The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the American Civil War

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The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the American Civil War

"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." Frederick Douglass

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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. (Also 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.

Article Citation
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.]

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.

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Recommended 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. Continued below...

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.

 

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.

 

Recommended 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. Continued below...

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.

 

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."

Note: The African American and American Civil War HOMEPAGE provides research for the following subjects: African American Civil War History; African American Civil War Contributions, Achievements, Roles, and Accomplishments; List of Famous African Americans of the Civil War (Federal Army and Confederate Service), including a complete list of Medal of Honor recipients; Black Military Soldier Details and the Fight for Equal Rights, The Black American Experience; Colored Soldiers and the Union and Confederate Armies; and a section devoted to: Black Americans, the Black Soldier, and the struggle for Civil Rights.

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