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About 200,000 Black Americans who served as Union troops and aids during the U.S. Civil War will receive Congressional Gold Medals honoring their sacrifice if Congress passes a new proposed bill.
U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) issued an announcement on Friday about the expected legislation, which Norton said will finally give descendants of Black Union troops their just due.
“Despite sacrificing life and limb, hundreds of thousands of African Americans who fought for the Union in the Civil War have largely been left out of the nation’s historical memory,” Norton said in a statement on the matter. “This bill will help correct that wrong and give the descendants of those soldiers the recognition they deserve.”
An estimated 179,000 Black men risked their lives and their freedom by serving as soldiers in the Union Army, according to the lawmakers. Another 19,000 Black men served in the Navy.
Black women, who were barred from being soldiers and sailors at the time, contributed to the war effort by serving as nurses, spies, scouts and cooks.
Many, including Underground Railroad abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman, were former slaves who fled captivity and defied the will of Confederate President Jefferson Davis whose Dec. 24, 1862 executive order sought to return any “negro slave” captured while fighting for the Union to the state from which he or she escaped.
They also defied the will of Northern Democrats who “were screaming bloody murder any time anyone mentioned putting a gun in a Black man’s hand,” according to “Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America,” author Douglas Egerton.
“Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist. Lincoln was an anti-slavery mainstream politician,” Egerton recently told the Washington Post. “Every Northern Democrat was opposed to his policies, and a whole lot of border states’ moderate Republicans were not enthusiastic about using Black troops.”
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass played a pivotal role in convincing President Abraham Lincoln to let Black Americans serve in the war effort, according to Egerton.
“Once let the Black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket,” Douglass wrote in 1863, according to the Smithsonian. “There is no power on the earth or under the earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
That same year, Douglass’ two sons, Lewis Henry Douglass and Charles Douglass, joined the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, which became one of the first Black regiments to engage in combat during the war.
“What made the Massachusetts regiments so important — and the vast majority of them were Northern men born free — is they wanted to fight because they wanted to show that Black men could do more than cook stew and dig latrines,” Egerton said. “They were kind of the pioneer regiments, and they knew it.”
Sen. Booker said on Friday that recognition of these Black Americans’ Civil War efforts is long overdue.
“More than 150 years after the end of the war, I am proud to introduce bicameral legislation with Congresswoman Norton that would award these heroes the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their brave and selfless actions on behalf of our nation,” Booker said in a statement.
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