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‘Better to die fighting’

 black Civil War soldiers

For White America – both North and South – the firing on Fort Sumter April 12, 1861, was a cause for tribulation and anxiety. But, for free and enslaved Black Americans, the onset of the Civil War was a cause for celebration and a time for jubilee.
 black Civil War soldiers
By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 African-American men (10 percent of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 African-American soldiers died over the course of the war – 30,000 of infection or disease. – Source: National Archives and Records Administration. (Photo courtesy of TEWire/ African American Civil War Museum and Monument.)

Little known stories of blacks and the Civil War – Part I
A four-part Black History Month series in recognition of the 150th
Anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War

 Dr. Frank Smith Jr.

By Dr. Frank Smith Jr.


(Dr. Frank Smith Jr. is executive director of the African American Civil War Museum and Monument.)  

For White America – both North and South – the firing on Fort Sumter April 12, 1861, was a cause for tribulation and anxiety. But, for free and enslaved Black Americans, the onset of the Civil War was a cause for celebration and a time for jubilee.

The Northern press fretted over whether the union could be saved. The Southern press railed on about the threat to the demise of the South’s “Peculiar Institutions” – slavery – while the Black Press rejoiced in headlines, such as, “The Coming Hour,” and declared for “Emancipation or Extermination.” Yes, there were black newspapers during slavery since March 16, 1827.

The Weekly Anglo-African, April 13th, 1861 heralded: “Better be a DEAD MAN, than a live slave! Better to die fighting, than to live to breed children for the shambles! Death slays only the body; the spirit, (disenthralled), will pass on, working out its immortal destiny. Rather say we, ‘Ten Reigns of Terror’ than one year of bondage!  Better a thousand guillotines, than one fugitive returned. ‘Let the Union go to pieces, if the slaves go free.’”

Black leaders faced the reality and inevitability of the consequence of the coming sectional conflict with resolution, while white leaders were in denial of the union’s transformation and the certain demise in the preservation of slavery. Frederick Douglass editorialized in his Douglass Monthly on May, 1861, just one month after the start of the war: “God be praised! That it has come at last. We should have been glad if the North, of its own proper virtue, had given this quietis to doubt and vacillation. She (the Union), did not do it, and perhaps it is best that she (the Union), did not. What her negative wisdom withheld, has now come to us through the vengeance and rashness of slaveholders. Another instance of the wrath of man working out the purposes in praise of eternal goodness!”

Free and enslaved blacks transformed a Civil War for reunion into a war for liberation. It would take five years of fratricidal conflict for White America to arrive at the meaning of the war that was clear to Black America at its beginning – the reaffirmation of the founding universal human principle of America that all men are created equal.

“This (the Civil War) is but another step in the drama of American progress. We say progress, for we know that no matter what may be the desires of the men of Expediency who rule, or seem to, the affairs of the North, the tendencies are for Liberty.  God speed the conflict. The strife will be deadly, but the end is certain. It matters not whether the government is successful, whether the union is preserved, the ideas underlying the struggle will triumph.”

– Weekly Anglo-African, April 20th, 1861.

April 12will mark the 150th Anniversary of the firing on Ft. Sumter and the start of the American Civil War. The African American Civil War Memorial Foundation will commemorate the beginning Civil War with celebrities reading from Civil War period newspapers, speeches, and other documents announcing the coming of the war and its profound effect on the ending of slavery in America. We will also have celebrities read from selected press responses to the election of President Lincoln and the anti-slavery platform of the Republican party of 1860.

The African American Civil War Memorial lists the names of 209,145 Black union soldiers who joined President Lincoln to save the Union and keep it united under one flag. The monument, located at the corner of 10th and U Streets NW Washington, D. C., was built by a private foundation that operates a museum.  On July 18, the museum will host a Grand Opening for its newly renovated 5,000 sq. ft. space with new exhibits, artifacts, and state of the art educational programs adjacent to the monument.

(This Black History Month series is sponsored by The African American Civil War Museum and Monument and the Association for the Student of African American Life and History (ASALH). For more information: http://www.afroamcivilwar.org/our-story.html, call 202-667-2667 or email: Info@amcivilwar.)

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