#2913. Discussion of African-American Roles During Civil War

Social Studies, level: Middle
Posted Fri Aug 15 12:41:58 PDT 2003 by Jennifer Rosenberry (jrosenberry@civilwar.org).
2-week lesson plan for teaching the Civil War
Civil War Preservation Trust, Hagerstown, Maryland (USA)
Materials Required: varied
Activity Time: discussion time plus group activity time
Concepts Taught: reactions to Fugitive Slave Law; situation of blacks during Civil War

Here are two optional activity sheets from the CWPT two-week curriculum for teaching about the American Civil War. They discuss the situation of African Americans during the Civil War, and reactions to the Fugitive Slave Act. Students would be given background information, and then are required to "role play" -- putting themselves in the shoes of first a Union colonel who is debating whether to return fugitive slaves to their "rightful owners" or to assist them in escaping, and then in the role of an African American debating whether or not he should enlist in the Union Army. The entire two-week lesson plan is available at the link below; or can be obtained on CD by e-mail request.
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What Would You Do?

Imagine for a minute that you are the Union colonel of a company of soldiers. You are campaigning in Virginia and it is early in the war. One evening, several escaped slave families – men, women, and children – enter your camp. They are ragged and starving.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 says you must return these slaves to their “rightful owners.” Yet, you are moved by compassion. How can you return them to a life of slavery? Don’t they deserve a life of freedom?

Some of your men are sharing their rations with the escaped slaves. Others, who have no special love of black people, are upset and want nothing to do with them.

You know that slave catchers will come by, looking for their “lost property.” And yet, if you return them, you may be aiding the Confederacy. After all, these slaves are helping to grow crops and produce supplies needed by the Southerners. Perhaps you could enlist the help of these struggling people – maybe you could hire them to do the cooking and the laundry, freeing your soldiers to do other things.

If you do allow these people to follow your company, will there be consequences with the officers you answer to? How do you explain your actions? How will you care for them and feed them on campaign? Will they have to fend for themselves? Do you risk openly breaking the law? Is the law even a good law?

You have a lot of things to think about. The slave catchers are approaching in the distance. Think quickly!


What do you do?

Do you allow the slave catchers to regain their “property?” Why or why not?
What will the escaped slaves do in your camp? Do you hire them; convince them to work for food and shelter?

How do you think your men will react? Will this affect their willingness to fight? Why or why not?

Pretend you are writing a letter to the commanding general. Explain your actions. Remember – if he doesn’t like your reasoning, you could be demoted and/or relieved of command!

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What Would You Do?

Imagine you are an escaped slave in the South. You have heard, through the grapevine, about a man who is recruiting runaway slaves to form a regiment of United States Colored Troops.

You’ve spent many years in slavery and the scars – both on your back and in your heart – are fresh. You have no good feelings for the Confederacy that supports keeping you in bondage. And yet, your family is here. It is scattered throughout the South because of slave auctions, but it is here. It is the only land you know.

As an escaped slave, you really can’t “hide” in the South. You could be recaptured and sold back to slavery at any time. And yet, life in the North won’t be risk-free either. You’ve heard of slaves brought back South – brought out of the land that was supposed to protect them. You’ve heard a lot of stories from your former “owners” too – stories that Yankees “ate Negroes for dinner” or made them pull wagons like the cattle, and so on. You think these stories are probably baloney, but do you really know for sure?

Your commander is sure to be a white man. Do you think he will be a good commander? Will he be hateful? Or, will he respect his men?

You’ve also heard that black soldiers get all the “grunt work” – the hard, backbreaking labor that no one else wants to do. You’ve just escaped backbreaking labor. Do you really want more? You just know that if someone would give you a rifle – you could prove that you’re a good, brave fighter. It doesn’t matter to you that the Confederates have vowed not to take any prisoners and you’ll be an especially hated target. (Or, does it matter to you?)

If you could just prove yourself, maybe you would help black people all over the North and South gain the rights they deserve as human beings.


The recruiting station is right around the corner, in the second floor room. You can walk up the stairs or you can keep going. What do you do? Why?

·Write a letter to your friend in New York, explaining why you enlisted (or, why you kept going.)
·Write a song or poem about your decision.
·Create a skit in which you (and a friend) are at the recruiting station. One of you wants to enlist; the other doesn’t. In your skit, explain your decisions.