Equal Rights and the Experience of Military Justice for African American Soldiers
Becoming American under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era, 2011
33 Pages Posted: 14 Jun 2015
Date Written: 2009
This chapter uses courts-martial records to examine how black Civil War soldiers vigorously refuted past lives as slaves now to claim rights as freedmen and citizens. Black mutineers sought to change laws which distinguished between white and black people and to bring ofﬁcial legal practices into conformity with their vision. Black soldiers turned the court-martial into an important way station on the road to freedom and citizenship, even where it punished those who violated military law. Besides revealing a surprising level of due process, general courts-martial records show the extent to which black soldiers situated themselves as American citizens by opposing discrimination, defying legal precedents that failed to acknowledge their equality, and advancing their interpretation of legal meanings and practices. Moreover, the experiences black troops, including many former slaves, had in courts-martial proceedings helped to shape their postwar agenda of legal change. Once in the courtroom, black soldiers encountered, often for the ﬁrst time, the concepts of the rule of law, equality before the law, and due process protection, all of which were very different from arbitrary discipline under slavery and on plantations. Courts-martial in the army provided black soldiers with an unexpected, and neglected, encounter with core ideas that helped inform their demands during Reconstruction for color-blind justice as a component of American citizenship and their sense that the law could serve as a bulwark to protect their newfound freedom and changed status.
This chapter is part of a book that examines in greater detail the politics of African American citizenship during the Civil War era and how experiences in the military, such as the successful protest by black soldiers against the Union army's original plan to pay them less then white troops, shaped a postwar political movement that helped influence legal change during Reconstruction.
Keywords: African Americans, Civil War, legal history, courts-martial, due process, equal rights, mutiny, military law, citizenship
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