BLACK CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS
"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, there is no power on earth
that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship."
The issues of emancipation and military service were intertwined from the
onset of the Civil War. News from Fort Sumter set off a rush by free black men to enlist in U.S. military units. They were
turned away, however, because a Federal law dating from 1792 barred Negroes from bearing arms for the U.S. army (although
they had served in the American Revolution and in the War of 1812). In Boston disappointed would-be volunteers met and passed
a resolution requesting that the Government modify its laws to permit their enlistment.
The Lincoln administration wrestled with the idea of authorizing the recruitment
of black troops, concerned that such a move would prompt the border states to secede. When Gen. John C. Frémont in Missouri
and Gen. David Hunter in South Carolina issued proclamations that emancipated slaves in their military regions and permitted
them to enlist, their superiors sternly revoked their orders. By mid-1862, however, the escalating number of former slaves
(contrabands), the declining number of white volunteers, and the increasingly pressing personnel needs of the Union Army pushed
the Government into reconsidering the ban.
As a result, on July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation and
Militia Act, freeing slaves who had masters in the Confederate Army. Two days later, slavery was abolished in the territories
of the United States (see Slave Trade, Slavery, and Early Antislavery), and on July 22, President Lincoln presented the preliminary draft of the Emancipation
Proclamation to his Cabinet. After the Union Army turned back Lee's first invasion of the North at Antietam, MD, and the Emancipation Proclamation was subsequently announced, black recruitment was pursued in earnest.
Volunteers from South Carolina, Tennessee, and Massachusetts filled the
first authorized black regiments. Recruitment was slow until black leaders such as Frederick Douglass encouraged black men
to become soldiers to ensure eventual full citizenship. (Two of Douglass's own sons contributed to the war effort.) Volunteers
began to respond, and in May 1863 the Government established the Bureau of Colored Troops to manage the burgeoning numbers
of black soldiers.
By the end of the Civil War, roughly 180,000 black men (10% of the Union
Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. As many as 40,000 black soldiers died over
the course of the war—30,000 of infection or disease. Black soldiers served in artillery and infantry and performed
all noncombat support functions that sustain an army, as well. Black carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses,
scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons, and teamsters also contributed to the war cause. There were nearly 80 black commissioned
officers. Black women, who could not formally join the Army, nonetheless served as nurses, spies, and scouts, the most famous
being Harriet Tubman, who scouted for the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.
Because of prejudice against them, black units were not used in combat
as extensively as they might have been. Nevertheless, the soldiers served with distinction in a number of battles. Black infantrymen
fought gallantly at Milliken's Bend, LA; Port Hudson, LA; Petersburg, VA; and Nashville, TN. The July 1863 assault on Fort
Wagner, SC, in which the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers lost two-thirds of their officers and half of their troops,
was memorably dramatized in the film Glory. By war's end, numerous African American soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor. (See African American Soldiers in Battle.)
In addition to the perils of war faced by all Civil War soldiers, black
soldiers faced additional problems stemming from racial prejudice. Racial discrimination was prevalent even in the North,
and discriminatory practices permeated the U.S. military. Segregated units were formed with black enlisted men and typically
commanded by white officers and black noncommissioned officers. The 54th Massachusetts was commanded by Robert Shaw and the
1st South Carolina by Thomas Wentworth Higginson—both white. Black soldiers were initially paid $10 per month from which
$3 was automatically deducted for clothing, resulting in a net pay of $7. In contrast, white soldiers received $13 per month
from which no clothing allowance was drawn. In June 1864, Congress granted equal pay to the U.S. Colored Troops and made the action retroactive. Black soldiers received the same rations and supplies. In addition, they received
comparable medical care.
The black troops, however, faced greater peril than white troops when captured
by the Confederate Army. In 1863 the Confederate Congress threatened to punish severely officers of black troops and to enslave
black soldiers. As a result, President Lincoln issued General Order 233, threatening reprisal on Confederate prisoners of
war (POWs) for any mistreatment of black troops. Although the threat generally restrained the Confederates, black captives
were typically treated more harshly than white captives. In perhaps the most heinous known example of abuse, Confederate soldiers
shot to death black Union soldiers captured at the Fort Pillow, TN, engagement of 1864. Confederate General Nathan B. Forrest
allegedly witnessed the massacre and did nothing to stop it.
The document featured with this article is a recruiting poster directed
at black men during the Civil War. It refers to efforts by the Lincoln administration to provide equal pay for black soldiers
and equal protection for black POWs. The original poster is located in the Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's–1917,
Record Group 94.
Freeman, Elsie, Wynell Burroughs Schamel, and Jean West. "The Fight for
Equal Rights: A Recruiting Poster for Black Soldiers in the Civil War." Social Education 56, 2 (February 1992): 118-120. [Revised
and updated in 1999 by Budge Weidman.]
Reading: Like Men of War.
Description: Although countless books have been written about the Civil War, the role of black
troops has been consistently underrepresented until recently. Nearly 180,000 of them fought--mostly for the North, but a handful
even took up arms for the slaveholding South. Many wanted to serve at the start of the conflict, but a variety of factors
kept them on the sidelines. Until Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation
in 1862, many Union leaders--including the president--held that the war was not about slavery. Racist views caused some to
question further the value of black soldiers; there was also genuine concern about how Confederates would treat captured blacks.
But, as Noah
Andre Trudeau reveals, black soldiers demonstrated bravery and professionalism from the moment they suited up. He recounts
well-known events, such as the 54th Massachusetts' attack on Fort Wagner, as well as less familiar ones, such as blacks' involvement in the war's last
directed combat one month after Lee's surrender. There were atrocities, too: in 1864, Confederates slaughtered black prisoners
of war at Fort Pillow
(historians once disputed this brutal act of cold-blooded murder, but many scholars accept it as true today). Although Trudeau
sometimes sacrifices his narrative drive to excessive detail, Like Men of War remains a compelling book full of strong battle
Reading: The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (Modern War Studies). Description:
A bona fide classic, The Sable Arm was the first work to fully chronicle the remarkable story of the nearly 180,000 black
troops who served in the Union army. This work paved the way for the exploration of the black military experience in other
wars. This edition, with a new foreword by Herman Hattaway and bibliographical essay by the author, makes available once again
a pioneering work that will be especially useful for scholars and students of Civil War, black, and military history. Continued
Civil War Times
Illustrated: "One of the one hundred best books ever written on the Civil War."
Reading: Black Union
Soldiers in the Civil War. Description: This book refutes the historical slander
that blacks did not fight for their emancipation from slavery. At first harshly rejected in their attempts to enlist in the
Union army, blacks were eventually accepted into the service—often through the efforts of individual generals who, frustrated
with bureaucratic inaction in the face of dwindling forces, overrode orders from the secretary of war and even the president.
By the end
of the Civil War, African American soldiers had numbered more than 180,000 and served in 167 regiments. Seventeen were awarded
the nation’s highest award for valor and heroism--the Medal of Honor.
Theirs was a remarkable achievement whose full story is finally revealed.
Reading: The Negro's Civil War:
How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union. Description: In this
classic study, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson deftly narrates the experience of blacks--former slaves and
soldiers, preachers, visionaries, doctors, intellectuals, and common people--during the Civil War. Drawing on contemporary
journalism, speeches, books, and letters, he presents an eclectic chronicle of their fears and hopes as well as their essential
contributions to their own freedom. Continued below...
words of these extraordinary participants, both Northern and Southern, McPherson captures African-American responses to emancipation,
the shifting attitudes toward Lincoln and the life of black soldiers in the Union army. Above all, we are allowed to witness
the dreams of a disenfranchised people eager to embrace the rights and the equality offered to them, finally, as citizens.
Reading: Black Profiles in Courage:
A Legacy of African-American Achievement. Description: With all the flair of his last-second game-winning sky hooks, Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar delivers a well-written and important collection highlighting the lives of America's greatest black heroes. Taking his title cue from John Kennedy's Profiles
in Courage, Abdul-Jabbar brings to life the exploits of a wide variety of African Americans, including Estevanico, a Moorish
slave who discovered Arizona and New Mexico; Cinque, a kidnapped African slave who led a mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad
and later won his freedom in the U.S.; and Harriet Tubman, who brought hundreds of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
In a time when
the media beams negative images of African Americans around the world, Black Profiles in Courage is indispensable for young
adults of other races as well as African-American youth, showing that attributes like courage are not coded by color. For
those young blacks who feel distant from America because of racism, books like this are a small but potent antidote against
prejudice, reminding them of the important contributions African Americans have made to their country.
Reading: A Grand Army of Black Men:
Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army 1861-1865 (Cambridge
Studies in American Literature and Culture). Description: The Civil War stands vivid in the
collective memory of the American public. There has always been a profound interest in the subject, and specifically of Blacks'
participation in and reactions to the war and the war's outcome. Almost 200,000 African-American soldiers fought for the Union in the Civil War. Although most were illiterate ex-slaves, several thousand were well educated,
free black men from the northern states. The 129 letters in this collection were written by black soldiers in the Union army
during the Civil War to black and abolitionist newspapers. Continued below...
a unique expression of the black voice that was meant for a public forum. The letters tell of the men's experiences, their
fears, and their hopes. They describe in detail their army days--the excitement of combat and the drudgery of digging trenches.
Some letters give vivid descriptions of battle; others protest racism; while others call eloquently for civil rights. Many describe their conviction that they are fighting not only to free the slaves but to
earn equal rights as citizens. These letters give an extraordinary picture of the war and also reveal the bright expectations,
hopes, and ultimately the demands that black soldiers had for the future--for themselves and for their race. As first-person
documents of the Civil War, the letters are strong statements of the American dream of justice and equality, and of the human
Reading: Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees
in Civil War Virginia (A Nation Divided : New Studies in
Civil War History). Description: Despite its unwieldy
title, this stout volume is an invaluable addition to African American and Civil War history, a meticulously researched and
detailed collective portrait of the nonwhite population of Virginia,
the leading state of the Confederacy. Beginning with a large, capable, and diverse African American population, free as well
as slave, Virginia found itself, as fear warred with the need for labor, both increasing and decreasing restrictions on it.
At the same
time, that African American population, unanimously in favor of freedom and better lives, was thoroughly divided (yes!) as
to which side it should support in order to achieve these goals. Not easy reading and clearly most useful to the serious history
student, this is an eminently worthwhile candidate for U.S. history collections, nonetheless.