The REAL Rebels of the Civil War? Black women, men, and children who refused to be enslaved

The real rebels were the hundreds of thousands of black men and women who, in what was arguably the most successful slave uprising in world history, did more than simply resist slavery: they actively, militantly, violently, killed it.

Black Northerners had developed a political culture that equated respectable personal conduct with activism. For them, enlistment, even in light of white Northern racism, was the ultimate form of a rebellious activism. Black southerners who had escaped to the north sharpened black radicalism. The first wave of black enlistees, mostly free Northerners, were freedom fighters looking to deliver a mortal blow to an institution that had been a fundamental part of labor systems around the world for thousands of years.

They were quickly joined by hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands of men and women who had rebelled against their masters by running to Union lines. Nearly 150,000 of the men turned right around: wearing blue, carrying guns, arming cannons, setting their souls against the society that had so recently owned and demeaned them. They made up the bulk of the 180,000 black soldiers who fought alongside 20,000 black sailors to form one of the largest armed slave rebellions in history.

Crucially, tens of thousands of black women — most also formerly enslaved — “enlisted” as unglamorous but vital domestic laborers, and occasionally as spies. Harriet Tubman, who had been rebelling for years, became a guerrilla warfare leader, helping Union troops ransack Confederate land in South Carolina.

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