Fighting for Citizenship
Black Northerners and the Debate over Military Service in the Civil War
In Fighting for Citizenship, Brian Taylor complicates existing interpretations of why black men fought in the Civil War. Civil War—era African Americans recognized the urgency of a core political concern: how best to use the opportunity presented by this conflict over slavery to win abolition and secure enduring black rights, goals that had eluded earlier generations of black veterans. Some, like Frederick Douglass, urged immediate enlistment to support the cause of emancipation, hoping that a Northern victory would bring about the end of slavery. But others counseled patience and negotiation, drawing on a historical memory of unfulfilled promises for black military service in previous American wars and encouraging black men to leverage their position to demand abolition and equal citizenship. In doing this, they also began redefining what it meant to be a black man who fights for the United States.
These debates over African Americans' enlistment expose a formative moment in the development of American citizenship: black Northerners' key demand was that military service earn full American citizenship, a term that had no precise definition prior to the Fourteenth Amendment. In articulating this demand, Taylor argues, black Northerners participated in the remaking of American citizenship itself — unquestionably one of the war's most important results.