The following is an excerpt of Medicine, Science, and Making Race in Civil War America by Leslie A. Schwalm, available wherever books are sold.
Race and the U.S. Military: Black Soldiering
Early in the war, congress, the Lincoln administration, and the War Department’s leadership first rejected then moved very cautiously toward Black enlistment. By 1863, it was military necessity and the progress of the war, rather than a commitment to Black equality, that ultimately opened the door to Black enlistment. As historian John David Smith succinctly concluded, “The freeing and the mobilizing of Black troops were consequences, not objectives, of the war.” With reason, Northern Blacks and radical abolitionists within and outside the army understood that Black enlistment strengthened the war’s attack on slavery and their critique of racial discrimination while reinforcing the long struggle among Northern Blacks for full citizenship rights. At the same time, the War Department limited the radical potential of Black enlistment through policies and practices that perpetuated a lasting structure of inequality for Black soldiers. Confining that radical potential in a web of racializing policies and actions amounted to an overwhelming devaluation of Black humanity, one that came at a very high human cost.
For the first year of Black enlistment, the army paid Black soldiers at the same rate as Black military laborers rather than the same rate as white soldiers
Even with Black enlistment, the wartime army was segregated and organized around the premise of Black inferiority and white intolerance for Black authority. For the most part, neither the Lincoln administration nor the nation’s leading military commanders believed white soldiers could or would serve with African Americans; until late in the war, many also doubted the ability of Black men to meet the rigors of soldiering, and certainly most whites refused the notion that white soldiers could be officered by Black men.
Throughout their service, Black soldiers would be treated unequally.
White prejudices immediately and lastingly shaped Black military service. For the first year of Black enlistment, the army paid Black soldiers at the same rate as Black military laborers rather than the same rate as white soldiers, evoking extensive protest and causing great hardship among the soldiers who refused to accept Jim Crow pay. Yet the pay controversy was only the opening salvo in military racial discrimination. Throughout their service, Black soldiers would be treated unequally. They were conscripted into service through violence or its threat by Union enlistment agents in the border states and occupied South. They were denied commissioned office and were forced to serve under white commanders. They were disproportionally assigned heavy fatigue duty, posted in the South’s most unhealthy regions, denied furloughs, deprived of adequate rations, issued second-class weapons, subjected to humiliating and abusive punishments—the list of disparaging and prejudicial treatment was long and costly to soldier morale, their families back home, and the survival rate in Black regiments. “The color line circumscribed virtually every aspect of Black military life,” one historian concluded. The white surgeon Benjamin Woodward, who served with the 22nd Illinois and after the war as an investigator who interviewed white commanders of Black troops about Black soldiering, offered insight into the appalling conditions endured by the Union’s Black soldiers. “The whole history of the negro in the South since the war began even his treatment by northern men has been one of cruelty and neglect. He has been trampled on and outraged in every way, and though legally free, it is but in name.”
Leslie A. Schwalm is Emeritus professor of history at the University of Iowa. Her previous books include Emancipation’s Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest.