African-American Participation in the Civil War

A large number of black men saw battle during the Civil War, fighting for both the North and the South. Bringing blacks into the military was an extraordinarily difficult task, but when they finally received their uniforms and guns, most proved to be exceptionally brave and skilled soldiers.

Early Prejudice

Many Northerners were reluctant to advocate the enlistment of blacks because it was commonly believed that black people had been held in servitude for so long that they were too cowardly to make good soldiers. Even Abraham Lincoln, a strong advocate of abolition, felt the concept had merit. Lincoln also feared that recruiting black soldiers would turn those border states with strong Confederate sympathies against the Union, something he was loath to do.

Despite the prejudice, several officers tried to enlist black men in defiance of the government. General David Hunter organized a regiment of black soldiers on the South Carolina Sea Islands in 1862, but the War Department refused to sanction it. In Kansas, General James Lane raised two regiments of fugitive slaves from Missouri and free blacks from the North. Lane's soldiers were not officially recognized by the War Department until early 1863, although they participated in several battles against Confederate sympathizers in Kansas and Missouri. In New Orleans, General Benjamin Butler initially turned down a regiment of black soldiers following the Union conquest of the city. He changed his mind and recruited three regiments of black soldiers when he was threatened by a sizable Confederate attack in August 1862.

Progress

Sentiments regarding the recruitment of black soldiers slowly changed in the summer of 1862 as the North experienced a number of defeats and morale began to plunge. People were growing weary of the war, and there was a noticeable decline in the number of able-bodied white men who enlisted for military service. This forced the government to seriously consider the idea of black recruitment, and in July 1862, Congress passed two acts that opened the door. The first was the Confiscation Act, which gave the president power to “employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion.” The second was an act that repealed the provisions of a 1792 law barring black men from joining a militia.

The Twenty-sixth U.S. Colored Volunteer Infantry on parade, Camp William Penn, Pennsylvania, 1865 Photo courtesy of the National Archives (165-C-692)

The passage of the two acts did little to quell Northern opposition to the recruitment of African-American soldiers, but on August 25, 1862, General Rufus Saxton, military governor of the South Carolina Sea Islands, was authorized by the War Department to raise five regiments of black soldiers to be commanded by white officers. Aiding the recruitment effort were prominent Northern black leaders, who did all they could to rally their brethren and encourage them to sign up in support of their rights as free citizens.

It took tremendous courage for black men to join the Union army. Despite promises from the government, most knew that taking up arms against the Confederacy — where many had previously been held in bondage — placed them in tremendous jeopardy. Southern soldiers were more likely to kill black soldiers than take them prisoner, and those who were captured risked execution or being resold into slavery. The risks were high for the white commanders of black regiments as well. In May 1863, the Confederate congress authorized President Jefferson Davis to have captured officers of black regiments put to death or otherwise severely punished, though history has shown that few white leaders of African-American regiments suffered at the hands of Confederate captors.

An estimated 200,000 blacks served in the Union army over the course of the Civil War, and more than 37,000 perished in battle. In some instances they were murdered after they had surrendered.

Despite these concerns, black regiments for the most part fought well and with exceptional bravery, often in the face of overwhelming odds. During the Battle of Port Hudson, a heavily fortified Confederate stronghold on the lower Mississippi, two regiments of black soldiers fought valiantly in the face of blistering rifle and cannon fire. The attack failed, but the troops demonstrated incredible heroism as they fought across open ground, and they earned effusive praise from their general.

From a Trickle to a Torrent

Equally brave was the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, a black regiment commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and made famous in the motion picture Glory. It was composed of 650 African Americans from a number of Northern states; Shaw hailed from a vocal abolitionist Massachusetts family.

The regiment was sent to the South Carolina coast in May 1863. Major General Quincy Gillmore had devised a very risky plan to take back Fort Sumter and capture Charleston. The biggest obstacle was Battery Wagner on a tip of Morris Island, which stood a little more than a mile from Fort Sumter. The battery was small and fairly isolated, but it was well defended with 1,200 troops and much heavy artillery.

Union forces bombarded Battery Wagner for almost a week before Gillmore ordered an assault by 6,000 infantry — with the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts leading the way. The regiment fought a bloody hand-to-hand battle atop a palmetto parapet before being pushed back. Colonel Shaw was killed by a bullet through the heart, and nearly 40 percent of his regiment was slaughtered. The bodies of the dead, including Shaw, were buried on the beach in a mass grave.

“It is not too much to say that if this Massachusetts Fifty-fourth had faltered … two hundred thousand troops for whom it was a pioneer would never have put into the field … But it did not falter. It made Fort Wagner such a name for the colored race as Bunker Hill has been for ninety years to the white Yankees.” — the New York Tribune

Despite the failure of the assault on Battery Wagner, the noble efforts of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts contributed greatly to bolstering the image of black soldiers. Sergeant William Carney became the first African American to win the Congressional Medal of Honor as a result of his bravery in that illfated charge, though he didn't receive the honor until 1901. In fact, twenty-three black soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery and service in the Civil War.

Black soldiers played an increasingly important role during the final year of the Civil War. Recruitment proved very successful, and by October 1864, there were 140 black regiments in the Union army containing a total of 101,950 men. Fifteen African-American regiments served in the Army of the James and twenty-three in the Army of the Potomac during the Union invasion of Virginia in the summer of 1864. In fact, black troops participated in every major military campaign in 1864–65 except William Sherman's invasion of Georgia and the Carolinas.

African Americans in Southern Armies

Blacks also served in the Confederate army, especially during the latter part of the war, when fighting men were in desperately short supply. Some hoped that by volunteering they would receive better treatment; others felt it was better to volunteer than to be forced into military service. More than a few hoped that by fighting side by side with white soldiers they could finally put to rest the common belief that blacks were inferior.

Most free blacks and slaves pressed into Confederate military service were used as laborers, harvesting food and cotton and constructing fortifications and entrenchments. Some laborers found themselves suddenly “recruited” as soldiers in the thick of battle, when the Southern army needed more armed bodies. Large numbers of these soldiers quickly deserted to Union lines. In August 1861, the U.S. Congress passed a confiscation act that allowed the seizure of all property used to aid the Southern rebellion — including slaves who had worked on Confederate fortifications or other military efforts. The act laid the foundation for an eventual declaration of emancipation.

Very late in the war, the Confederate Congress did pass a bill permitting slaves to be formally enrolled as soldiers. It was a desperate measure and many Southerners were against it; however, no African-American fighting units reached the battlefield.

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