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The Civil War Began 160 Years Ago Today, Here Are People You Should Know

storming fort wagner
"Storming Fort Wagner, 1890, Library of Congress

On this day in 1861 at 4:30 am, Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter, sparking the United States Civil War. Today marks the 160th anniversary of that fateful morning and its world-shaking aftershocks. Seizing Freedom, a podcast by VPM and Witness Docs, tells the story of the Civil War by centering African Americans voices. On this anniversary, learn about lesser celebrated figures of the war and Reconstruction and their role in the fight for seizing freedom.

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Harry Jarvis

Most white Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, saw the U.S. Civil War as a conflict between white people. Harry Jarvis, who recently escaped from slavery, knew it would take Black men fighting and Black women aiding the cause to achieve a Union victory. Upon seeking refuge at Fort Monroe, Jarvis expressed this sentiment to General Benjamin Butler, “I went to [the General] and asked him to let me enlist, but he said it wasn’t a Black man’s war. I told him it would be a Black man’s war before they got through.”

Susie King Taylor

Susie King Taylor worked as a teacher at a Union camp as a young teenager until she set out with the 33rd United States Colored Troops. She served in the Union army for four years without pay. After the war, Taylor moved back to Savannah, Georgia with her husband to open a school and work as a teacher. When her husband died shortly after the move and she lost her students to a nearby school, Taylor took up work as a laundress before moving north to Boston. Her service to the Union army went unrecognized, even though she repeatedly risked her life to fight for freedom.

Taylor tells her story in her own words in the book " Reminiscences Of My Life In Camp."

Mary Armstrong

Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, freedom was not guaranteed to all who were enslaved. Upon hearing the decree however, Mary Armstrong knew she had to go to Texas to find her mother. In doing so, she risked re-enslavement behind Confederate lines. At age 17, Armstrong set-off on her journey, for reunion in and of itself was a particularly powerful act of rebellion.

Garrison Frazier

In 1865, Black ministers and church officials were invited to speak with General William T. Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton about the needs of the newly liberated community. Garrison Frazier was chosen to speak for the ministers, saying, “the freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation, is taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, take care of ourselves and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.” The pastoral summit resulted in General Sherman’s wartime order to provide freed families with “40 acres and a mule.”

Cynthia Nickols

One form of systematic re-enslavement was through forced apprenticeships. Following the Civil War, children seen by white officials as “orphaned” could be placed with their former enslaver until they turned of age. Cynthia Nickols’ grandson was taken in this manner. Nickols fought for her grandson to live with her. She stood up against slavocracy even when by law, slavery was abolished.

Elijah Marrs

Pastor, teacher, and community organizer Elijah Marrs was a founding member of the Loyal League to defend African Americans against the Ku Klux Klan. “Of this society I was secretary, and we were always in readiness for any duty,” said Marrs. “For three years I slept with a pistol under my head, an Enfield rifle at my side, and a corn knife at the door, but I never had occasion to use them.”

Sarah Nash

Sarah Nash saw Black men and women being taken advantage of by the government even after the war ended and freedom became law. She pushed back against the powerful system of re-enslavement and oppression by organizing Black business women. Her example inspired generations of Black women to pursue entrepreneurship and community building.

This article is adapted from a Twitter thread by Dr. Kidada E. Williams, host of the podcast Seizing Freedom. Hear more stories that provide rich context to the Civil War, as well as expert voices giving a deeper understanding of the African American experience in relation to the war by listening to the podcast Seizing Freedom. Subscribe to Seizing Freedom on your favorite podcast app, and share these stories as we honor the African Americans who fought for freedom in the Civil War and beyond.