Black Civil War Soldiers
Comprising 10% of the Union Army, Black troops played a vital role in the American Civil War
By Catherine McNiff
While Black soldiers fought successfully in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, they were forbidden by law to enlist in the army when the Civil War began in 1861. As the war progressed, it soon became obvious that the issue of slavery and the role of Black people—both free and enslaved—in the war effort would need to be addressed.
The First Confiscation Act of 1861 authorized Union officers to seize Confederate property, or “contraband“—including slaves—for use in the northern war effort, thereby relieving the slaves of further obligation to their masters. This legislation was followed by the Second Confiscation Act of 1862, which specifically addressed the status of the captured slaves, or slaves of treasonous masters; they “shall be deemed captives of war, and shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves.“ But it was Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (1863) that officially freed all slaves in rebellious territories and paved the way for the formal recruitment and absorption of Black people into the Union army.
“Men of Color, to Arms!“
Former slave turned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, lent an urgent voice to the war effort, calling on all able-bodied African Americans in newspaper and broadsides to join up. His sons Lewis and Charles joined one of the first Black regiments, the 54th Massachusetts. Officially designated U.S. Colored Troops (U.S.C.T), the 54th, along with other all-Black companies, received the most basic of training before being sent out to fight. Black troops made important contributions to the Union victory with 120 infantry regiments, 12 heavy artillery regiments, 10 light artillery batteries, 5 engineer regiments, and 7 cavalry units. The U.S.C.T contributed approximately 180,000 men, or 10% of the total Union army. Many thousands more served in vital support roles such as porters, carpenters, laborers, cooks, guards, and scouts.
The Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the US (MOLLUS) lists the names of 120 African American commissioned officers. This represents a tiny fraction of the officers who led colored troops in more than 400 engagements during the course of the Civil War. Racial prejudice, rather than a lack of leadership ability, limited Black soldiers' advancement.
Inequality and discrimination permeated the ranks. Colored troops were not paid as much as the white soldiers. For example, a Union private received $13 a month (Confederate private $11) while a Black private was paid $10, with $3 deducted for a clothing allowance.
A soldier's life was extremely hard. For a colored soldier, it was even worse. Black soldiers were mistreated both in the army and in the streets; for some, simply the sight of a colored man in uniform incited violence. In New York City, terrible riots broke out sparked by outrage about the recruitment of Black people; immigrants and working-class people felt threatened by the prospect of freed slaves competing for their jobs. In the south, colored soldiers who had voluntarily surrendered or been taken prisoner were routinely singled out and—against the military code—executed by Confederates who hoped to discourage black enlistment.
War, the Ultimate Proving Ground
The Black troops persevered in the face of hardship, prejudice, and discrimination. They fought in spite of atrocious treatment and in the face of bitter challenges, believing they could make a difference. They fought for a better future:
So rally boys, rally, let us never mind the past;
We had a hard road to travel, but our day is coming fast;
For God is for the right, and we have no need to fear,
The Union must be saved by the colored volunteer.
Some historians contend that the colored volunteer did indeed save the Union; certainly, the war would have been longer and more deadly if the Union had not benefitted from the service of the Black soldier. Colored troops exemplified meritorious service and bravery, earning the respect and admiration of those they fought with, and those they fought against. Of the hundreds of engagements in which the Black troops fought, some of the most notable were Port Hudson, La. (May 21–July 9, 1863); Milliken’s Bend, La. (July 18, 1863); Fort Wagner, S.C. (April 12, 1864); and Battle of the Crater, Petersburg, Va. (Sept. 29–30, 1864); and Nashville, Tenn. (Dec. 15–16, 1864).
In March of 1863, Congress established the Medal of Honor for military valor. All told, 25 Black servicemen (seven Navy) were awarded the military’s highest honor.
The High Cost of Success
Frederick Douglass had no doubt that the Black man would serve, and would serve honorably, "Once let the Black man get upon his person the brass letters 'U.S.,' let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States." But this belief in a better future came at a very high cost. Over the course of the war, almost 40,000 Black soldiers died—30,000 of disease or infection. Colored troops had served in countless capacities in every theater of the Civil War. Many willingly left the bonds of slavery to embrace certain privation and possible death. They sought freedom and citizenship. They have earned their country's eternal respect and gratitude.
- The 1st South Carolina Volunteers included the first unit of former slaves to be recruited in the U.S. Army.
- Black troops were among those present at the surrender at Appomattox at the end of the war. They also helped in the pursuit of Abraham Lincoln's assassin.
- Black women served as nurses, spies, and scouts. One of these was Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman who acted as a scout/spy for the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.
- Want to see the 54th Massachusetts in action? Watch their valor during the Battle of Fort Wagner, S.C., dramatized in the movie Glory.
- Of the 18 Congressional Medal of Honor winners, 14 earned their medals at Chaffin's Farm, Va.
- Read about the first Black Medal of Honor winner, Sergeant William Carney of New Bedford, Mass.