Lincoln’s election had set off a chaotic chain of events that went far beyond an attempt by Southern states to sever themselves from the Union. Legislators and military leaders resigned their posts to support their Southern homes, even when they did not agree with the institution of slavery, claiming states’ rights as their reason for supporting the South.
Southern states were not the only place the violence of the war was felt. In the North, riots broke out over the first draft in United States history. Lincoln’s call for troops allowed for those who had the means to pay their way out of military service. Those who could not afford to pay did not see why they should fight for a cause that they did not believe in. The argument, after all, was not for the rights of African-Americans, slave or free, but whether or not it was morally right to hold any human in bondage, even those humans who were considered undeserving of the same rights as everyone else. The military draft and the unwanted occupation by Union troops caused riots in cities like Baltimore, Maryland, New York, and St Louis, Missouri. African-Americans caught on the streets were targeted by mobs that saw them as the cause of the war, and were sometimes seized and hanged.
The slaves that slaveholders were so desperate to keep would be victimized by invading forces. Many owners were absent, which might have made escape easier, except that travel was more hazardous with soldiers from both sides patrolling the roads. When troops did invade homes in search of provisions, any African-Americans they encountered were usually treated with the same disdain as before the war, if not more. Union soldiers, like the mobs, thought of them as the cause of a brutal war.
During the war, the South became more dependent upon slave labour than before. African-Americans were used in a variety of military support roles such as building roads, mining, as teamsters and medical attendants. The idea of enlisting them in the Confederate Army with the promise of emancipation was proposed, but not taken seriously until very late in the war when, at the urging of General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Congress passed legislation allowing for their enlistment. President Jefferson Davis signed it into law on 13 March 1865, but only a few companies of African-American soldiers were raised and only a few saw service. A unit attached to a hospital in Richmond contained the only African-American soldiers officially recognized as having served in the Confederate Army.
The Union saw the potential of African-Americans in the military earlier in the war. Slaves and other African-Americans who came into contact with the Union army were questioned for the purpose of gathering intelligence to use against the South. They provided prolific information and soon African-Americans were being used to gather intelligence behind the lines and as ‘agents in place’, who lived among the enemy and passed information to the North. Two such agents were posted on President Jefferson Davis’ staff in Richmond, Virginia. Years of underestimating the intelligence of African-American slaves, and thus ignoring their presence, proved to be an Achilles heel for the Confederacy. Confederate sympathizers foolish enough to believe African-Americans were inferior assumed that if a slave saw or heard anything that was of use to the Union, they were either too ignorant to understand or too afraid to report it. During the war, that mentality continued and slaves easily gathered intelligence that was passed along to the North.
At the urging of officers who benefited from intelligence gathered by African-Americans, and from advocates such as Frederick Douglass, Congress allowed the enlistment of African-Americans into the Union army and navy. The legislation was passed on 17 July 1862 and enrolment began in September of that year. The United States navy had been accepting African-Americans into their ranks ever since a slave named Robert Smalls took charge of a Confederate steamer called the Planter in May of 1862 at Charleston Harbor, turning it over to the Union navy and later becoming its captain.
Nearly 200,000 African-Americans enlisted in the Union army during the American Civil War, comprising 163 units and making up approximately 10 per cent of the Union forces. But, despite this apparent acceptance, discrimination against African-American troops in the army was apparent from the beginning. White soldiers received $13 per month pay with a clothing allowance of $3.50. African-American soldiers received only $10 per month with an optional deduction of $3 for clothing. Many refused to accept this inequality and Congress finally granted them equal pay on 15 June 1864.
This discrimination in pay was not mirrored in the Union navy, which boasted 16 per cent of their ranks as African-Americans. From the start, the US navy gave their African-American enlisted men equal pay, but rising through the ranks was limited.