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Michigan State University

African American Studies Research Guide: Voices of the Civil War

Voices of the Civil War

Voices of the Civil War courtesy of the Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.  The Voices of the Civil War is a five-year film series dedicated to celebrating and commemorating the Civil War over the course of the sesquicentennial. Each month, new episodes cover pertinent topics that follow the monthly events and issues as they unfolded for African Americans during the Civil War. Within these episodes there are various primary sources – letters and diaries, newspaper reports, and more - to recount various experiences of blacks during this period.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 39

Episode 39 : "Civil War Ends" Posted by The Wright Museum on Thursday, 23 April 2015.  On April 9, 1865 Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, ending the American Civil War. Only three days later, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre. While mourning the loss of President Lincoln and the more than half million lives lost in battle, Americans celebrated the end of the war.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 38

Episode 38: "Battle of Natural Bridge" Posted by The Wright Museum on Wednesday, 25 March 2015.  The Battle of Natural Bridge was fought on March 6, 1865, in Newport, Florida near Tallahassee, one of the few southern capitals not invaded by the Union. On the evening of March 5, 1865 the 2nd and 99th United States Colored Infantries arrived at Natural Bridge and prepared to cross, but were met with Confederate forces. The fighting took place at close range and involved heavy fire from both small arms and artillery. The Union force was badly beaten and by the end of the day was in full retreat back to the St. Marks Lighthouse. The Confederate army held the bridge and prevented Tallahassee from being taken.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 37

Episode 37: "Martin Delany" Posted by The Wright Museum on Thursday, 26 February 2015.  In February 1865, Martin Robison Delany was commissioned as the first black combat major in the Union army, achieving the highest rank of an African American during the Civil War. In his life he worked to bring educational and economic opportunities to newly freed African Americans, and encouraged emigration back to Africa.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 36

Episode 36: "Special Field Order No. 15" Posted by The Wright Museum on Thursday, 29 January 2015.  On the evening of January 12, 1865, Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton and Union General, William T. Sherman met with twenty of Georgia’s black ministers to discuss what some historians now call the nation’s first act of Reconstruction. The purpose of the meeting was for Sherman and Stanton to gather information on how freedmen understood the war, and how they imagined their future in a post-war America. Based on the conversation that took place that evening, on January 16, 1865, William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15. Upon Sherman’s order, 400,000 acres of land, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland thirty miles in from the coast, were redistributed to newly freed slaves.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 35

Episode 35: "African American Relief Organizations" Posted by The Wright Museum on Wednesday, 24 December 2014.  On December 19, 1864, The Ladies’ Sanitary Association of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Philadelphia gave a holiday fair for the benefit of sick and wounded black soldiers. For Civil War charities working year round, the holiday season became an important moment to remind Americans of the needs of soldiers, freedmen, and others who were suffering under the burdens of war. For African American communities, these fundraising efforts became vital tools for providing much needed food, clothing, and other forms of assistance to black troops, who often lacked the most basic supplies provided to white Union soldiers. One of the most well known women who raised money for African American soldiers and freedmen was Elizabeth Keckley.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 34

Episode 34: "Lincoln's Re-election" Posted by The Wright Museum on Wednesday, 26 November 2014.  By the fall of 1864, with the war in its fourth year, President Abraham Lincoln faced many challenges on his road to reelection. Americans certainly recognized that the 1864 election would determine the entire direction of the war: if Lincoln won, the war would be fought until the South had surrendered unconditionally; however, if George B. McClellan proved victorious, there would almost surely be a reconciliation between the North and the South. Many African Americans, and especially black men serving in the USCT regiments, actively supported Lincoln’s bid for reelection. Black soldiers, few of whom had the right to vote, inundated black newspapers with letters urging family and friends to support Lincoln’s campaign and to vote, if they could, in the November election. On Tuesday, November 8, 1864, Americans participated in an election that truly changed the course of American history.

Episodes of the Civil War, Episode 33

Episode 33: "Women in the Civil War" Posted by The Wright Museum on Wednesday, 22 October 2014 in Voices of the Civil War.  The stories of Cathay Williams, Mary Bowser, Susie King Taylor, and Sojourner Truth demonstrate that African American women contributed to and aided Civil War efforts in a variety of crucial ways. Often lost, ignored, or simply overlooked in the history of the Civil War, these women’s stories serve as an important reminder of black women’s active roles and experiences during wartime.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 32

Episode 32: "Battle of Chaffin's Farm" Posted by The Wright Museum on Wednesday, 24 September 2014.  On the morning of September 29, 1864, Union troops, including several black regiments, crossed the James River and surprised the Confederate troops at Chaffin’s Farm. Some historians consider the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights as the defining moment in African American military history. To honor African American troops who fought during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights, Major General Benjamin F. Butler commissioned a special medal officially known as the Army of the James Medal.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 31

Episode 31: The Civil War and the Black Press.  In August of 1864, Thomas Morris Chester became the first African American war correspondent to work for a major daily newspaper in the United States. He became an eyewitness to fierce battles between the Union and Confederates and reported on the bravery of African American soldiers on the front lines.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 30.

Episode 30: The Battle of the Crater.  Stuck in a stalemate during a particularly hot and humid Virginia summer, on the morning of July 30, 1864, General Ambrose Burnside decided to take drastic measures: Union troops would dig a tunnel, pack it with explosives, and blow up the Confederate line. The explosion immediately killed 278 Confederate soldiers. For African American soldiers, the Battle of the Crater proved particularly devastating. Caught in the deep hole of the crater, black troops became easy targets of Confederate soldiers thirty feet above them, even as many tried to surrender. African American survivors of the Battle of the Crater viewed their sacrifice and valor on the battlefield as an integral process of transformation in American society that they hoped would result in the rights of full citizenship.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 29

Episode 29 : "Equal Pay".   On June 15, 1864, Congress finally approved an act to equalize pay amongst all Union soldiers. African American soldiers were now paid $13 per month plus a $3.50 uniform allowance, equal to that of white soldiers. Nevertheless, Congress made a distinction between freed and formerly enslaved soldier in determining retroactive pay. This distinction divided African American regiments and lowered morale.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 28

Episode 28 "The Battle of the Wilderness".   On May 4th, 1864 Lieutenant General-in-Chief of the Union Army Ulysses S. Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to cross the Rapidan River and march through an area of dense woodland known as the Wilderness. Grant’s plan was for Union troops to move quickly through the Wilderness in order to slip behind Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and invade Richmond, Virginia. Grant and Lee’s troops engaged in what would become the Battle of the Wilderness. Although the United States Colored Troops were not fighting on the front lines, their duties to guard Union supplies, rail lines, and beachheads proved to be necessary and perilous. The Battle of the Wilderness ended on May 6, 1864 marking the first of several engagements African American Union soldiers had with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 27

Episode 27 "Battle of Fort Pillow".  On April 12, 1864, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest invaded the Union garrison at Fort Pillow, Tennessee with 1500 Confederate soldiers. Union Major Lionel F. Booth commanded the garrison with an estimated 600 troops. The Battle of Fort Pillow is often referred to as the Fort Pillow Massacre due to the overwhelming Union casualties, and as the Confederate army specifically targeted African American soldiers.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 26

1st Kansas Colored Infantry.  On March 20, 1864 the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry fought in a battle at Roseville Creek, Arkansas. This infantry was the first black infantry to form and engage in combat in the north. Formed in August 1862 as the First Kansas Colored Infantry and re-designated on December 13, 1864 as the 79th U.S. Colored Troops, the recruits were freedom seekers from surrounding pro-slavery states like Arkansas and Missouri.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 25

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.  On February 24, 1864, Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler overcame prejudices and severe constraints to become the first African American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. During and after the Civil War, she cared for freed African Americans who would otherwise have had no access to medical care.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 24

African Americans in the Confederate ArmyBy the end of 1863, with the Confederate army lacking resources, funds, and manpower, it had become clear to Confederate General Patrick Cleburne that the south desperately needed to find ways to recruit new soldiers for the rebel cause. Calling it "a plan which we believe will save our country," in January 1864, he called upon the leaders of the Army of the Tennessee and proposed the emancipation of slaves in order to enlist them in the Confederate war effort. In Episode 24 we explore the role of African Americans in the Confederate States Army.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 23

Robert Smalls.  In December 1863, a lifelong slave named Robert Smalls became the first black captain of a United States vessel. From that point onward, he would earn $150 per month, making him one of the war's highest paid black soldiers. But Smalls' most memorable accomplishment came a year earlier, in one of the most audacious acts of the Civil War.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 22

Gettysburg AddressOn November 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, President Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, just 272 words, lasting 3 minutes. The location of the Gettysburg Address had its own special resonance for African-Americans. Since the eighteenth century, the town of Gettysburg had maintained a small, vibrant African-American community. But during the Battle of Gettysburg, the two armies damaged or destroyed much of the property belonging to African-Americans, and many of the black residents who fled the town did not return. Though no one could mistake the meaning of the "new birth of freedom", the Gettysburg Address remained silent about the fate of African-Americans. The "great task" mentioned by Lincoln was not emancipation, but the preservation of self-government. Though words cannot end a war or bind up a nation's wounds, the Gettysburg Address lives on as perhaps the most significant speech in American history.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 21

Sojourner Truth.   The women's rights movement in America was directly influenced by the work of the abolitionist movement. By 1863, the abolitionist and women's rights advocate Sojourner Truth had spent more than twenty years speaking out against slavery. She was a remarkable case, but the Civil War saw many female heroes. During the war, American women threw themselves into public life with an enthusiasm born out of a sense of duty.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 20

Medal of Honor.  More than 180,000 African American soldiers served in the Union Army during the Civil War and of these, sixteen earned the Medal of Honor. Soldiers like Sergeant William H. Carney, Private James Daniel Gardner, Corporal Miles James, Thomas R. Hawkins and Christian Fleetwood were awarded for personal acts of valor that were above and beyond the call of duty. Fourteen of the sixteen Medals of Honor awarded were given away for actions at the Battle of New Market Heights, where over 50 percent of the black troops were killed, wounded, or captured.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 19

Douglass and Lincoln.   By August 1863, African American soldiers within the Union Army had proven themselves in battles such as Port Hudson, Milliken's Bend and Fort Wagner. On August 9, 1863, abolitionist and orator, Frederick Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln to discuss his concerns in regards to the fair treatment and equal pay of African American soldiers within the Union Army. Douglass discussed three concerns with President Lincoln and Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, without resolve. On the same day as Frederick Douglass' visit to the White House, President Lincoln wrote to Union General Ulysses S. Grant to express his favor in using black troops in the war.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 18

New York Draft RiotThe New York City Draft Riot, similar to the Detroit Draft Riot, was caused by the exemption clause of the Enrollment Act of Conscription and racial tensions between African Americans and white citizens. On July 13, 1863, rioters gathered outside of the Provost Marshal office, attacking the officers, setting fire to the building, and eventually burning down the entire block. African Americans throughout the city were beaten, tortured, and even killed. The riot ended on July 16, 1863 after 105 people died and at least 11 black men were lynched.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 17

Combahee River Raid.   In Episode 17, Combahee River Raid, we look at the events of June 2, 1863, when Union Colonel James Montgomery led the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry Regiment and the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery up the Combahee River, to raid Confederate outposts and rice plantations. Harriet Tubman worked with Colonel Montgomery to plan the raid and scout the Combahee River for mines. The aftermath of this successful raid greatly reduced Confederate supplies, established a Union blockade on the river and freed nearly 700 enslaved men and women.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 16

102nd U.S. Colored RegimentOn May 22, 1863, the United States War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops to organize and handle the enlistment of black troops into the Union Army. Colored infantries were formed all across the country. On May 23, 1864, the First Michigan Colored Volunteer Infantry was re-designated the 102nd Regiment United States Colored Troops. The 102nd fought throughout South Carolina, eastern Georgia, and Florida during the Civil War.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 15

Alexander Thomas Augusta.   Episode 15 focuses on the life and career of Alexander Thomas Augusta, the first of only eight black physicians commissioned into the Union Army. Major Augusta served in the 7th U.S. Colored Troops and later worked as the surgeon-in-chief at the Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 14

Detroit Draft Riot.   Episode 14, Detroit Draft Riot, highlights a major riot within Detroit, Michigan, as one of many riots across the country in response to the Enrollment Act of Conscription. Similar to the riot in New York, the Detroit riot was in response to race and class tension surrounding the issues of slavery, draft exemption, and employment. On March 6, 1863 white Detroiters used the trial of William Faulkner as a catalyst to destroy property within black neighborhoods.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 13

54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.   Just one month after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry unit was formed on February 9th, 1863. This brave regiment fought in many battles under the threat of re-enslavement, no pay, and immense scrutiny. The regiments' most famous Battle at Fort Wagner was later memorialized in the 1989 film, Glory.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 12

Emancipation ProclamationOn January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation after issuing a draft back in September 1862. The Emancipation Proclamation laid the foundation for what would become the 13th Amendment, issued two years later on January 31, 1865. Consequently, the proclamation marked a point of no return in regards to negiotiations or compromise with the Confederacy. At nearly two years into the war, Lincoln finally focused on the heart of the issue and confronted the Confederacy where it mattered. The Confederacy held fast and continued fighting.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 11

Prelude to the Emancipation Proclamation.   On September 22, 1862 President Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation after the Union's win at the Battle of Antietam. By December 1862, northern morale was declining and many doubted that Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation as promised on January 1, 1863.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 10

Slave Rebellion and Conspiracy.   As the American Civil War continues panic of slave rebellions spreads throughout the South. With thousands of enslaved peoples deserting plantations to claim their freedom, slaveholders could no longer convince themselves of the benevolence of slavery. Many slaveholders became nervous that the presence of the Union blockade along the Gulf Coast would inspire a slave rebellion reminiscent of Nat Turner's, or worse, the Haitian Revolution. As battles spread from Missouri to Virginia, white paranoia of slave resistance rises in the lower Mississippi River Valley.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 9

Port Royal ExperimentIn episode 9, we explore the bounds of citizenship for the newly released slaves on the Sea Islands of South Carolina during the Port Royal Experiment. If slaves were treated like freedmen, were they not citizens? And if the privileges of citizenship were extended to refugee slaves, was the Civil War indeed a conflict about slavery?


Voices of the Civil War, Episode 8

Battle of Antietam.   The Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862, produced the most casualties of any single day in the Civil War. The battle was a draw and neither the Union nor the Confederacy came out ahead. Nevertheless, this battle gave President Lincoln the fuel and momentum to issue one of the most important documents in American History.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 7

The Day of the Big Gun Shoot.   In episode 7, The Day of the Big Gun Shoot, we visit the Sea Islands of South Carolina, where cotton production flourished during slavery. As the Civil War unfolds, the islands become the site of the Battle of Port Royal on November 7, 1861. Armies attack, slave masters flee, and cotton and slaves remain, once again, left with the dust from where the cannon fire settles. The battle, originally a conflict over Southern seaports, becomes a training ground for future reconstruction and what to do with those enslaved.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 6

Overwhelming Numbers and Resources.   At the time of Civil War, 18.9 million Americans lived in the North versus 8 million Americans in the South. These overwhelming numbers along with other resources had a critical impact upon the course and outcome of the war. Why was the Confederate army, representing territories with less than half the population of the North, confident they could win the Civil War?

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 5

White Man's War.  Many northerners were determined to keep their conflict with the South a 'white man's war.' Whenever recruiting offices were opened, black men offered themselves and were rejected. Nonetheless, they were confident that the opportunity to serve the Union was a matter of time. The Lincoln administration, Republican press and even some anti-slavery newspapers stated that the goal of the war was the restoration of the Union, and that the issues of slavery and blacks had nothing to do with the conflict. Such actions dampened the rising enthusiasm of African Americans for the Union cause. In episode 5 we learn about the first African American men who were prepared to fight in the Civil War.  

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 4

Resistance to Slavery.   Episode 4, abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass use the Underground Railroad to help the enslaved find freedom in the North, while authors like Theodore Dwight Weld and Harriett Beecher Stowe fight slavery by publishing its horrors worldwide. At the beginning of the Civil War the use of the Underground Railroad declines as those seeking freedom begin a much bigger fight.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 3

Contrabands In Episode 3, we look at the flight of African Americans to northern lines to find freedom and fight with the Union Army. Three enslaved blacks, Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend, flee to Union lines where General Benjamin Butler coins the term, "Contraband of war," and begins a new policy known as the Confiscation Act.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 2

Banneker's Letter.   In Episode 2, we commend African Americans who fought back against prejudice and racism long before the Civil War, with a focus on Benjamin Banneker. In 1791, Banneker confronted Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson about his conflicting views of slavery. He challenged Jefferson's perception of African Americans by offering himself as a role model of intelligence, wit and strength.

Voices of the Civil War, Episode 1

Subject Guide

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Erik Ponder
African Studies Librarian
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