This post is part of our Black History Month blog series.
In addition to freeing slaves in Confederate controlled areas, the Emancipation Proclamation’s biggest impact on the Civil War was that it expressly supported the recruitment and enlistment of black soldiers. Though there certainly was a mixed reaction to this measure in the Union Army, by no means did white Union soldiers throw down their arms in protest or have any such drastic negative reaction that the legend states there was.
According to PLC Scholarly Advisor Chandra Manning, in her great work What This Cruel War Was Over, the fallacy that the Emancipation Proclamation was widely reviled by the Union Army is based upon three wrongheaded assumptions. First, the low morale in the Army from the Fall of 1862 through the Spring of 1863 is connected directly with emancipation, when in fact it had more to due with the incompetency of the Union generals in winning battles. Second, the Republicans’ poor showing, and conversely anti-emancipation parties doing well, at the 1862 Congressional mid-terms is often incorrectly attributed to soldiers’ voting against the Proclamation. However, few states had absentee ballots sent to soldiers in 1862, unlike 1864, and thus the results of the elections weren’t completely reflective of the Union Army’s views.
Lastly, people assume that White unionists were racists, and thus against black soldier enlistment specifically and black freedom generally. As Manning argues, while true that many, in fact most, white soldiers had prejudiced feelings towards blacks, with many blaming the war on the slaves themselves, overall most Union soldiers were able to separate their personal racist feelings from the general cause of emancipation. As a result, many soldiers shared the sentiments of Sergeant David Nichol who wrote his parents that while he was “no nigger worshiper” he believed the Proclamation would help the Union cause by striking “at the root of Evil” that had caused the war — slavery — thus expediting its end.
In fact, as black soldiers eventually were recruited and fought alongside white soldiers, albeit in separate regiments, white Union soldiers started to soften their views. After seeing the bravery of Colored Troops in Florida, Private Orra Bailey wrote that black soldiers “whip[ped] the rebels handsomely” by fighting “like Tigers.” In fact, as the number of U.S. Colored Troops increased throughout the war, more and more white soldiers view the net positive of these soldiers. As one Ohio soldier wrote in March 1863, “the Pres. Proclamation is gaining favor in the Army every day.” They now view it as “the right move at the right time.” Three months later, “the arming of Negroes for Soldiers is now considered by all or a large majority of the boys as a necessity and they go in Strong for it,” Corporal Charles Musser wrote in June 1863.
As a consequence of this evolving stance on black soldier enlistment, many politicians who decried black enlistment, especially the Copperheads, became reviled by Union troops. A vote for the most well-known Copperhead, Ohioan Clement Vallandigham, was a vote against Black enlistment, which in turn would hurt the Union war effort. As Manning writes, the Union troops “hated Vallandigham and the Copperheads not because they were Democrats, but because they refused to admit the connection between emancipation, wining the war, and the saving the Union.”
In the end, the Emancipation Proclamation, and its endorsement of black enlistment not only helped the Union eventually win the war, but it also changed the political attitudes of the white soldiers in the Union Army, many of whom originally did not believe the war initially was about slavery.