Black Civil War Soldiers

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Black Civil War Soldiers

The service of black soldiers in the Union army during the American Civil War (1861–1865) represents one of the most dramatic episodes in African-American history. Over a short time period, black men went from being powerless chattel to being part of a liberating army, helping to free nearly four million slaves from bondage. Yet their experience was not entirely positive. Their services as soldiers were initially refused, and they had to fight for the right to fight. Even when the Union army did accept them, black men had to serve in segregated units under the command of white officers. The federal government also tried to pay African Americans less than white soldiers, and it subjected them to other humiliating forms of discrimination and ill treatment. Nonetheless, black soldiers served loyally and proved their worth in battle, winning the grudging admiration of even their Confederate enemies and a permanent place in the post-war U.S. Army.

The service of black soldiers seemed unlikely at the beginning of the Civil War. White Northerners and Southerners alike were of the opinion that the conflict would be a war for white men only. In part, the resistance to black soldiers was the result of racist beliefs that African Americans were mentally and temperamentally unsuited for military service. Whites accepted this myth in spite of the participation of black men in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and African Americans were turned away in both the Union and the Confederate ranks. However, resistance to black military service also stemmed from conceptions of citizenship in the nineteenth-century. At the time, Americans tended to see citizenship as not only bestowing rights, but also entailing duties—the foremost of which was military service. If black men were allowed to serve, they would have a strong argument for claiming citizenship rights, having borne the most onerous obligation of citizenship.

Black leaders were keenly aware of this connection between citizenship and military service. Frederick Douglass famously told an audience in July 1863, “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 or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States” (Foner 1999, p. 536). This belief helps explain the later presence of Frederick Douglass and other African-American leaders at the forefront of Union recruitment efforts in free black communities. In addition to Douglass, prominent leaders such as Henry Highland Garnet, William Wells Brown, Martin R. Delany, and George T. Downing recruited literally thousands of young blacks for the Union army in the hope that their service would help transform the struggle into one that would free the slaves and bring African Americans equal rights in a transformed and redeemed republic.

Some white persons shared the aspirations of black Americans. Army officers and politicians with abolitionist sentiments, dissenting from racism and the apathy toward slavery in the North, saw black enlistment as a way to undermine slavery and bolster postwar claims of African Americans for citizenship, and so they sought to organize black military units without the blessing of the federal government. James H. Lane, a Kansas abolitionist turned U.S. senator, organized the first all-black unit in the Union army, the Kansas Colored Regiment, in July 1862. General John W. Phelps, in the Department of the Gulf in Louisiana, and General David Hunter, in the Sea Islands region of South Carolina and Georgia, also recruited African Americans for military service shortly thereafter. None of these men had the authority to recruit black soldiers, however, but they hoped to force the hand of President Abraham Lincoln and the War Department to accept black soldiers by presenting their presence as a fait accompli.

The Lincoln administration disavowed the activities of Lane, Phelps, and Hunter as unauthorized and premature. Until September 1862, Lincoln was reluctant to take any action that might alienate slaveholders in the loyal border states and in areas of the Confederacy under Union occupation. During the fall of 1862, however, Lincoln was reaching the conclusion that black soldiers in the Union army were a military necessity. Congress pushed the President in this direction by passing the Militia Act of July 1862. This law authorized the recruitment of “persons of African descent” for “any military or naval service for which they may be found competent.”

With the legal obstacles and executive resistance to black recruitment melting away, other Northern leaders began organizing black regiments in the fall of 1862. Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts had long favored black enlistment in the Union army, and that autumn he organized the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, recruiting African Americans not only in Massachusetts but throughout the North. In the wake of the Battle of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Confederate forces had seriously called into question Union control of the state, General Benjamin F. Butler began recruiting three “Native Guards” regiments to bolster his forces. The Native Guards, drawn from New Orleans’ free elite, were especially notable because initially many of their officers were of African descent. Both the 54th Massachusetts and the Louisiana Native Guards would achieve lasting fame by becoming the first African-American units to see combat in the Civil War. The 54th would bravely assault Fort Wagner, South Carolina, outside of Charleston in July 1863; and the Native Guards would go into battle even earlier, at Port Hudson (May 1863) and Milliken’s Bend (June 1863) in Louisiana.

The success of black soldiers at Fort Wagner, Port Hudson, and Milliken’s Bend, and the insatiable need of the Union army for fresh soldiers, encouraged the large-scale enlistment of African Americans. President Lincoln gave his blessing to the effort in his final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Union recruiters fanned out across the North, the border states, and the Union-occupied South. They found thousands of willing black men, eager to enlist to help liberate their race from bondage. Some recruiters, however, were not above using trickery or coercion when African-American recruits were not immediately forthcoming. With tens of thousands of black men pouring into Union ranks, it became necessary to regularize the administrative supervision of black troops. In May 1863, the War Department organized the Bureau of Colored Troops. It also reorganized existing black regiments as federalized units (except for the Massachusetts and Connecticut black regiments). By war’s end, the United States Colored Troops (USCT) consisted of 163 regiments (mostly infantry, but there were also cavalry and artillery units), and federal statistics indicate that 178,975 black men served in the Union army during the Civil War. In addition, some 18,000 black men joined the U.S. Navy.

With few exceptions, soldiers in the USCT served under white officers. The War Department was extremely reluctant to commission African Americans as officers, and few if any white soldiers or officers were willing to place themselves in a position where they would be required to take orders from a black man. During the war, qualified African Americans sometimes received commissions as chaplain or surgeon, which left them outside of the chain of command.

Of course, the Louisiana Native Guards were a significant exception, because they were organized with African-American officers. General Butler, a former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, was in charge of Union-occupied New Orleans. He was impressed with the intelligence and refinement of the city’s free colored elite, and he shrewdly recognized that the promise of commissions would make leading men in that community energetic recruiters. Consequently, the Native Guards regiments were

quickly filled, and Butler came through with the promised commissions. These black officers led the Native Guard regiments into their initial battles, assaulting Port Hudson some thirty miles above Baton Rouge and blocking Confederate movement from the west at Milliken’s Bend. Black troops performed heroically at each location.

Yet despite their success as combat leaders, Butler’s successor, Nathaniel Banks, made a determined, and ultimately successful, effort to purge African-American officers from the Native Guards. Banks encouraged white soldiers to defy African-American officers. He also ordered black officers to appear before qualifying boards, a humiliating requirement for men who had already proven themselves as leaders. A Native Guard officer who resigned as a result said he did so “because daily events demonstrate that prejudices are so strong against Colored Officers that no matter what be their patriotism and their anxiety to fight for the flag of their native Land, they cannot do it with honor to themselves” (Berlin et al 1982, p. 327).

Outside of Louisiana, the struggle for black men was not to keep commissions, but rather to obtain them in the first place. Leading noncommissioned officers in the Massachusetts 54th and 55th Infantry, drawn from the cream of the prewar African-American community in the North, were eager to join the ranks of commissioned officers. They had a powerful ally in Governor Andrew. In March 1864, he commissioned Stephen A. Swails, a light-skinned sergeant in the 54th Massachusetts, as a lieutenant. However, neither Swails nor any of the other six other men commissioned by Andrew were able to exercise their promotions because the War Department refused to discharge them as enlisted men, a necessary preliminary step to taking up an officer’s commission. It was not until early 1865 that the War Department reversed this position, and only Swails received his commission before the war’s end. During the war itself, most black commissioned officers were recruiters, physicians, or chaplains, activities that did not involve commanding anyone.

A small number of African Americans received commissions in the aftermath of the war. For example, O.S.B. Wall was commissioned as a captain, and Martin Delaney was made a major. Both men served with the Freedmen’s Bureau after a short stint with the 104th U.S. Colored Infantry. All told, including the Native Guard regiments, non-line officers, and men commissioned near the end of the war, about 100 African Americans served as officers during the Civil War.

Far more troubling to black soldiers than the lack of officers’ commissions for African Americans was the matter of unequal pay. Black men recruited in 1862 and early 1863 had often enlisted with the promise that they would receive the same pay and allowances as white Union soldiers ($13 per month, with an additional $3.50 allowance per month for clothing). In June 1863, however, the War Department decided that the pay of black soldiers was covered under the 1862 Militia Act, which fixed the pay of African Americans working for the government at $10 per month, regardless of their type of employment. Then, adding insult to injury, the War Department determined $3 per month would be deducted for clothing, leaving black soldiers with only $7 per month, regardless of rank. (Normally, higher enlisted ranks above corporal received more pay.)

African-American troops were outraged by this decision. Not only did it make it harder for black soldiers to support their families, it was also an insult to their manhood. In the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, black soldiers refused to accept their pay until they were paid the same as white soldiers. They even declined an offer from Governor Andrew to use state funds to make up the difference in pay. Clearly, the men of the 54th were concerned about the black soldiers outside of Massachusetts who would not have their pay differential covered by a sympathetic state government. In addition, accepting Andrew’s offer would compromise the principle of equal pay for all Union soldiers. Seeing the racist intent of the War Department in offering unequal pay, they made a resolute and principled stand, at considerable hardship to themselves and their families.

Yet the reaction of the men of the 54th Massachusetts was restrained compared to black soldiers in South Carolina. In November 1863, a company of the 3rd South Carolina Volunteers (later the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry), led by Sergeant William Walker, stacked their arms and refused to continue serving until their pay was equalized with those of white men. This action constituted mutiny in the eyes of federal authorities, and Colonel Augustus G. Bennett, despite being sympathetic to his men’s plight, had Walker arrested when he refused to lead his men back to duty. Walker was convicted of mutiny, and he was executed by firing squad in front of the regiment on February 29, 1864. Upon hearing of Walker’s death, Governor Andrew declared that “the Government which found no law to pay him except as a non-descript or a contraband, nevertheless found law enough to shoot him as a soldier” (Trudeau 1998, p.254).

The actions of the 54th Massachusetts and the 3rd South Carolina brought the unequal pay controversy to the attention of the Northern public. Nowhere else was racial discrimination so blatant, quantifiable, and demonstrably unfair. Finally, in June 1864, Congress passed legislation equalizing pay retroactively to Jan. 1, 1864. Later, Congress equalized pay for free blacks back to the time of their enlistment, and subsequent administrative action by Attorney General Edward Bates effectively did the same for African-American soldiers who had enlisted in the Union army straight out of slavery.

The unequal pay issue politicized black troops to a degree neither they nor anyone else could have anticipated before the war. In protesting the pay inequity, they learned political skills such as organizing, formulating arguments, wooing allies, and petitioning higher authority for redress of grievances. They thus came to realize their political power, which they would continue to exercise in the postwar period.

These soldiers would also discover their power in the execution of their military duties. As previously indicated, African-African soldiers saw their baptism in blood in the late spring and summer of 1863. Their contributions in battle disproved the racist ideas that African Americans were cowardly by nature and lacked either the discipline or intelligence to succeed in combat. Yet such notions died hard, and the use of black soldiers in battle was largely limited to units from states that pressed for them to be used in combat, or in places where military commanders were willing to employ them or could not dispense with their services. Nevertheless, as a practical matter, the significant use of black soldiers in battle during the Civil War is indicated by the fact that these soldiers took part in 39 significant battles and 419 skirmishes, even though they did indeed have disproportionate fatigue, picket, and garrison duties.

Casualty statistics bear out the reality that racism played a role in the use of black troops. Of the 300,000 Union dead of all causes, 90,638 whites were killed in battle or as a result of wounds, compared to 7,189 blacks killed in battle or as a result of wounds. Figures compiled by Frederick H. Dyer (in A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, Vol. 1) show that a total of 36,847 black men died in Union service, or about one in five of the 178,975 that enlisted in the USCT. Yet 29,658 of these men died of disease rather than from combat-related causes, constituting more than 80 percent of all black deaths in the Union army. While the majority of white soldiers also died of disease, only about 60 percent did so.

Although black troops fought in many engagements in Grant’s yearlong effort to crush Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, their most prominent moment arguably came in July 1864 at the Battle of the Crater. This engagement occurred early in Grant’s siege of Petersburg, Virginia. Union troops dug a mine below the Confederate trenches, hoping to literally blast a hole in the Southern defense. Black troops were initially supposed to lead the charge once Union engineers exploded four tons of gunpowder charges in the mine, but General Grant decided he could not use them for this purpose because he feared he would be criticized for using African Americans as cannon fodder.

As it turned out, casualties were high anyway among African-American troops at the Crater, because both they and the white troops leading the assault plunged into the crater caused by the explosion, rather than following its edges through to the Confederate rear. Many found themselves unable to climb out of the crater and exposed to deadly Confederate fire. Like many other battles involving black troops in the Civil War, black troops fought bravely but were poorly used by white commanders who put them into essentially impossible tactical situations.

That African-American soldiers fought bravely nonetheless speaks to their recognition that even when they fought in a failing effort, they were showing manly fortitude and could win a moral victory. This courage and determination won them the admiration of their white officers and soldiers, and of members of the Northern public who read about their exploits in the paper. By the end of the war, the army had recognized their valor by awarding black soldiers many decorations, including sixteen Congressional Medals of Honor.

Yet the reality was that most black troops in the Union Army saw little or no combat. Many Union commanders could not overcome their own racism sufficiently to trust African Americans in combat, and they chose to utilize them only for labor or garrison duty, thus freeing up white soldiers for battle. For example, William Tecumseh Sherman refused to use black troops directly in his 1864-1865 campaign in Georgia and Carolinas, except for “Pioneer” units that were used to build roads. He detailed most black units under his command to labor and garrison duty guarding his rear, or to units of General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland (with whom black troops did see combat at Franklin and Nashville).

Yet despite this racism, black soldiers in the Union army had lower desertion rates than their white counterparts. More than 14 percent of white Union soldiers deserted during the Civil War, compared to fewer than 5 percent of African-American troops. In part, the lower desertion rate was a reflection of the fact that whether they were free-born volunteers or confiscated slaves, many black soldiers realized they had no place else to go. Certainly the fate of former slaves was tied up with Union victory and the end of slavery. These men understood they were fighting for the freedom of their race and for legal equality and civil rights.

The value of black troops to the Union cause received recognition near the end of the war from the most unlikely of sources: the Confederate government. In March 1865, on the eve of the fall of Richmond, the Confederate Congress authorized the recruitment of black soldiers, reversing a long-standing policy of only using them in noncombatant support roles. In 1861, free southern blacks had formed quasi-military units in Savannah, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia. Nashville, Tennessee; Fort Smith, Arkansas; and in New Orleans, Louisiana. Confederate authorities declined their services, however, including those of the Louisiana Native Guards. But when faced with a possible defeat, the Confederates were willing to have African Americans, enslaved or free, work digging trenches, hauling supplies, cooking food, tending to the wounded, and providing personal service. They would not permit them to serve formally as soldiers, however. While most Confederate leaders denied throughout the war that the preservation of slavery was a war aim for the South, it is unlikely that Southern grievances would have ever caused secession had many white Southerners not feared for the survival of the “peculiar institution.” For most of the war, Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders energetically squashed proposals to arm the slaves, most notably from Confederate Gen. Patrick R. Cleburne on January 2, 1864. It was not until last desperate hours of the Confederate government that its leaders were willing to risk slavery’s survival in order to recruit black troops.

Yet their action was not just a sign of how hopeless the Confederate cause had become. It also was an implicit recognition of the value of black troops. In its desperation, the Confederate Congress was acknowledging that black men had made a significant enough contribution to the Union cause, and that it would be worthwhile for the Confederacy to take the same measure. Yet their decision came too late for significant recruitment to get underway prior to the final Southern collapse, let alone the organization and deployment of black Confederate troops.

Hence, it can be said with great certainty that the tens or hundreds of thousands of black Confederate soldiers claimed by modern neo-Confederates did not and could not have existed. Certainly many thousands of African Americans worked for and moved with the Confederate army during the course of the war, but they acted in support roles only. Persons of African descent may have worked as spies and scouts, and a few might even have been formally enlisted or served by virtue of being able to pass as whites. Yet their existence is poorly documented at best, and their numbers pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of black men who can be documented to have joined the Union cause. A small minority of African Americans in the South may have harbored Confederate sympathies, but their existence is an obscure and insignificant phenomenon.

One governmental organization that needed no education on the value of African Americans, and recruited them from the earliest days of the war, was the U.S. Navy. Always more desperate than the army for personnel because of its rougher conditions of service, the navy had never barred African Americans from enlisting (although prior to the Civil War service was limited to free persons of color). Likewise, the realities of shipboard service meant it was impossible to segregate crews by race, although African Americans generally were limited to the lowest “ratings” or enlisted naval ranks of boys, landsmen, or ordinary sailors. The great need for new personnel to expand the navy during the Civil War led Navy Secretary Gideon Wells to authorize the enlistment of slaves in September 1861 (an entire year prior to the Emancipation Proclamation).

The integration of crews makes it difficult to determine exactly how many black men served in the Union navy. Figures vary from as high as 29,511, a figure provided by the U.S. Navy and promoted by the historian Herbert Aptheker, to as low as 10,000, a sum arrived at by David L. Valuska, who studied enlistment records for the Union navy. Perhaps the most accurate estimate comes from Joseph Reidy and his Howard University team, which made a more thorough survey of Civil War navy records than Valuska and arrived at the figure of 18,000 black enlistments. The actual number of black Union sailors is probably immaterial, for whatever the number, they played an important role in keeping the Union navy in operation, both in its blockade against the Southern coastline and in its activities on inland waterways, which were just as essential in defeating the Confederacy.

The U.S. Army did seek to make a permanent place for black men its ranks after the war. Congress authorized six regiments in the postwar U.S. Army (four infantry, two cavalry), based on the Civil War pattern of black enlisted men led by white officers (with occasional black officers, such as Henry O. Flipper). This organization was later scaled back to four regiments: the 24th and 25th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry. These black regiments, especially the 10th Cavalry, became renowned for their prowess fighting Native Americans on the frontier. They got their nickname, “Buffalo Soldiers,” from Plains Indians who thought the curly hair of many black soldiers reminded them of the buffalo. These units would also serve with distinction in the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippine War (1899-1902). They would win twenty Congressional Medals of Honor and countless lesser decorations, but they would continue to be beset by the racism and doubts about their ability that had plagued African-American troops during the Civil War. They would last see service in the Korean War, when the U.S. Army implemented President Harry S. Truman’s 1947 order to desegregate the U.S. Army. The 24th U.S. Infantry was dissolved, and black soldiers thereafter served with white troops in integrated units.

Black Civil War veterans played a critical role in the early history of the postwar black regiments in the U.S. Army, providing a cadre of experienced soldiers to teach military ways to new raw recruits. A small number of these men would remain in the army for some decades, but the actual number of African-American veterans who served in the postwar army was quite small. Most black soldiers were eager to leave the army after the Civil War. Particularly for black troops who had joined as slaves, their discharge was the first moment they could truly enjoy their own freedom. Black Civil War veterans, whatever their status before the war, were eager to participate in the possibilities that the postwar period promised.

Former black soldiers would play a prominent role during Reconstruction and in the leadership of the post-war African-American community. Although veterans would actually be slightly underrepresented among black officeholders from 1867 to 1877, many of the most prominent African-American politicians of this period had served in the Civil War. Six of the sixteen black members of the U.S. House of Representatives during Reconstruction, for instance, claimed Civil War service. More importantly, as black leaders had hoped, African-American military service in the Civil War provided an important argument in favor of voting rights, culminating with the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1870. Veterans would be at the forefront of leadership in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries resisting efforts to disenfranchise black voters and segregate the races. Even though they failed in this effort, they remained an honored group in the postwar black community until the death of the last black Civil War veteran, Joseph Clovese, in July 1951. Their memory as stalwart warriors against slavery and racism remains strong to the present day.

SEE ALSO Buffalo Soldiers; Emancipation Proclamation; Soldiers of Color.


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Cornish, Dudley Taylor. 1956. The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army. New York: Longmans, Green.

Foner, Philip S., ed. 1999. Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. 1990. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: Free Press.

Greenberg, Martin H., and Charles G. Waugh, eds. 2000. The Price of Glory: Slavery and the Civil War. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House.

Levine, Bruce. 2005. Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ramold, Steven J. 2002. Slaves, Sailors, Citizens: African Americans in the Union Navy. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Shaffer, Donald R. 2004. After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans. Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas.

Trudeau, Noah Andre. 1998. Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865. Edison, NJ: Castle Books.

Donald R. Shaffer