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"In Defense of My Race and Country": African-American Soldiers on Why They Are Fighting

In this activity students read three letters written by African-American soldiers during the Civil War to determine why black soldiers felt compelled to join the Union Army.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze primary sources to determine why African-American soldiers fought in the Civil War.  

  • Students will be able to describe the motivations of black soldiers in the Civil War. 

Instructions

Step 1: Divide students into small groups of 2-4.  Have students read through all of the letters once to get an initial impression of their topics, issues, and language; the teacher may choose to read aloud all the letters with the entire class. Then, in their groups, students should each select one or two letters to analyze more closely. Make sure that each letter has been selected by at least one person in the group.

Step 2: Have students read through the letters carefully and take notes to answer the questions in the Letter Analysis worksheet.  Ask students to note other questions they may have about the letters, the authors' use of language, and the authors' descriptions of soldiers' experiences.  

Historical Context

In January 1863 with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln invited African Americans to serve in the Union Army as soldiers for the first time. African Americans responded enthusiastically to Union recruitment; nearly two hundred thousand had enlisted by spring of 1865, nearly eight percent of whom came from slave states. By the end of the war, African-American soldiers comprised ten percent of the Union Army. These new recruits helped ensure that nothing short of universal emancipation would be the outcome of the war. African-American troops distinguished themselves in the war and gained the respect of white officers and soldiers as they helped determine the outcome of key battles. 

Nevertheless, African-American soldiers felt the effects of continuing racism as they were kept in segregated camps, given the most menial jobs, treated as inferiors, and paid less than white soldiers. Widespread protests against pay inequity compelled the War Department to equalize wages in June 1864. In the process many black soldiers realized that their fight was not only against southern slavery, but against northern discrimination as well.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2009.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “"In Defense of My Race and Country": African-American Soldiers on Why They Are Fighting,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 18, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1434.

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