African American: Civil War Contributions

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(Black Civil War Soldiers)

African American contributions during the American Civil War were numerous. Approximately 180,000 African Americans, comprising 163 units, served in the Union Army during the Civil War and their death toll was at least 30,000. They were combatants, spies (collected vital information regarding the movement of Confederate troops: see CIA page below), servants, cooks, and laborers. President Abraham Lincoln commented that "the African American turned the tide of the war."
African Americans also served the Confederacy; however, sources reflect that the majority served as cooks, servants, ambulance corps, and even engineers. Some served as Confederate combatants*, but the numbers are debatable. Some wore the Confederate uniform while other African American Confederate combatants did not.
Aftermath and Reconstruction: After the war, many states held "State Constitutional Conventions" and passed "State Civil Rights Acts." All were steps in the right direction. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were created as a direct result of the American Civil War. Also during the Reconstruction, United States census records reflect that many African Americans returned to the South and became sharecroppers for their former masters.
 
"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 pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States." -- Frederick Douglass

* Although all soldiers were considered combatants, and all combatants were considered soldiers during the Civil War, I am merely addressing the individuals that "literally took up arms."

Recommended 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...

Through the 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. "An excellent study regarding African American Civil War achievements and accomplishments"

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Recommended 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. Continued below...
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. "Read this one and learn of the numerous accomplishments and achievements of the determined Black Civil War soldier."
 

Recommended 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. Continued below...

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 most 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 scenes.

 

Recommended 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 below...

Civil War Times Illustrated: "One of the one hundred best books ever written on the Civil War."

americancivilwarhistory.org: "An indispensable volume that delivers the missing chapters of African American Civil War history."

 

Recommended 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...

They provide 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 spirit.

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