Nationally, more than 186,000 blacks served in the military during the Civil War. They constituted 10 percent of the total Union Army force and 25 percent of the naval strength. Another 200,000 served as laborers and dock workers. There were more than 120 regiments and 10 batteries of light artillery. By the war's end, more than 37,000 blacks had given their lives for their country. Nearly 35 percent of all blacks who wore the Union Army uniform saw combat, and they fought in 500 military actions and more than 40 major battles. Seventeen black soldiers and four black sailors were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
When the war broke out, black men enthusiastically offered their services. They believed that success for the Union meant freedom. But military tradition, beginning with the Militia Act in 1792, barred blacks from the armed forces, despite the fact that 5,000 blacks had helped America gain independence in 1783 and had fought in every war since colonial times.
What of the Missouri slave? Like his colleagues elsewhere, he volunteered his services only to have them refused. Although slavery was the cause, this was a white man's war. White Americans, no matter what their political loyalties, were generally opposed to the idea of blacks in the military. To arm the blacks was to confess that the North could not get the job done without them. In the South, to arm the blacks was to incite slave revolts. Once they had been soldiers, it would have been impossible to re-enslave blacks or to keep slaves in bondage. Men who fight for their country have a right to citizenship. Because of its divided loyalty, nowhere was a greater effort made to maintain the status quo than in Missouri.
Early in the war, President Lincoln was deeply concerned about the border slave states that remained in the Union - Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. Realizing Missouri's importance, Lincoln stated that if the state joined the South, the job of preserving the Union would be "too large for us." He thus made every effort to keep Missouri's loyalty.
Missouri was torn by strife from within and without. Since 1854, it had carried on a bloody border war with Kansas over the slavery issue. The state was divided by opposing loyalties, Union sympathizers versus secessionist slave holders. While 109,000 Missourians fought for the "stars and stripes" of the Union, 30,000 fought for the "stars and bars" of the Confederacy.
By 1862, with the border states reasonably secure, Lincoln requested and Congress approved the use of black troops. On July 31, 1863, Lincoln ordered all able-bodied blacks be enlisted in the Union Army. All such volunteers or draftees would be free. Abolitionists - white and black - were overjoyed, for they had been urging Lincoln to use the "sable arm" at his disposal.
Once he had decided to use black troops, Lincoln made earnest efforts to enlist them. In the fall of 1863, he sent Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas into Maryland, Tennessee, and Missouri to enroll them.
For blacks, it was the dawn of a new day. They eagerly sought to enlist. Altogether, Missouri sent 8,400 blacks to fight in the Union Army, including the 62nd U.S. Regiment of (Missouri) Colored Infantry of African Descent. Many Missouri blacks also served in out-of-state regiments, especially in the 1st Iowa Regiment of African Descent, and 1st and 2nd Regiments of Kansas Colored Volunteers.
Yet many blacks who would have enlisted were dissuaded by conservative officials and by guerrillas who tortured, beat, and hanged prospective enlistees. Hundreds ran away, some going as far as Massachusetts to enlist.
Some blacks enlisted as substitutes for white men or joined to get a bounty of $100 if the slave was drafted, or $300 if the slave volunteered. The master, however, received the bounty.
Discrimination followed these Missourians into the army. Blacks, like whites, were promised a bounty, but not until the war was over did they receive it. While white soldiers received $13 a month, of which three dollars was for clothing and one ration, Negro soldiers were given $10 a month, three of which were for clothing and one ration.
Blacks were given inferior weapons and materials, inadequate medical care and, if captured, were killed until Lincoln and Grant threatened to treat captured Confederates in a similar manner.
Blacks performed other valuable services for the Union Army besides fighting. They acted as informants and spies, pointing out locations of bushwhackers and guerrillas. Black men worked as teamsters, cooks, breastworks builders and in other non-combat capacities. Many black women acted as nurses.
At the end of the war, the 62nd and 65th United States Colored Infantries raised more than $6,000 to fund a school back in Missouri. Nearly all contributed; one soldier gave $100 out of an annual salary of $156. The school they established in Jefferson City later became Lincoln University.
The war held out bright hopes for the future of Missouri blacks. Psychologically, the war had a tremendous effect upon the Negro soldier. He went into the army as a property; he came out a man.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lincoln University History Professor Antonio Holland is co-author with Lorenzo J. Greene and Gary Kremer of "Missouri's Black Heritage", revised edition, University of Missouri Press, 1993.