|In 1861, as the United States stood at the brink of Civil War, people of African descent, both
enslaved and free persons, waited with a watchful eye. They understood that a war between the
North and the South might bring about jubilee-the destruction of slavery and universal freedom.
When the Confederacy fired upon Fort Sumter and war ensued, President Abraham Lincoln
maintained that the paramount cause was to preserve the Union, not end slavery. Frederick
Douglass, the most prominent black leader, opined that regardless of intentions, the war would
bring an end to slavery, America’s “peculiar institution.”
Over the course of the war, the four million people of African descent in the United States
proved Douglass right. Free and enslaved blacks rallied around the Union flag in the cause of
freedom. From the cotton and tobacco fields of the South to the small towns and big cities of
the North, nearly 200,000 joined the Grand Army of the Republic and took up arms to destroy
the Confederacy. They served as recruiters, soldiers, nurses, and spies, and endured unequal
treatment, massacres, and riots as they pursued their quest for freedom and equality. Their
record of service speaks for itself, and Americans have never fully realized how their efforts
saved the Union.
In honor of the efforts of people of African descent to destroy slavery and inaugurate universal
freedom in the United States, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History
has selected “African Americans and the Civil War” as the 2011 National Black History Theme.
We urge all Americans to study and reflect on the value of their contributions to the nation.