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Remembering All of Our Nation's Veterans

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Remembering All of Our Nation's Veterans

By Congressman Joe Pitts

For most of my life I have been interested in the stories of those who risked everything for freedom. Veterans' Day is a good time to remember these stories and all of those men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our nation.

I came across one such story recently about African-American men from our area enlisting in the Union Army during the Civil War.

This weekend, Lancaster 's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church will honor eleven of its members who fought in the Civil War. These African-American men signed up to fight for the Union in 1862. They joined 300 others from this area who volunteered to fight for the Union 's cause. Their stories are compelling and worth remembering.

When news of the skirmish at Fort Sumter reached the rest of the nation, scores of free black men rushed to enlist in the U.S. military. However, federal law dating from 1792 prohibited them from serving, despite their active participation in the Revolutionary War and in the War of 1812.

The Lincoln Administration wrestled with the issue, concerned that if they changed the law border states would be compelled to join the Confederacy. Above all, the Union needed to remain intact.

As Union military units pressed deeper into the South, however, thousands of slaves fled to their camps. Many Union officers sent them back to their masters. Others, however, allowed them to remain with their troops.

Those who stayed were called "contrabands" and offered invaluable service to the units who welcomed them. Artist Alfred Waud depicted these men and women in a drawing for a northern newspaper which included the following caption:

There is something very touching in seeing these poor people coming into camp-giving up all the little ties that cluster about home, such as it is in slavery, and trustfully throwing themselves on the mercy of the Yankees, in the hope of getting permission to own themselves and keep their children from the auction-block.

By mid-1862, the pressures being placed on an army with decreasing numbers and increasing interest among black volunteers forced the Army to reconsider its policy. On July 17, 1862, Congress passed the "Second Confiscation and Militia Act." The legislation freed slaves who had masters in the Confederate Army, affecting many of the escaped "contrabands."

In July, President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery in the territories of the United States . Following the Proclamation recruitment of black soldiers began in earnest and in May 1863 the Government established the "Bureau of Colored Troops" to manage the rapidly growing ranks of black soldiers.

By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army. Another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war. There were nearly 80 black commissioned officers. Black women, who could not formally join the Army, nonetheless served as nurses, spies, and scouts, the most famous being Harriet Tubman.

Prejudice against these black soldiers remained, even in the north. They were paid less, served in segregated units, and commanded by white officers. These soldiers also faced harsher treatment by Confederate troops if they were captured. Despite, or perhaps because of these difficulties, they distinguished themselves in battle. By war's end, 16 black soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor.

It is not easy to serve in combat when your own leadership and the rules governing your army seem arrayed against you. It is remarkable to me that they served in the face of this unthinkable adversity. Yet these men understood the cause for which they were fighting and knew that justice would come.

The story of African-American soldiers in the Civil War is compelling and is an important part of our heritage. Over the years, Bethel AME and its members have been integral in the quest to help people understand the efforts of so many to achieve equality and freedom under the law in this nation.

We have known of Bethel 's role in the Underground Railroad. We now know of the bravery and selfless sacrifice made by its members to fight for freedom.

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