustices that continued as the Civil War was being fought and even afterwards during the Reconstruction era.

The costs associated with the Civil War were immense for African Americans, as comprehensively discussed in this paper. Malnutrition, disease, heightened violence, mob lynchings, as well as political and economic segregation are some of the issues that blacks had to deal with as they manoeuvred their way around the Civil War.

These issues downgraded the perceived “independence” that blacks had received after the defeat of mainstream slavery to a point whereby it would be prudent to argue that African Americans were victims of the Civil War, rather than beneficiaries. Overall, it is concluded that declaring emancipation as a war act and joining the Civil War to free the blacks from bondage may have been a necessary and perhaps inevitable act for black Americans; however, they ended up paying a high price and were short-changed in the context of attaining authentic freedom.

Works Cited

Brundage, W. Fitzhugh.”The Ultimate Shame: Lynch-Law in Post-Civil War American South.” Social Alternatives. 25.1 (2006): 28-32. Academic Search Premier. Web.

Carson, Scott Alan. “African-American and White Inequality in the Nineteenth Century American South: A Biological Comparison.” Journal of Population Economics. 22.3 (2009): 739-755. Academic Source Premier. Web.

DeRoche, Andrew J. “Freedom without Equality: Maine Civil War Soldiers Attitudes about Slavery and African Americans.” UCLA Historical Journal. 16.1 (1996): 24-38. America: History and Life. Web.

Grimsley, Mark. “Wars from the American South: The First and Second Reconstructions Considered as Insurgencies.” Civil War History. 58.1 (2012): 6-36. America: History and Life. Web.

Lee, Chulhee. “Socioeconomic Differences in the Health of Black Union Soldiers during the American Civil War.” Social Science History. 33.4 (2009): 427-457. Academic Search Premier. Web.

Moore, Alicia L. and La Vonne I. Neal. “African Americans and the Civil War: Brave Standard Bearers.” Black History Bulletin. 73.2 (2010): 4-7. Academic Search Premier. Web.

Pfeifer, Michael. “The Northern United States and the Genesis of Racial Lynching: The Lynching of African Americans in the Civil War Era.” Journal of American History. 97.3 (2010): 621-635. Academic Search Premier. Web.

Roberts, Rita. “Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era.” Journal of American History. 90.4 (1990): 1455-1457. America: History and Life. Web.

Schwalm, Leslie A. “Surviving Wartime Emancipation: African Americans and the Cost of Civil War.” Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics. 39.1 (2011): 21-27. Academic Search Premier. Web.

Urwin, Gregory J.W. “We cannot treat Negros…as Prisoners of War: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in Civil War Arkansas.” Civil War History. 42.3 (1996): 193-210. America: History and Life. Web.

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