The foundation for black participation in the Civil War began more than a hundred years before the outbreak of the war. Blacks in America had been in bondage since early colonial times. In 1776, when Jefferson proclaimed mankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the institution of slavery had become firmly established in America. Blacks worked in the tobacco fields of Virginia, in the rice fields of South Carolina, and toiled in small farms and shops in the North. Foner and Mahoney report in A House Divided, America in the Age of Lincoln that, “In 1776, slaves composed forty percent of the population of the colonies from Maryland south to Georgia, but well below ten percent in the colonies to the North.” The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 provided a demand for cotton thus increasing the demand for slaves. By the 1800’s slavery was an institution throughout the South, an institution in which slaves had few rights, and could be sold or leased by their owners. They lacked any voice in the government and lived a life of hardship. Considering these circumstances, the slave population never abandoned the desire for freedom or the determination to resist control by the slave owners. The slave's reaction to this desire and determination resulted in outright rebellion and individual acts of defiance. However, historians place the strongest reaction in the enlisting of blacks in the war itself.
Batty and Parish in The Divided Union: The Story of the Great American War, 1861-65, concur with Foner and Mahoney about the importance of outright rebellion in their analysis of the Nat Turner Rebellion, which took place in 1831. This revolt demonstrated that not all slaves were willing to accept this “institution of slavery” passively. Foner and Mahoney note that the significance of this uprising is found in its aftermath because of the numerous reports of “insubordinate” behavior by slaves .
Individual acts of defiance ranged from the use of the Underground Railroad - a secret, organized network of people who helped fugitive slaves reach the Northern states and Canada - to the daily resistance or silent sabotage found on the plantations. Stokesbury acknowledges the existence of the Underground Railroad but disagrees with other historians as to its importance. He notes that it never became as well organized or as successful as the South believed.
Even with the groundwork having been laid for resistance, the prevalent racial climate in America in 1860 found it unthinkable that blacks would bear arms against white Americans. However, by 1865 these black soldiers had proven their value. Wilson writes in great detail describing the struggles and achievements of the black soldiers in his book The Black Phalanx. McPherson discusses that widespread opposition to the use of blacks as soldiers prevailed among northern whites. Whereas McPherson relates the events cumulating in the passage of two laws that aided black enlistment, Wilson focuses on the actual enlistment. He notes that the first regiment of free blacks came into service at New Orleans in September 1862 through the efforts of Butler. Wilson credits Butler’s three regiments of blacks as the first officially mustered into Union ranks. North Carolina and Kansas also organized additional black units where minor skirmishes proved to be successful. Wilson also notes that “Kansas has ... the honor of being the first State in the Union to begin the organization of Negroes as soldiers for the Federal army.” Sewell and McPherson agree that up to this point President Lincoln had opposed the idea of blacks fighting for the Union but after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that slaves in states still in rebellion on January 1, 1863, “shall be then, thence forward, and forever free,” he reversed his thinking. At the end of the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln announced that the freed blacks “would be received into the armed service of the United States....” Lincoln planned to tap into a new source of fighting individuals, “...the great available and as yet unavailed of, force for the restoration of the Union.”. Lincoln thought this would both weaken the enemy and strengthen the Union. The recruitment of the blacks took laborers from the South