This April 12 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the fight between the preservation of slavery against the preservation of the union. And although blacks were caught somewhere in the middle of this struggle, black soldiers played a vital role in the war since the start of the first artillery gun shot in Charleston, South Carolina in 1861.
After July 22, 1862 when then President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation and freed blacks in rebel-held resisting territories, black recruitment was sought after and increased. Initially, because of prejudice and fear of uprisings, there was hesitation from both the Union and Confederate armies to use black soldiers in combat, but according to the National Archives, "by the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy."
Notable figures like Frederick Douglass encouraged black men, including Douglass's own sons, to enlist under Ulysses S. Grant's command to gain citizenship, and although enlistment began slowly, volunteers from South Carolina, Tennessee and Massachusetts ultimately signed up in great numbers. Lincoln was convinced their presence would intimidate Confederate soldiers and in 1863 wrote, "the bare sight of fifty thousand armed and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once." Confederate soldiers were not deterred, of course, but black soldiers did play a significant role in the Union's victory.
After Confederate General Robert E. Lee's surrendered on April 9, 1865, slavery was abolished for nearly 3 million blacks living in the South. Racism still persisted long into the Reconstruction era, but black veterans gained some support and appreciation for their service, as Allen C. Guelzo reported on The Root: "The white officers who commanded black troops often became their advocates in the postwar years, and Union veterans refused to celebrate postwar anniversaries if black veterans were excluded or ex-Confederates planned to display the Confederate flag."
This anniversary marks much more than the Confederate's defeat, it represents the abolition of slavery and the early and active participation of black Americans in the Emancipation. African-Americans can celebrate the legacy of this war knowing that thousands of black soldiers risked their lives in the struggle for their freedom.