African American Resistance: Examples of Resistance by African American Individuals During the American Civil War

This is a paper I wrote during my studies at Simmons College.

Leading up to the War, outbreaks of resistance were intensifying. Just two years prior to the onset of the Civil War, the widow of former president James K. Polk observed the armed enslaved people on her Mississippi plantation barricading themselves in act of protest. That is just one example of uprisings occurring shortly before the Civil War broke. Several uprisings were reported in the Mid-Atlantic and surrounding states within the same year: West Virginia, Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois, and North Carolina. The attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, provoked a group of enslaved African Americans and white co-conspirators in Mississippi to attempt an uprising with word of the Union troops arriving. Unfortunately, this uprising was halted as word got out, leading to the execution of at least forty enslaved people. While not much is detailed about the rebellions occurring during the Civil War, throughout its rage, reports of conspiracies and unrest continued until the eventual defeat of the Confederate States of America and the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all enslaved people from the bonds of slavery.[1]

Rebellions and resistance were always very difficult forms of resistance that had rare chances of true success. However, the Civil War empowered both enslaved and free African Americans. The War enabled them to find strength in a war that they saw as a chance to gain their freedom. Many African Americans fought for the Union army, lending their services to help combat the slavery of the South. Running away, as we know, is an act of resistance. Many enslaved African Americans ran from their plantations, and sometimes the Confederate Army, and joined Union troops. Others who ran, tried to escape to the North to live a life of freedom and away from the chains that tied them down to slavery. Other forms of resistance included poisoning food served to slave owners, slowing down production by feigning illness or breaking tools, or preaching about freedom at secret religious services that were held.[2] African American women were not afraid to help in the efforts of the Civil War and resistance. Some aiding in the movement of runaway enslaved persons, and some acting as spies for the Union army.

“On the most basic human level, slave resistance is an expression of individualism and autonomy that implies a degree of freedom still exists even within the most oppressive and labor regimes.”[3] Enslaved African Americans saw that freedom was achievable. Free people of color existed and were talked about. There was a self-awareness as well, that enslaved people knew that they were in fact human beings. This preempted the instilment that they were only ever going to be, and were only capable of being, slaves. As a result, rebellions and uprisings were inevitable. In fact, “some rebellious slaves were able to achieve self-emancipation through acts of resistance.”[4] While this was not heavily common in the United Sates, this was the case for many Caribbean islands. However, this did not stop enslaved African Americans within the United States from trying. “The true impact of slave revolt, however, existed not in the short-term achievement of specific goals, but in the ultimate disassembly of slavery itself. The potential for revolt and the consequential havoc that such events might affect played heavy upon the minds of all who stood to benefit from the perpetuation and maintenance of a slave-based society.”[5] This is essentially what led to the American Civil War: being a war between slavery and freedom of African Americans. Furthermore, enslaved African Americans saw the impact that revolts had, which is why revolts did not stop occurring when the Civil War broke, but more so intensified.

The American Civil War is a war that is still surrounded by much controversy. The Civil War began in April of 1861 and lasted about four years. Archival evidences support the understanding that the War was a result of the growth of slavery; however, the emphasized notion of the war was that it began as a result of states’ rights. Many factors went into the initial start of the War, but slavery was definitely the overarching reason. While the American Civil War concluded in the emancipation of all enslaved persons, the War is often remembered by the impact that death had on the nation and the subsequent narrative after the War ended. Yet, African American resistance is sometimes lost in conversations. Resistance, in this sense, refers to African Americans trying to end and escape the chains of slavery. Prior to the Civil War, the antislavery movement is very much discussed, particularly with the Underground Railroad and Northern abolitionists. However, the antislavery movement didn’t stop when the Civil War broke out. The way African Americans and co-abolitionists resistance shifted as the focus of attention was drawn to the war. Looking at specific types of resistance will demonstrate how African Americans continued to show their determination and desire to end slavery, but also provide more insight into other ways the African American community resisted, focusing on specific examples of resistance displayed by certain African American individuals.

The scholarship of African American resistance primarily focuses around the American Civil Rights Movement or the time period prior to the American Civil War. However, some works do hit on African American resistance during the Civil War in a broader lens: looking at riots through the 1800s or looking at women’s roles and how women resisted during the Civil War. In order to add to the scholarship and discuss resistance, I looked at specific African American individuals who during the American Civil War, exemplified various types of resistance: from Civil War soldiers to Union spies, African American men and women were courageous in their display of resistance as they were determined to achieve freedom for themselves and all African Americans.

Prior to the Civil War, African Americans united together to try to resist slavery. While riots and uprisings are the most commonly known and talked about forms of resistance, African Americans did not always resort to such outwardly violent ways to resist. Resistance was also done subtly in day to day work on plantations and through escape. Enslaved persons would break tools and feign illness to slow down the work process. Additionally, enslaved persons would attempt to runaway to the North and Canada to be free or assist in the Underground Railroad. Yet, violence was one form of resistance that often captured attention. An example of an individual who ran away, but also resorted to some extreme measures of resistance is Margaret Garner. Margaret Garner attempted to escape slavery with her children; however, she was caught. Prior to being captured she attempted to kill her children and successfully killed one. The self-harm and killing of children were large scale acts of resistance out of desperation. This types of resistance has been traced all the way back to the kidnapping of Africans and boarding them on ships to be brought to the Americas. These captured people would fling themselves or their children over board to escape the tortures that would have befallen them. Garner was one of many other enslaved people who felt as though death was better than freedom and that in death freedom was granted. Whether violent or passive, even with the onset of the American Civil War, resistance didn’t stop. In fact, the Civil War, in itself, is a large scale form of resistance. African Americans wanted to put an end to slavery. While some may have been content, the majority wanted to live a life of freedom and were willing to die trying.

This paper investigates African American resistance, looking at specific individuals and how their actions of resistance played out and effected their lives and the lives of the people around them, during the American Civil War. Looking at the War, I will explore the role African Americans played and how their actions were forms of resistance that impacted the War and, or, the cause to end slavery. I will look at slave narratives, diaries, and biographies of individuals who acted in ways of resistance and contributed to the cause. Primarily, nonetheless, reviewing the Civil War and the role African Americans played will open up the narrative and pave a way for a deeper discussion and look into African American contributions and their forms of resistance that aided both the War and the antislavery movement.

Again, and to reiterate, African Americans engaged in resistance practices against enslavement in all formats – from large to small and open rebellion to subtle mundane tasks. Over the years, open rebellions grew, but subtle resistance continued to thrive. African Americans such as Robert Smalls, Mary Bowser, Harriet Tubman, and many others were influential in the resistance during the American Civil War. These African Americans were courageous, brave, and strong as they broke through barriers of society and helped to advance the progress of the anti-slavery movement, and even the War. Each of these individuals displayed, more or less, acts of passive resistance that greatly influenced the way in which American society viewed African Americans. Robert Smalls went from being an enslaved person to Civil War hero, securing his freedom for he and his family. Mary Bowser was born into slavery, but found safety in the homes of abolitionists, and went on to become a Civil War spy for the Union. Both Harriet Tubman was born into slavery and was able to escape early on before the war. She was advantageous in the efforts of the antislavery movement and the advancement of the Union Army during the Civil War with her passive forms of resistance. Harriet Tubman continued to work as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, assisting in leading people away from slavery to freedom in the North. However, she was also an advocate for the antislavery movement and women’s rights, speaking at public engagements. During the Civil War, Tubman played integral parts in providing services for the Union troops.

At the start of the American Civil War, both Union and Confederate leaders feared that having African American troops would be a hindrance. For the Union, the fear stemmed from the imagination that African Americans wouldn’t be able to take up arms against white Confederate troops, preventing them from being considered as soldiers. For the Confederate, the fear was that regiment leaders wouldn’t be able to control African American soldiers and there might inner uprisings prevented the Confederates from enlisting African Americans. The possibility that being armed or desiring freedom would result in African Americans fleeing or uprising to escape to freedom was the overall concern on both parties.

People in the North, especially people within New England, wanted to enlist African Americans from the start of the war. President Abraham Lincoln was the one who was cautious and withheld permission. On 1 January 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. In response, the Confederates disregarded any white man who was “found serving in company with armed slaves.” Rather than being regarded “as soldiers engaged in honorable warfare” these white soldiers fighting alongside African Americans would be viewed “as criminals deserving death […]” While some Northerners felt the same way in this regards, General Robert Gould Shaw saw a value in utilizing African Americans.[6]

Shaw, who became General of the Massachusetts 54th and died during battle, saw that the use of African Americans as soldiers or more would bring the Civil War to a sooner end. Harriet Tubman utilized the use of runaway enslaved persons as spies to further the advancement of the North. African Americans could blend in as enslaved persons. The South neglected to realize that some African Americans were educated and would leave papers lying around that could be read, as exemplified by Mary Bowser.

It was July 1863, when an all-white Connecticut regiment ran into trouble when facing a strong Confederate opposition. James Island, South Carolina was the destination of the Confederate regiment. This was intended to be a prelude to seizing Charleston. Egerton takes the time to describe the battle and depicts the 54th Massachusetts Regiment as heroes. This encounter was definitely a turning point in many minds of Northern citizens who doubted or had speculations about the validity of enlisting African Americans.[7]

Mohammed Ali bin Said was born around 1836 in the Kingdom of Bornou, which is now part of Nigeria. Said was captured as a teen by slavers and taken to Turkey. In Turkey, one of his owners was a Russian general of Crimean war fame. Somehow, Said crossed the waters to New England, where he not only worked on whaling vessels, but also renamed himself Ned Hallowell. Hallowell was one of many sailors who joined the Massachusetts Colored Regiments. William Carney, a runaway slave, became another African American soldier for the Massachusetts Colored Regiments. He also became the first African American to win the Medal of Honor. Carney is occasionally referenced for his bravery in one of the1864 battles where he risked his life to retrieve the American flag from a fallen flag bearer.[8] Mohammed Ali bin Said demonstrated his pride in being an American and showed the nation that he was loyal. His actions, in a sense, demanded the respect of the nation for his bravery. This resistance is one that forces the nation to re-think the perspective of African Americans. Another such hero who also forces the nation to rethink their opinions on the loyalty and skills of African Americans, is Robert Smalls.

Robert Smalls, along with his wife and two children, were enslaved on a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. After years of being oppressed, bonded, and listening to the commands of a white man, Robert Smalls was fed up. He had, had enough. He wanted more for his family, especially his young children. Though he never experienced freedom, he knew it must be better than remaining a slave. The Civil War began in 1861, and while the causes of the Civil War across all levels of society were being disputed, slavery was definitely in the backs of many people’s minds. Robert Smalls was no different. Slavery was beginning to become a more centralized focus and freedom was becoming, somewhat, promising. In May of 1862, Robert Smalls, at the age of twenty-three, seized a Confederate steamer. He hid his wife and two children on board and gathered together a small crew. Smalls and his crew delivered the war vessel and the massive weaponry it carried to nearby Union forces. It was because of Smalls’ act of courage and bravery during his escape that made him a Union hero. The supplies he brought to them were truly beneficial. Smalls continued to fight for and with the Union Army. He made many accomplishments, including becoming the first black captain of an army vessel. At the same time, he forced the country to reconsider their opinions and views of African Americans. African Americans would, essentially, do just about anything for their freedom. As a result of this new view, President Abraham Lincoln’s hands were forced, and African Americans were allowed to enlist in the war efforts of the Union. A more satisfying moment in Smalls’ life, aside from achieving freedom for himself and his family, was likely when he purchased the home in which he and his mother had once been house slaves in.[9]

Robert Smalls enlisted the help of others in his escape plans, stole a Confederate Vessel, delivered it to Union troops, and then continued to fight in the War for the Union Army. Smalls’ success and bravery was successful in his resistance attempts. It is almost surprising that Smalls made the attempt to escape, for “men with families were also less inclined to run away.”[10] Smalls’ actions were all small forms of resistance that aided the War. Planning an escape and running away are relatively small acts of resistance. Smalls was resisting the system of slavery, but then he was also going further by enlisting the help of other enslaved persons and took his family. In this sense he was assisting in the escape from slavery for others. Resisting slavery in numbers, in this case, proved to be much more successful. He was methodic in his plan and tried to account for all possible errors, “Even if Smalls had been able to stow the women and children aboard the vessel without anyone noticing, he could not risk one of them making a sound that would draw attention to the Planter.”[11] Smalls wanted to ensure everyone’s safety in the escape. Taking control of the Planter, a Confederate military vessel, was a dangerous risk that if successful would benefit everyone involved. Taking the vessel was a huge act of resistance and its successful delivery to the Union troops greatly impacted the Union efforts.

As was aforementioned, slave escapes, aiding in slave escapes, and fighting in the war are all acts of resistance. Smalls went above and beyond when he high-jacked a Confederate vessel and delivered it Union troops. This type of resistance is one that supported the War because Union gained the advantage. The Union, while not initially declared, was fighting to put an end to slavery and by acquiring the vessel, the Confederates in Charleston, South Carolina were caught off guard. Smalls and his crew were able to help the Union defeat Charleston, and would go on to help in other battles. Becoming the first black captain of an army vessel, was an accomplishment and a resistance to the stereotype that white society created about African Americans. He was intelligent and he was a fighter. These qualities shifted the perspective of the nation in the attitudes towards African Americans. Robert Smalls essentially forced President Abraham Lincoln to permit African Americans to join the Union War efforts. The ability for African Americans to join in the war efforts didn’t only apply to African American men. African American women were very vital in the war efforts as well, and African American women played integral roles in the advancement of the war, as well as the antislavery movement as a whole.

There is an evolutionary role that African American women played during the Civil War. From being nurses to spies, women were actors of resistance. At the same time, rebellions were still occurring, and some of them had help from African American woman.  While there is much scholarship on the Civil War and African American soldiers, little scholarship has been written on African American women during the Civil War and the ongoing resistance and rebellions of African Americans outside of the combat produced by the War. With more exploration, the understanding of African American resistance of men and women can be further understood and the American Civil War can be revered as more than just a war between North and South; Union and Confederacy; slavery and anti-slavery, but a fight for freedom the very virtues that the American Constitution promises to uphold.

African American women were strong in their belief that it was their own natural right to be free. Often times, their desperation for freedom led them to drastic actions of resistance. “According to Ervin L. Jordan, Jr., ‘Afro-Virginian women initiated individual acts of resistance that demonstrated their capacity for ferocity. Poisonings, assaults, stabbings, arson, vandalism, escapes, and murders terrified and astounded Confederate Virginians.’”[12] It was not only African American Virginian women who engaged in these acts of resistance; African American women throughout the South participated in such defiance. The diaries of whites during this time period attest to such resistance. A prime example of desperation for freedom is Mill, who was an enslaved woman from Memphis. She recounts her story of escaping slavery to white abolitionist, Laura Haviland. Union soldiers were beginning to approach the plantation she resided on. Her master asked whether or not she would go with the soldiers and whether or not she would take her children with her. She responded honestly, admitting that if she got the chance she would go and she would take the children she had left. Unfortunately, her honesty caused her to lose her children. She was heartbroken over the loss of her children, but that didn’t stop her determination to reach freedom.[13]

Mill’s devotion and determination proved that “one of the greatest forms of resistance to their condition during the Civil War was African American women’s mere survival. Far too often the odds, physical as well as mental, were against them.”[14] African American women were forced to be strong. Some of them displayed a strong determination to achieve freedom, as exemplified by Garner earlier, by killing their children. In this sense, they had to believe that death was far better than being enslaved. In other manners, African American women helped to disrupt the plantation systems. Women were often ones to help start work stoppages by breaking the tools or burning down buildings. Additionally, women were more used to assist in spying, just as Mary Bowser did. African American women challenged the system of enslavement wreaking havoc and chaos on the plantations, distracting the white civilians, and even the government, at times from focusing solely on the War. Aside from War, they had to worry about uprisings or work stoppages, which would impact the supply of food and other materials needed to help the soldiers continue their fight.

During the Civil War, women were revered as sacred beings of purity. Women, especially women of the South, utilized this perspective for their advantage. Elizabeth Van Lew, a white abolitionist who moved to the South from the North, enlisted the help of African Americans, especially African American women, to help spy on the Confederates. Mary Bowser, Van Lew’s family’s servant, was one of the African American women who went undercover as an enslaved person aiding in the cause. During the early portion of the Civil War, women were not well respected in terms of intelligence and maintaining an opinion in political matters. Men would discuss things like politics and slavery around women, viewing them as mute beings, forgetting, or being ignorant of, the fact that women could and did formulate opinions and spoke up on how they felt. Some, as Van Lew did, would even act on such feelings. This same view translated to enslaved people. They were seen as objects and property. Many enslaved people were uneducated, so leaving behind writings or talking about sophisticated matters seemed mundane and trivial. This outlook led to many conspiracies and internal betrayal from the enslaved African Americans to the abolitionist and anti-war women living in the South. Espionage is a form of passive resistance that aided in war efforts on both sides. Looking at Mary Bowser, provides insight into how some African Americans aided in the advancement of Union victory through spying on Confederate government officials.

Van Lew was interested in Bowser because of her intelligence. “Van Lew had sent her to Philadelphia to be educated at the Quaker School for Negroes.”[15] Knowing that Bowser could read and write was vital in her plan. She had been actively looking “for further ways to spy on the Confederate government.”[16] Her plan was to have “Mrs. Bowser to help her spy, so she persuaded a friend to take Mrs. Bowser to assist at functions at Jefferson Davis’s mansion. Elizabeth cautioned Mrs. Bowser to pretend she was illiterate, so as not to arouse suspicion.”[17] The plan worked, and Bowser was then hired by the Davis family to be a servant. Resistance was not only a fight for African Americans, whites assisted African Americans in their struggle and fight. Van Lew aided the Union with information about the Confederates. Utilizing Bowser helped in deceiving the Confederate government. Bowser aided in the resistance movement by agreeing to act as a spy. She was able to get valuable information that Van Lew then fed to the Union. Their teamwork and successful infiltration of the Confederate’s plans helped in the advancement of the Union’s victory. Their resistance to end slavery changed the way women were viewed. The Confederate South was forced to change their perceptions of women and African Americans as a whole.[18]

Going back to just before the onset of the War, one major event that occurred and supplemented the tension that was already stirring was the attack on Harper’s Ferry. The air smelled of war. People talked that a war was brewing and it was beginning to seem as though this war was inevitable. In October of 1859, John Brown unsuccessfully tried to initiate a slave rebellion by seizing of the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. His failed effort led to his capturing and execution; however, the raid of Harper’s Ferry became a monumental event. The raid only further intensified the tension that was fermenting between the North and South. Interestingly, and not very well known, is Harriet Tubman’s contribution to the raid on Harper’s Ferry.

Harriet Tubman was born in 1820 on a plantation in Maryland. On a daily basis, she was beaten by those whom she was hired out to for her services. From an early age, she assisted in escape. In her early teens, working as a field hand, she defied her overseer’s commands of restraining another enslaved person and blocked the doorway so that the man could escape. In anger, the overseer through a weight at her head, breaking her skull and leaving her with severe life-long ailments. Yet, in 1844, she married a free black man and in 1849, her and her two brothers attempted to run away, yet it was unsuccessful. However, her second attempt to flee, alone, was a success. She quickly became eager to try and get her family out of slavery. Her interest led her to the well-organized, Underground Railroad, where she would later become a “conductor.”[19] Harriet Tubman’s work as a conductor for the Underground Railroad led to several warrants being issued for her capture. She excelled in the transportation of hundreds of enslaved persons to freedom in the North and to Canada. A $40,000 reward for her capture demonstrates how desperate Southern planters were to stop her success.[20] Her passive resistance abetted the antislavery movement. Yet, leading enslaved people to freedom was not all that she did to show her resistance.

Harriet Tubman was an advocate for the abolition of slavery. She had the respect of Frederick Douglas and was an ally to John Brown, the man responsible for the raid on Harper’s Ferry. She assisted Brown in recruiting supporters, both in numbers and financially. In fact, Tubman was such a great asset to Brown that she became known to him as “General Tubman.” Additionally, when the Civil War broke in 1861, she was very much a supporter of the Union Army, but had initially condemned President Lincoln for his inaction in the illegalization slavery. When African Americans were finally permitted – recognized nationally – to fight in the War, Tubman was the first woman to plan and lead an armed assault in the Civil War. She led a regiment of about three hundred African American “soldiers in a raid at Combahee Ferry, [South Carolina] and commanded the gunboats around Confederate mines in the river.” This attack occurred in 1863, and was very successful. Tubman and her regiment of Black soldiers won the battle and liberated roughly 756 enslaved individuals. She would go on to open and help operate, African American hospitals for the black soldiers fighting in the War.[21]

Harriet Tubman’s resistance greatly penetrated the efforts to continue slavery and the negative views that society had on African Americans. Harriet Tubman, in an affidavit she submitted to Congress petitioning for additional benefits – she was already receiving a widow’s pension for the death of veteran husband who served as a private in the Eight United States Colored Infantry, she outlines all of her services and responsibilities she did during the war that helped in the Union’s victory. Aside from leading an all African American regiment to victory and being a nurse, Tubman was also a scout, a cook, and a spy.[22] Just like Mary Bowser, Tubman also partook in espionage and gathered information that helped in the defeat of several battles, including the one that she led her black regiment at Combahee Ferry.[23] Her resistance efforts during the War, forced the nation to re-evaluate her influence and success. From leading enslaved persons to freedom to aiding the Union during the War, her resistance efforts didn’t go unnoticed and left the South and North awestruck, proved by the warrants for her capture and the Union’s continued efforts to work with her.

Tubman is one of several women who made an impact on the minds of many before, during, and after the American Civil War. While maybe not so influential by action, literary works documenting the voices of the enslaved or formerly enslaved were very pertinent, especially leading up to the War. In 1861, the same year that the War began, Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography was published and printed by white female abolitionist, Lydia Maria Francis Child. Jacobs’ book, a slave narrative in its own right, addresses issues of race and gender. She explores the struggles of being an enslaved woman: dealing with sexual abuse and motherhood, and the struggle to gain freedom for her and her children.

In two different instances, Jacobs brings to focus the real fear and horrendous treatment about her experience as an enslaved young woman. “I had not lived fourteen years for nothing. I had felt, seen, and heard enough, to read the characters, and question the motives, of those around me. The war of my life had begun; and though one of God’s most powerless creatures, I resolved never to be conquered.”[24] Jacobs, at the mere age of fourteen, already understood her role in society and was fighting her own war within the entire system of slavery. She understood the sexual violence that could bequeath her, and she made an attempt to recognize those signs to not allow such a situation to occur. The sad reality of such violence came to fruition by analyzing the law, “no matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men.”[25] To abuse a white woman sexually was punishable by death, but to abuse a black woman was almost mundane. To those residing in the North slavery by the time of the Civil War, was something far-removed. There was not witnessing of such behavior. Yet these words brought real insight in emotions into rethinking the morale of enslavement. With tensions already high and war breaking, Jacobs only assisted in the abolitionist movement in trying to persuade the Union nation to fight to put an end to such bigoted violence of slavery and the system surrounding it.

Harriet Jacobs’ book had ample examples of the sexual harassment and abuse that enslaved women endured. Her book “was one of the first open discussions about” this type of abuse, which was “a topic that even made many abolitionists uncomfortable.”[26] Jacobs’ words were a passive form of resistance in that they revealed the horrors of slavery and provided insight. Abolitionists utilized slave narratives to further their movement and provide examples as to why slavery needed to be stopped. Additionally, slave narratives showed society what was actually going on and allowed people to make their own interpretations. While they may not have converted people over to being abolitionists, people talked and questioned the morale of slavery.

Robert Smalls, Mary Bowser, Harriet Tubman, and Harriet Jacobs were just a few of the many African Americans who aided in both the antislavery movement and the American Civil War in favor of the Union. These individuals displayed passive forms of resistance that forced the nation and President Abraham Lincoln to reconsider their right to freedom and aid in war efforts. In 1862-1863, President Lincoln officially enabled African Americans to enlist in the War.

There are many resources that depict African Americans during the War, from historical analysis to primary sources such as: journals, manuscripts, newspapers, and more. Yet, not many scholars have tackled looking into resistance during the Civil War. Looking into the actions of African Americans and the African American community in the short years prior to the American Civil War and during, help to provide insight on how African Americans resisted slavery and the system that embodied it until the wars end. It demonstrates that the fight to end slavery did not end once the War began, but was rather was a driving force for more forms of resistance.

Robert Smalls and Mohammed Ali bin Said are two individuals with separate histories, who both proved themselves during the American Civil War. Ali bin Said demonstrated courage by retrieving the flag from a fallen soldier. The action of retrieving the flag depicts the resistance of the stereotype that society had placed on African Americans. Ali bin Said was not a danger to his comrades, but a willing participate willing to help fight for something he believed in. Robert Smalls was no different. He resisted the bonds of slavery by escaping and helping others to escape, while also aiding in Union advancements. He was determined to provide freedom for his family, which motivated him. He continued his progression not to prove a point to the nation, but to fight to put an end to the system of slavery. Along the way, his actions were demonstrations of resistance: resistance against slavery and resistance against societal stereotypes on African Americans. He was fearless in his passion. Stealing a Confederate war vessel and delivering it into the open arms of Union Troops and proceeding to assist the Union Army in their fight, were all subtle acts of resistance that surprised many. Smalls was a fighter and was willing to do anything in order to bring freedom to his family. On top of being determined and fearless, he was resilient, strong, brave, courageous, hopeful, proud, and considerate. These characteristics are some of the many that can be used to describe the African Americans who aided in the resistance movement to end slavery and help bring the Union to victory.

African American women played integral roles in the resistance against slavery. Enslaved African American women were strong in their belief as individual entities of the right to freedom, which often led them to commit drastic actions of resistance. Many of these women even initiated acts of resistance that demonstrated their seriousness and determination to show the bigotry of slavery and bring the system of slavery to an end. From poisoning slave masters to physical acts of violence towards whites to running away to killing their own children, women were strong, courageous, brave – resilient. Mills and Margaret Garner, though Garner occurred years earlier, desperately desired freedom and to some extent, were willing to lose their children in order to get it. In death, freedom was secured. In essence, a belief in a higher being gave women the hope and security that their children, in death, were free and safe from the chains of slavery. This resistance was spiritual, but led to the help of abolitionists who used these actions to depict the negative impact that slavery had on African Americans and African American families. Looking closer at specific African American woman shows their belief and the true vitality of African American woman during the cause. In conversation, men seem to dominate the sphere of Civil War, but African American men and women were equally important in bringing the Union to victory and putting a definitive end to slavery.

Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary Bowser were resilient in that they both had the same end goal: to put an end to slavery and help the Union win. Van Lew, white abolitionist, was considerate, compassionate, and sympathetic. She saw slavery and the system as an injustice towards African Americans. She was creative in her ways to try to help the Union. It was her enlisting of the help of African Americans, one of them being Mary Bowser, that made her courageous. Courageous in the sense that she could get in trouble with the Confederate government. Mary Bowser was resilient, brave, courageous, hopeful, determined, and fearless. She could have turned Van Lew in at any moment, but she pushed forward. She stood her ground and was hopeful that her efforts would be enough. Together, they aided in the antislavery movement. They were able to make an impact by feeding the Union information about the Confederates. Additionally, Van Lew and Bowser allow us to see that women were influential in the resistance move and for the advancement of the American Civil War. We know women were often recruited as spies, documents and literature support that understanding. The way in which African American women resisted and participated is not always clear in educational understandings of the Civil War. Mary Bowser and Harriet Tubman are two examples of African American women who were spies for the Union, but had very different backgrounds, yet their belief in the cause to end slavery was the same. Their passive resistance allowed each to do their due-diligence and go unscathed.

Harriet Tubman, or General Tubman as she was otherwise known, was extremely influential in the resistance against slavery. Yet, her biggest motivation stemmed from her faith in God. Known as the “Black Moses,” Tubman accumulated a large bounty for her retrieval due to the many people whom she helped lead to freedom. Her passive resistance began as a slave on a plantation and grew. In her heart, she knew slavery was wrong and needed to be stopped. She resisted slavery in the many slave escapes she helped facilitate and by assisting John Brown. She only intensified her resistance efforts when the War broke. From leading a black regiment to victory in South Carolina to her work as a Union spy, Harriet Tubman displayed true resilience, courage, bravery, compassion, and much more. Tubman’s resistance continues to be monumentally recognized and her determination helped lead to much success in providing freedom to all African Americans, especially with her efforts during the American Civil War.

Harriet Jacobs passively resisted slavery. She methodically found ways to try and refute the sexual advances of her slave master and she ran away and was able to reunite with her children later. She had intellect. She was able to understand the fears and dangers of being a black woman and that sexual abuse was very plausible. In order to combat that, she made sure she could recognize the signs and took the steps to try and prevent such abuse from occurring. When she saw her chance, she made her escape. At the same time, she ensured her children were taken care of and then once free, she sent for them. She struggled, but with determination she overcame the obstacles of achieving freedom. Her book is its own testimony to the horrors of slavery and highlights the true ill-morale of the slave system.  Her experience as an enslaved women showed her strength, but she never wavered from that longing to be free. Her resistance was subtle. Unfortunately, not all women were able to escape physical abuse, but that didn’t stop them from seeking freedom or trying to resist slavery, even on a plantation. Slave narratives, like Jacobs’, were essential to the antislavery movement because they depicted the harsh life of being an enslaved person. These subtle forms of resistance greatly impacted the antislavery movement because it recruited many abolitionists who were willing to speak up and help terminate to slavery.

Apparently, some 180,000 African Americans ended up fighting in the Union army. I would not be surprised if that number was higher and didn’t count the number of enslaved people in the South that acted as spies. Even still, the bravery that the African American community exhibited, did not bring about equal treatment for them. This included pay. There was a disparity in how white Union troops were paid compared to African American Union troops, with African Americans receiving the short end of the coin, but they continued to fight. The American Civil War can definitely be remembered as a war of bravery, courage, and strength for the African American community and how without their resilience, the Civil War may not have ended in the outcome that it did.

Although the American Civil War began in the spring of 1861, it was not until around 1862-1864 that African Americans were nationally recognized by the Union as viable soldiers. The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery, sparked “abolitionists to begin to call for the raising of black regiments”[27] Massachusetts was the first state to in the North to organize an all-African American regiment. The Massachusetts 54th regiment was the first African American regiment organized, and then Massachusetts went on to establish several more African American regiments, each witnessing their own victories and successes during the War. Many of the Union victories in South Carolina during the War seemed to have been fought by African Americans in an act of slave resistance. This was exemplified in the specific accounts of Robert Smalls and Harriet Tubman, as well as the all-black regiment of Connecticut. The fight to end slavery was a huge motive for African Americans, but their faith in God was another factor in how they chose their resistance methods. Even when they realized they were being treated unfairly, they may have boycotted their wages, but they continued to fight. The resistance to end slavery was a far greater need. Stopping the fight was absurd. Freedom was possible; it was attainable.

The contribution of African Americans during the American Civil War is a heroic display of resistance to the enslavement of their people and the system that encompassed it. From Civil War soldiers to runaways to killing their children to riots and uprisings to the subtle acts by the enslaved people, the African American community banded together to show their desperation and resisted the system of slavery. Their efforts did not go unnoticed. The Civil War was the catalyst and the consequential force driven by antislavery advocates and resistance attempts. The war had already been going on, just not at a national level. With tensions high and uprisings only getting more violent, the American Civil War was indeed inevitable. Resistance of slavery by African Americans pushed for the War and during the War, advanced Union efforts and secured a victory; paving the way for freedom from slavery and creating new reasons to resist.

[1] Staff, “Slave Rebellions,”, 2009.

[2] Smithsonian National Museum of American History, “Resistance,” National Museum of American History, May 13, 2015.

[3] Rodriguez, Junius P., Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, 2007.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Egerton, Douglas R., Thunder at the Gates, 2016.

[7] Egerton, Douglas R., Thunder at the Gates, 2016.

[8] Ibid

[9] Lineberry, Cate, Be Free or Die, 2018.

[10] Lineberry, Cate, Be Free or Die, 2018.

[11] Ibid

[12] Forbes, Ella, African American Women During the Civil War, 1998.

[13] Forbes, Ella, African American Women During the Civil War, 1998.

[14] Ibid

[15] Van Lew, Elizabeth, A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew, Edited by David D. Ryan, 2001.

[16] Ibid

[17] Van Lew, Elizabeth, A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew, Edited by David D. Ryan, 2001.

[18] Ibid

[19] Eolis, Sharon. “John Brown Called Her ‘General Tubman’.” Workers World. March 21, 2013.

[20] Ripley, Peter. “Harriet Tubman.” Documenting the American South. 1992.

[21] Eolis, Sharon. “John Brown Called Her ‘General Tubman’.” Workers World. March 21, 2013.

[22] “Claim of Harriet Tubman.” National Archives and Records Administration.

[23] Allen, Thomas B. Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent, 2009.

[24] Jacobs, Harriet A., Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1988.

[25] Ibid

[26] “Harriet Jacobs.” PBS.

[27] Egerton, Douglas R., Thunder at the Gates, 2016.

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