For black people living in the United States during the Civil War era, the abolition of slavery throughout the nation was the goal, and some who were free decided to form their own regiments to fight for the Union in pursuit of that goal. They were paid less than white soldiers or were not paid at all, received poor equipment, and often ran out of supplies. To make matters worse, Confederate soldiers threatened to enslave or kill any black soldiers they captured and kill their white commanders. Overcoming these hardships, black soldiers proved themselves heroically in battle. The bravery of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, an all-black regiment, is among the most well known and is remembered in the Shaw Memorial, a sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Richard Harvey Cain was among a group of black students from Wilberforce University who attempted to join the Union army in Ohio. Cain was turned down. He wrote about the events after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter and the importance of the 54th Massachusetts:
I shall never forget the thrill that ran through my soul when I thought of the coming consequences of that shot. There were one hundred and fifteen of us students at the University, who, anxious to vindicate the stars and stripes, made up a company and offered our services to the Governor of Ohio; and sir, we were told that this is a white man’s war and that the Negro had nothing to do with it. Sir, we returned, docile, patient, waiting, casting our eyes to the Heavens whence help always comes. We knew that there would come a period in the history of this nation when our strong black arms would be needed. We waited patiently; we waited until Massachusetts, through her noble Governor, sounded the alarm, and we hastened to hear the summons and obey it.
Letter by Richard Harvey Cain written at the time of the Civil War, quoted in Zak Mettger, Till Victory Is Won: Black Soldiers in the Civil War (New York: Puffin Books, 1997), 2.
Why do you think Cain and his fellow students were eager to fight? Is there a cause for which you would feel the same and take action? Have students write a short essay on a cause they feel strongly about and what can be done to address it. For older students, have them write an op-ed and encourage students to submit their writing to local and national publications.