African American Soldiers

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African American Soldiers

During the course of the Civil War, approximately 200,000 African American men served under the Union banner. These troops included large numbers of free men from Northern cities, but also featured a significant contingent of slaves who were absorbed into the military directly off plantations along the Mississippi River and the Southern coast. African American soldiers, segregated by race and commanded by white officers, were initially confined to garrison duty or manual labor details, and for much of the war they received lesser pay than their white counterparts. As the months passed, however, a number of black units distinguished themselves in combat. Many military scholars believe, in fact, that it was the addition of African Americans to the Union side that allowed the North to increasingly dominate the war. In addition, the valiant performance of black Civil War soldiers marked one of the first significant steps that African Americans took in their long and arduous journey from enslavement to equality in American society.

Fighting for the Right to Fight

When the Civil War erupted in the spring of 1861, thousands of free black men in the North volunteered for military service. They did so not only because they wanted to see their Southern brethren freed from the shackles of slavery, but also because they recognized that the war presented them with the opportunity to advance their efforts to gain greater legal rights. As abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) declared, "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" (Douglass 1999, p. 536).

Opposition to enlisting African Americans was strong, however. President Abraham Lincoln had framed the federal government's response to the secessionist threat as one of opposition to rebellion, not slavery. He and others were also greatly concerned that the Union would lose Kentucky and other border states if the government armed blacks. Racism also saturated the white ranks of the Union Army, although pockets of support for the idea of recruiting blacks did exist.

Blocked from enlisting in the army, some blacks tried to support the war effort by signing up as cooks, carpenters, and nurses. In addition, thousands of black men enlisted in the Union Navy, which had no racial restrictions in its enlistment policies. By the end of the war, about 29,000 black men served in Union shipyards, on warships, and on other vessels.

Meanwhile, black leaders and their allies in the abolitionist movement continued to lobby Washington for a change in policy that would permit African Americans—both free men and freed slaves—to join the war effort as soldiers. Some progressive-minded white officers expressed puzzlement and outrage that the Lincoln administration continued to relegate such a potentially powerful military resource to the sidelines. "Isn't it extraordinary that the Government won't make use of the instrument that would finish the war sooner than anything else, —viz the slaves?" wrote Robert Gould Shaw (1837–1863), who would later command the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteers to glory in its famous assault on Fort Wagner outside Charleston. "What a lick it would be at them [the Confederates], to call on all the blacks in the country to come and enlist in our army! They would probably make a fine army after a little drill, and could certainly be kept under better discipline than our independent Yankees" (Duncan 1992, p. 123).

By the summer of 1862, federal authorities had become more receptive to these arguments. A string of military setbacks, growing difficulties in filling holes in battle-scarred regiments, and growing confidence in the allegiance of the slaveholding border states convinced Lincoln that black enlistment was a politically achievable goal. In July Congress passed laws paving the way for the entrance of African Americans into the Union Army, albeit in segregated units under the command of white officers. Six months later, Lincoln's formal issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in Confederate territory, further underscored the government's evolving thinking on blacks and their importance in the conflict.

Doubt and Conviction

Reaction to black enlistment among white Union companies and regiments was mixed. Some white troops harbored profound doubts about the military capabilities and bravery of blacks; others declared angrily that they were fighting to suppress a rebellion, not to free the slaves—much less to serve alongside them. One Indiana private offered a fairly representative perspective when he explained his decision to forego reenlistment: "[T]his war has turned out very Different from what I thought it would," he wrote. "It is a War… to free the Nigars… and I do not propose to fight any more in such a cause" (Smith 2002, p. 6).

African American men, on the other hand, rushed forward to prove doubters wrong. Many enlisted for practical reasons as well. The promise of a regular paycheck, combined with bounties and other monetary incentives, contributed to the decision of many poor blacks to enlist. Others, however, were primarily motivated by abolitionist sentiments. In addition, many fugitives from slavery regarded military service with the Union Army as a means to secure the freedom of their family members. Finally, countless soldiers were motivated by racial pride and a consuming desire to prove that blacks were worthy of American citizenship. As J. G. E. Hystuns, a black noncommissioned officer with the 54th Massachusetts, asserted, "if there is one spark of manhood running in the blood of the Race that has resisted the… waves of oppression, the school of the soldier will fan it to a glowing flame" (Salvatore 1996, p. 115).

Training and Deployment

When black enlistees entered the army, they were subjected to an intensive regimen of drill and firearms training (the latter was emphasized in part because so few African American recruits had any experience handling firearms). Some naive enlistees entered the army with the assurances of recruiters of free and equal treatment still ringing in their ears, but they were quickly stripped of such comforting illusions. In reality, most United States Colored Troops (USCT) camps were marked by harsh and demeaning modes of training and discipline. Anger and resentment quickly blossomed. In some cases, these reactions were unwarranted, as they were based on unrealistic expectations about aspects of military life that pertained to all soldiers, whether they were white or black. In many other instances, however, black soldiers were subjected to more exhausting and punitive treatment than were their white counterparts. In the worst cases, abusive treatment at the hands of white officers evoked memories of servitude on Southern plantations.

In some camps, the demeaning treatment of black soldiers aroused the ire of white officers and enlisted men who believed that such rough handling was both unfair and counterproductive, as it undermined fighting spirit and cohesiveness. A number of camp chaplains were also strong defenders of the rights of black troops.

The white officers who commanded black regiments during the Civil War varied enormously, both in quality and in motivation. Some volunteered out of ambition, their interest sparked by War Department policies that offered early promotions to officers who were willing to take command of black troops. The best of the white officers to command black units harbored abolitionist sentiments—or at the very least were capable of revising racist preconceptions about the limited military aptitude of black troops when confronted with evidence to the contrary. A few white officers actually embraced the opportunity to help blacks in advancing their cause. As Nathan W. Daniels, commander of 2nd Louisiana Native Guard, declared, "Thank God it hath been my fortune to be a participator in the grand idea of proclaiming freedom to this much abused & tortured race. Thank God my Regiment an African one" (Weaver 1998, p. 68).

Daily Trials and Tribulations

Military life during the Civil War was frightening, dangerous, and exhausting for virtually every soldier in the Union and Confederate armies. But for African American troops wearing the blue uniform of the Union, conditions were even more difficult to endure. Race enveloped virtually every aspect of black military life. During their service, many blacks received inferior assignments, poor training, and deficient care, not to mention insults from white soldiers. Discriminatory treatment seeped into virtually every realm of daily existence. Many African American enlistees were not surprised to find that the arms, equipment, and uniforms they received were often inferior to those distributed to white regiments. But they were openly dismayed when they came to recognize that prevailing beliefs that they were ill-suited to combat meant they were in danger of spending the entire war toiling at thankless chores and duties far from the front lines, often replacing white units for these jobs.

At times, this demeaning exploitation of black soldiers who desperately wanted to contribute to the war effort in more meaningful ways prompted protests from sympathetic white officers and enlisted men. "They are put at the hardest as well as the meanest kinds of work," wrote one disgusted white soldier from New York. "I have seen them policing (cleaning up filth and rubbish) white regiment camps. If a spirited white soldier were to do this except as punishment for some offense I think he would die first" (Palladino 1997, p. 44).

The discriminatory treatment that most angered African American soldiers, however, was the inequality of pay. Whereas white enlisted men received $13 per month, black soldiers in the Union Army only received $10 per month. This situation infuriated black soldiers, especially after black units took on greater combat roles in the conflict. "It seems strange to me that we do not receive the same pay and rations as the white soldiers," wrote one battle-hardened black soldier. "Do we not fill the same ranks? Do we not cover the same space of ground? Do we not take up the same length of ground in a grave-yard that others do? The [musket] ball does not miss the black man and strike the white, nor the white and strike the black. … [T]he black men have to go through the same hurling of musketry, and the same belching of cannonading as white soldiers do" (Redkey 2002 [1992], p. 48). Another African American soldier, Corporal James Henry Gooding of the 54th Massachusetts, wrote in a letter published in the New Bedford Mercury on November 21, 1863, that

as men who have families to feed, and clothe, and keep warm, we must say, that the ten dollars by the greatest government in the world is an unjust distinction to men who have only a black skin to merit it. To put the matter on the ground that we are not soldiers would be simply absurd, in the face of the existing facts. A soldier's pay is $13 per month, and Congress has nothing to do but to acknowledge that we are such—it needs no further legislation. To say even, we were not soldiers and pay us $20 would be injustice, for it would rob a whole race of their title to manhood.

This situation endured until June 1864, when the War Department grudgingly eliminated the disparity after years of protests from black soldiers, white officers, and sympathetic lawmakers and newspaper editors.

Brothers in Arms

Within many black military units, shared experiences and hardships created strong feelings of kinship and community. This sense of brotherhood and heightened racial solidarity was honed not only in moments of harrowing combat or hours of marching, but also during days in camp. Black Union soldiers passed their free time in many of the same ways that white soldiers did. African American troops indulged in the same vices—gambling, drinking, and escapades with prostitutes—and engaged in the same long, meandering conversations about politics, prewar life, and various aspects of the soldier's existence. The social environment in most black encampments, however, was unique in a number of notable respects. For example, virtually every black regiment included a handful of "storytellers" who regaled audiences with campfire tales, just as they had in slave communities. These tales served not only to entertain, but also to shape communal identity and give symbolic form to a range of events and experiences.

Music also played an important recreational role in many black camps. But whereas white musicians and listeners used music primarily as a way to just pass the time, the activities of black singing groups and glee clubs, which were commonplace, were often freighted with deeper meaning and significance. African American musicians and singers took great pride in both their abilities and the cultural traditions upon which they drew. Significantly, music often increased camp unity and boosted camp morale, and helped blacks strengthen relations with white officers and soldiers.

The literacy rate in black regiments was far lower than it was in white units, a direct result of Southern laws against educating slaves and limited opportunities for education even among black people in the North. As a result, reading, letter-writing, and journal-keeping were not as prevalent among USCT soldiers as they were with white troops. Nevertheless, some black regiments established debating and literary societies. These were promoted by noncommissioned officers, many of whom had received sound educations and been politically active prior to the war. In addition, educated black noncommissioned officers and enlisted men frequently volunteered their reading and writing services to illiterate comrades.

In some black camps, formal instruction in reading and writing was established. These "schools" did not lack for students, as many soldiers badly wanted to be able to independently communicate with wives, sweethearts, parents, children, and other loved ones back home. Many white officers supported these "schools," because they thought it would improve military performance, others supported the "schools" because they thought that such work would help prepare attendees for the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of citizenship. Teachers included chaplains, noncommissioned officers, wives of white officers, and volunteers from missionary societies and freedmen aid societies. Elementary textbooks used in Northern common schools were extensively used in camp schools, as were donated publications from charitable religious presses.

For those soldiers who could read, preferred reading material ranged from the Bible to works of literature to newspapers. Of the latter, black newspapers such as the Weekly Anglo-African and the Christian Recorder were particularly popular, as they reported extensively on the hardships and triumphs of African American troops. A few regiments even launched their own newspapers, which served multiple functions: They provided entertainment to their black audience, reassured black troops that their sacrifice of toil and blood was in service to a great cause, and gave instruction on how to endure a military experience that often seemed bleak and emasculating.

On the Field of Battle

More than 68,000 of the 200,000 black soldiers who served in the Union Army—one out of every three men—died during the Civil War. More than 2,750 of these deaths occurred on the battlefield, but a far greater number of African American troops were felled by a toxic combination of disease and terrible medical care. According to historian Joseph T. Glatthaar in Forged in Battle (1990), inadequate or incompetent medical care contributed to the deaths of more than 29,000 black soldiers from pneumonia, dysentery, typhoid fever, and malaria. All told, approximately one out of five black soldiers died from disease. By contrast, only one out of twelve white Union soldiers were felled by disease (Smith 2002, p. 41).

Until mid-1863, black units rarely found themselves on the front lines. Instead, they usually toiled in rear areas that became incubators of disease. Other black units, such as the seven regiments of U.S. Colored Cavalry (USCC) that served during the Civil War, carried out assignments that involved manning remote outposts, scouting, and reconnaissance.

From mid-1863 forward, however, black Union troops were increasingly thrown into battle—in large measure because they performed so well in early engagements. At Milliken's Bend, Louisiana, in June 1863, for example, three regiments of black troops—most of them with hardly any military training at all—served as the backbone of a successful Union effort to beat back an assault from a larger Confederate force. In the aftermath of the battle, journalist and government official Charles Dana (1819–1897) wrote that the "sentiment… [in] regard to the employment of Negro troops has been revolutionized by the bravery of the blacks in the recent Battle of Milliken's Bend. Prominent officers, who used in private to sneer at the idea, are now heartily in favor of it" (Trudeau 1998, p. 59). Conversely, word of the performance of the black troops in the battle sent a shudder of apprehension through many Confederate camps and communities. "It is hard to believe that Southern soldiers—and Texans at that—have been whipped by a mongrel crew of white and black Yankees," wrote one bewildered and shaken Confederate woman in her journal. "There must be some mistake" (Trudeau 1998, p. 59).

The most famous battle involving significant numbers of black troops occurred in the summer of 1863, when the all-black 54th Massachusetts volunteers commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (1837–1863) led an assault against Battery Wagner, a Confederate fortress guarding the entrance to Charleston Harbor. The assault ultimately failed, but the bravery and Herculean effort shown by the 54th Massachusetts—which lost nearly half its men in the battle—became one of the most famous episodes of the entire war.

As Dana suggested, the bravery shown by black troops in battle led many white Yankees to abandon their doubts about the suitability of African Americans for military service. Colonel Thomas W. Higginson (1823–1911), who led the all-black First South Carolina Volunteers, reported after one battle along the Florida-Georgia border that "nobody knows anything about these men who has not seen them in battle. I find that I myself knew nothing. There is a fiery energy about them beyond anything of which I have ever read" (Smith 2002, pp. 314). And after the Battle of Nashville in December 1864, Union General James B. Steedman (1817–1883) declared that he "was unable to discover that color made any difference in the fighting of my troops. All, white and black, nobly did their duty as soldiers, and evinced cheerfulness and resolution such as I have never seen excelled in any campaign of the war in which I have borne a part" (Smith 2002, p. 63).

The Impact of Black Military Service

The solid performance of black soldiers during the Civil War improved the lives of black Americans in the North in a host of areas. As word of their sacrifices on the front lines filtered back to Northern communities, antipathy toward black civilians lessened in some aspects (though bigotry remained commonplace, as the 1863 draft riots showed in stark detail). The nation's first antidiscriminatory laws were passed before the war even ended, such as one that permitted blacks to testify as witnesses in federal court.

The sacrifices borne by the Union's black regiments also marked an important early step in the African American quest for acceptance and equality in American society. As President Lincoln observed, African Americans had "heroically vindicated their manhood on the battlefield, where, in assisting to save the life of the Republic, they have demonstrated in blood their right to the ballot" (Arnold 1866, p. 656).

Black Soldiers in the Confederacy

In the Confederate South, meanwhile, the use of blacks as beasts of burden intensified. In support of the war effort, slaves were used to construct trenches and other fortifications, repair railroads, haul artillery and other military equipment, and harvest crops. This freed up white men to fight, but it further exacerbated manpower shortages later in the war, when the number of black runaways soared.

By mid-1863, some pragmatic individuals in the South were cautiously raising the prospect of adding slaves to the Confederate Army—even if such a drastic step meant an end to slavery. "[Slavery should not be] a barrier to our independence," declared an August 1863 editorial in the Jackson Mississippian. "If it is found in the way—if it proves an insurmountable object of the achievement of our liberty and separate nationality, away with it! Let it perish!… We must make up our minds to one solemn duty, the first duty of the patriot, and that is to save ourselves from the rapacious North, whatever the cost" (Hummel 1996, pp. 280–281). Even General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) expressed support for this idea near the end of the war.

In March 1865, the demoralized Confederate Congress narrowly authorized the recruitment of 300,000 slaves to add to the depleted ranks of the Rebel army. At around this same time, President Jefferson Davis and other top officials sent the British and French governments frantic promises to fully emancipate Southern slaves in exchange for formal diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy. The Confederates even agreed to treat black prisoners of war like white prisoners in the context of prisoner exchanges (the South's prior refusal to exchange black prisoners had slowed all prisoner exchanges to a trickle, which in turn created horrendously overcrowded prisoner of war camps in both the North and South during the last two years of the conflict). All of these measures were borne of palpable desperation, however, and they all came to naught.


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Kevin Hillstrom

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African American Soldiers

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African American Soldiers