While many minority groups have had their contributions and accomplishments during the Civil War recognized, one group of Americans has received little attention. Muslim Americans are rarely the focus of Civil War scholars and are typically viewed as a demographic relevant only to more modern history. This should not be the case. In fact, Muslim Americans have served in virtually every armed conflict in United States history and left their mark on every era, including the Civil War. Muslim-Americans of the Civil War Era helped shape America to be the nation it is today by bestowing their culture and music to create something new in America, influencing the emancipation of slaves, and finally, convincing Congress to create the Camel Military Corps, which was used by the U.
S Army. Some scholars believe that Muslims came to America from West Africa and Europe long before Columbus. The theory is still not widely accepted, but it is based on interesting evidence.
There is no doubt that Muslims made up a considerable portion of the West Africans who were enslaved and brought to North, South and Central America during the four grueling centuries of the Atlantic slave trade. Conservative estimates say they made up one out of every 10, but sometimes (in states like South Carolina and Louisiana) they made up as much as one out of every three. In the early years of America’s founding, the vast majority of Muslims weren’t citizens but slaves.
Scholar Richard Brent Turner explains that researchers disagree over the number of Muslim slaves that were brought to the Americas, and estimates range from 40,000 (in just the US) all the way to 3 million across North and South America and the Caribbean. Many Muslim slaves were educated and literate in Arabic, Turner writes, and they “often occupied leadership roles in the jobs that slaves performed on plantations in the American South. Their names, dress, rituals, and dietary laws were perceived as powerful significations of Islamic identities in the slave community.” Historian Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, whose book A History of Islam in America is one of the most comprehensive on the subject, states, “Muslims in colonial and antebellum America came from a variety of ethnic, educational, and economic backgrounds.
In America, their experiences varied depending on when, where, and how they were transported to these shores.” Similarly, writes Ghaneabassiri, “there was no singular interpretation nor practice of Islam. In some instances, Islamic beliefs and practices were means of self-identification that distinguished, and at times even isolated, African Muslims from other enslaved Africans or white Americans.” But although many African Muslim slaves tried to maintain their Islamic identities and traditions once they came to America, they also needed to adapt to their new environment and form new communities. And this ultimately led almost all of them to convert to Christianity. The Muslim slaves of antebellum America left some of their culture behind. Many musicologists believe that the American blues and jazz traditions owe much to West African Muslim folk music, especially the beautiful West African Muslim songs sung with the 21-string kora.
In his Muslim Veterans of American Wars, Amir N. Muhammad theorized that as many as 292 Muslim last names appear in muster roles. Additionally, as many as 15% of African slaves brought to America are believed to have practiced Islam. While these summary statistics provide an overview of the scope of Muslim American involvement in the Civil War Era, their personal stories truly show their importance in shaping America.
Muslims and the religion of Islam were largely influential in the abolition of slavery. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner—famous for his caning on the Senate floor at the hands of South Carolina Senator Preston Brookes—even quoted the Quran on several occasions during his speeches attacking slavery. While not alive during the Civil War, Senegal-born slave Ayuba Suleiman Diallo played a major role in exposing the horrors of slavery in his many slave narratives.
In 1864, New England abolitionist Theodore Dwight used Diallo’s story for an article titled “Condition and Character of Negroes in Africa.” Written only a year after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the republication of Diallo’s story was instrumental in helping to convince Northern public opinion in getting behind the war to erase slavery from the American landscape. Other Muslims also helped advocate for the end of slavery.
In 1864, Hussein Pasha—Tunisian General and president of the Tunis Municipal Council—sent a letter to United States Secretary of State William Seward calling on the United States to eliminate slavery “in the name of humanity.” The letter sparked a correspondence between the Tunisian and United States government and was eventually included in a list of influential executive documents published by the House of Representatives.Hajji Ali, an Ottoman camel driver, landed in Indianola, Texas aboard the USS Supply in 1856. Recruited by the U.S.
government, he was to take part in one of the oddest military experiments in the pre-Civil War Era. A year earlier, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis convinced Congress to create the Camel Military Corps to patrol the newly acquired lands in the desert Southwest. When the camels arrived from the Ottoman Empire, they were met with awe and amazement from locals. The U.S. soldiers assigned to the new Camel Corps were equally bewildered and were unable to manage the exotic beasts. Enter Hajji Ali, nicknamed Hi Jolly by his American comrades. The first mission for the camels was to bring Lt.
Edward Beale on an expedition searching for a possible Southern route for the transcontinental railroad. Sadly, and indeed ironically given the mastermind behind the creation of the Corps, the Civil War dashed any hopes for the future of the Camel Corps. Hajji Ali lived on, and became a local legend along with the dozens of camels that roamed the Southwest for years. All of these Muslims contributed to the shaping of the United States during the Civil War era. Muslim Americans have been an underlying foundation to American history. Not only is part of their culture weaved into ours, but they pushed for emancipation of slaves as well as propelling the Camel Military Corps. Despite this, as a group they have received little to no recognition.
This omission runs the risk of suggesting that Muslims did not actually play a role or even exist in the United States at the time. As we as a nation grapple with our relationship with the religion of Islam, it is imperative that we keep in mind the role Muslim Americans had in creating that nation.