In his essay “The Civil War,” Jamelle Bouie says that promoting civic participation among formerly enslaved people and participating in writing new state constitutions were two ways in which Black Civil War veterans became political actors. As advocates of the values of participatory democracy, veterans were often members and leaders of Union Leagues in Southern communities. This participation included, but was not limited to, voting. Veterans were also well represented in the constitutional conventions that were held in formerly Confederate states and were charged with the project of drafting new constitutions.
The veterans’ activism in the Union Leagues was not confined within communities. Veterans associated with the leagues traveled throughout the South, and they mobilized freed people to defend their rights and widely participate in civil society. Concrete activities included establishing schools. Political mobilization often entailed challenging the established, white-dominated political structure. Such challenges included efforts to safeguard Black people, who voted for the first time in 1868, against efforts to prevent their casting ballots.
In the constitutional conventions, veterans served as delegates. Their Union Army service often provided a basis for popular confidence in their leadership. The constitutions laid a foundation for democratic governance that recognized freed people’s citizenship and accompanying rights.