African Americans have fought for the United States in every war the US has been. However as Van Gosse points out in his opinion column for The New York Times, the US Civil War film, Glory leads viewers to conclude that this was the first military action African Americans participated in. In January 1776, George Washington lifted the ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army and all-black units were formed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Mention black soldiers in the Civil War today, and most people will immediately think of the 1989 film “Glory,” in which relatively enlightened Union officers train and then lead an all-black infantry regiment into battle. Part of the film’s power comes from the way that it gives the impression that employing black Americans as soldiers was a radically new idea.
But that wasn’t the case at all: the role of black men fighting for the United States had been a source of intense controversy since the Revolution. Indeed, to understand the politics behind the 1863 decision to finally enlist them, as well as Lincoln’s refusal even to consider it up to that point, requires an understanding of the long, fraught history of black soldiers in early America.