The Military An Impetus For Social Reform

The Military: An Impetus For Social Reform Essay, Research Paper

The Military: An Impetus for Social Reform

Revolutionary War

The military since the Colonial Era has been an impetus for social reform in the United States. The Revolutionary War afforded Black Americans an opportunity to escape from the toils of slavery and fight for freedom. Some Black Americans even earned their freedom by fighting for the Colonists, but still the freedom they fought for wasn’t their own. However, the military was responsible for the freedom of many slaves and some of these freed slaves became legendary soldiers like Salem Poor. His performance in battle gave credibility for future arguments about blacks being allowed to serve.

In the colonial era slavery was permissible by law in every colony. Blacks were 20% of the overall population of the 13 colonies and only 8% of them were free blacks ( Colonists commonly used African slave labor despite the question of whether slavery was morally right. Life for blacks in the revolutionary period was one of slavery and discrimination. Only 8 percent of blacks were free [Edgar A Toppin. “Blacks in the American Revolution” (published essay, Virginia State University, 1976), p 1] and this so-called freedom merely meant that they could own and defend property. They weren’t allowed to mingle with whites and were wholly segregated. Blacks during this

time period worked predominantly in the fields planting and harvesting Tobacco. They worked long hours and were likely to be sold at some point in their lives. This separated families and kept morale very low. Plantation slaves were also subject to brutal punishments because they weren’t regarded as having high value. However, with the onset of the Revolutionary War, the British invited blacks to join the British Army and in return, they would receive their freedom. Thoughts of wholesale desertion of slaves to the British regiments created a fear that swept throughout the colonies and led colonists to allow blacks to fight for the local militias and even the army.

Serving in the Revolutionary War enabled many slaves to earn their freedom, but to their dismay, not equality. Although blacks served in segregated units, the military gave them opportunity to gain respect through acts of courage and valor. Black soldiers like Salem Poor gained respect from white men. Lemuel Haynes used his military experience to fight for abolition of slavery by writing the essay “Liberty Further Extended.” This essay speaks about inalienable rights for blacks and a natural rights argument against slavery (Blacks in the American Army). The Revolutionary ideals also gave impetus to the abolition of slavery in the North, but slavery became more entrenched in the south.

The military reverted to its policy disallowing blacks to serve once the war ended, with the navy being the only exception. The reason the navy remained open to blacks was simply due to necessity. The living conditions on the ships were so horrible that most white males chose not to serve. During times of peace when large military units weren’t necessary blacks were systematically disqualified from service.

Civil War

The life of a Black American in the Civil War Era was a continuation of hardship from the toils of slavery to the segregation of the free black man. The life of the slave during the Civil War Era worsened since the Revolutionary War. The war took most able-bodied white men away from the home, thus increasing the work for slaves. Male slaves were taken from the plantations to support the Southern Army’s war effort. Slaves were severely beaten and worked long hard hours in the cotton fields. They were treated as property rather than people and therefore very little medical attention was given to them.

The onset of the American Civil War once again gave rise to the fear of wholesale rebellion of slaves in the South. Politicians, however, were still reluctant to allow blacks to serve. President Lincoln insisted the Civil War wasn’t about freeing the slaves, but rather to restore the Union ( Therefore, initially the war was strictly a white man’s

war. However, influential people pressured the Union to allow blacks to fight. A prominent black man, Frederick Douglas, complained, “Colored men were good enough to fight under George Washington, but they aren’t good enough to fight under McClellan.” (Blacks in the American Army). Social pressure alone wasn’t enough to convince President Lincoln to change the policy. As in the Revolutionary War, once all other efforts were exhausted were blacks once again allowed to serve. In November of 1863 President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation giving blacks their freedom and allowing them to serve, but even then they were used mainly in support roles. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all of the slaves, but before the end of the Civil War the 13th Amendment freeing all slaves was added to the constitution.

The life of the black soldiers during the Civil War was one filled with discrimination and hardship, but it also gave blacks the opportunity to prove themselves in combat. Initially blacks were used strictly in support roles, but after the assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina black regiments were given more opportunity in combat ( Although black regiments were paid at a lower rate than white regiments, the military was a bastion of opportunity. Black Americans proved themselves time and again in combat, earning the respect of their (white) peers. Martin Robison Delany became the first black field officer and Elizabeth Bowser served as a Union spy in the

Confederate White House in Richmond ( However, perhaps the most important consequence of military service was the education of former slaves. Many former slaves learned to read and write during the terms in service and they also learned to be leaders. The war gave Black Americans confidence in themselves and their abilities. The opportunities found in the military couldn’t be found anywhere in the rest of society.

Michael King


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