Search using this query type:

Advanced Search (Items only)

Northern Opposition

"Enlistment of Negroes", August 21, 1862

Item 2748.  "Enlistment of Negroes".

Black enlistment as a policy generated many dissenting opinions among Northern whites.  As historian David Williams points out: “For the most part, [northern whites] meant to keep America a white man’s country and to keep the conflict a white man’s war.  Neither rights for blacks nor emancipation for slaves were issues that most northern whites cared to touch.”  (Williams 2014, 70)  Racism toward African Americans was not an issue that split definitively between the North and the South, and in fact, even though slavery was not an active institution in the North at this time, “most northern whites [still] harbored racist views and believed that blacks would prove incapable of fighting effectively anyway.”  (Fleche 2014, 297)  When the federal government began the discussion of possibly allowing African Americans to enlist, Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman was quoted saying: “I won’t trust niggers to fight yet.  I have no confidence in them & I don’t want them mixed up with our white soldiers.” (Dobak 2013, 9)  Charles Francis Adams of Massachusetts insisted that "as to being made soldiers, they [African Americans] are more harm than good,” and like Adams, “many white Northern soldiers doubted the blacks’ abilities to fight and protested against freeing and arming slaves.”  (Smith 2002, 4-5)  Even after their arrival on the North Carolina coast, “many white soldiers – even liberal, antislavery ones – maintained decidedly racist views.”  (Browning 2011, 99)  A New York Times article from 1862 discussed the possible enlistment of “negroes” and how “two or three of our smaller States, to judge from the noise made in them, are quite convulsed on the subject of enlisting blacks as soldiers to fight in the ranks of the Union army.”  Even this opinion that was more willing to see the enlistment of African Americans, was laced with the racism that transcended both the North and the South: “If this [African American enlistment] can be done with the general consent, and without damaging the Union cause elsewhere, very well.  It will add just so many men to the army, and, in the absence of actual experiment, we have no right to say they will not fight as well as the average of other troops, though we somewhat doubt it.”  (Item 2748)  Racial prejudices held by not only white Southerners, but white Northerners, blinded many from initially agreeing with a policy of allowing African Americans to enlist in the Union army, but many former slaves in the South would show that this would not stop them on their journey from slaves to soldiers.