FORT LAUDERDALE — One of the most overlooked aspects of the history of the Civil War (1861-65) is the contributions made by African-American soldiers. The onset of the war set off a rush by free black men to enlist in the U.S. military. Yet, a 1792 law forbade persons of color from bearing arms in the U.S. Army.
Blacks were thought to be intellectually and socially inferior. Their limited involvement in the war included driving supply wagons, burying the battle dead and building railroads, according to Kisha King, professor of history at Broward College.
By the conclusion of the war, there were about 100 black regiment leaders, King said, “and there was a constant battle to prove capability of leadership.”
African Americans at that time outnumbered whites. “So why would someone give them a gun, especially if whites were fighting a war to prove you an inferior race?” said King.
Eventually blacks had to be allowed to fight, King said. The Army was “running out of white soldiers. Some white officers even brought their slaves to tend to their needs.”
King presented her research on the Civil War during a lecture Tuesday, titled, “The Important Role of African Americans in the United States Military during the Civil War.” The lecture, which closed Black History Month observances at the Broward County Main Library, 100 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale, included a viewing of segments of the film Glory.
The lecture was the first program in a 10-part series being held in conjunction with the traveling exhibition Lincoln: the Constitution and the Civil War, Barbara Miller, the library’s director of programming, said.
“The country is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the war and there is a lot of important information that needs to be presented,”said Miller.
The traveling exhibition, on display from March 27 to May 1, comprises informational panels featuring photographic reproductions of original documents, including a draft of Lincoln’s first inaugural speech, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment.
Organized by the National Constitution Center and the American Library Association Public Programs Office, the exhibition has been made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Miller said.
Many blacks wanted to fight in the Civil War, King said. “They wanted slavery to end. A free black was only allowed such a freedom for a limited time. As long as the institution of slavery existed, they stood the chance of being enslaved,” she said.
Ending the institution of slavery would remove the limitations on their freedom, King said.
Many African Americans petitioned to join the Confederacy, King said. “It was the fear of the unknown [and] loyalty of being born in the South. And some were loyal to their state and feared what the Union would do.”
However, during the course of the war, blacks experienced a great sense of pride. “They were capturing white soldiers, planning strikes; this created a sense of power and caused a bit of resistance,” King said.
There were free African Americans who felt that a slave should remain enslaved, King said. “They perpetuated the idea that the slaves were savages, that they needed to be taught self-control, self-importance and how to be sober.” That was where a strain developed among African Americans, King said.
Helen Randall of Fort Lauderdale, among a handful of people attending the event, said she had no idea blacks played important roles in the Civil War.
“I discovered bits of the history over time but the film shown really brought it home,” Randall said. “My grandfather was a Civil War buff and never told me the things I learned tonight. It’s sad when such beautiful history is buried. I will definitely attend the rest of the series.”
Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Lincoln: the Constitution and the Civil War traveling exhibition.
WHEN: March 27-May 1
WHERE: Broward County Main Library, 100 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale
COST: Free and open to the public.
CONTACT: For more information on the traveling exhibition or the 10-part Civil War series, call 954-357-7443 or visit broward.org/library
Photo: Kisha King