African Americans in the Civil War
In the history of the United States, African Americans have always been
discriminated against. When Africans first came to America, they were taken
against their will and forced to work as laborers. They became slaves to the
rich, greedy, lazy Americans. They were given no pay and often badly whipped and
beaten. African Americans fought for their freedom, and up until the Civil War
it was never given to them. When the Civil War began, they wanted to take part
in fighting to free all slaves. Their opportunity to be soldiers and fight along
side white men equally did not come easily, but eventually African Americans
proved themselves able to withstand the heat of battle and fight as true
The road to freedom from slavery was a long and hard for
the African Americans. In the northern states the Civil War began as a fight
against the succession of the Confederate states from the Union. Abraham
Lincoln, who was President at this time, wanted to save the nation by bringing
the southern states back to the Union, but this “Great Emancipator” ironically
did not have much intention of freeing the slaves. His greatest interest lie in
preventing a war from occurring. However, even he could not stop the outbreak of
the Civil War (Fincher).
With the war just beginning, ex-slaves and other
African Americans wanted to get in on the action. They wanted to fight against
those who had enslaved them and their families for generations. They began
volunteering and trying to enlist, but everywhere they went they were rejected.
“In general, white soldiers and officers believed that black men lacked the
courage to fight and fight well” (History ofAfrican-Americans in the Civil War).
Even some abolitionists believed putting them in the battlefield would be
putting African Americans higher than they should be. They said that though
blacks should not be enslaved, they should not be equal to the white male. The
African Americans, however, refused to give up their fight to be allowed to
defend their country with pride.
Pressure from blacks eager to fight, from
abolitionists and from a few Army officers who needed men, as well as changing
circumstances, eventually altered Lincoln’s policy. Along the way, convoluted
legal questions involving the Constitution and slaves as property had to be got
President Lincoln was being bombarded with pressure to
let free African Americans fight in the war. At the same time, pressure to
abolish slavery was put on the President. Finally, in the summer of 1862, with
the realization that the war would not be won without the end of slavery,
Lincoln drew up the Emancipation Proclamation (Fincher). This document freed
slaves in all areas who rebelled against the Union. This began a rippling effect
to many other aspects of the war and led to the enlistment of African Americans
in the Union Army and Navy.
On July 17, 1862, Congress “repealed an act of
1792 barring black men from serving in state militia” (Smith 308). A new Militia
Act permitted the enlistment of free black men and ex-slaves. Now after the long
hard fight to be allowed to serve in the Union Army, African Americans would
finally have their chance to prove themselves as worthy soldiers. They would
serve America proudly and fight to free their fellow brothers who were still
Enrollment began in September of 1862 (Allen 225). Thousands of
black men enlisted. They would be commanded, led, and trained by all white
officers. There were not to be any black officers commissioned and all African
American soldiers were to be regarded as laborers. They would receive less pay
than a white soldier. Instead of $13 plus clothing expenses, they would only
receive $10 without clothing expenses (The American Civil War: A Multicultural
When word of African Americans enlisting in the Union Army
got out, the Confederate Army lashed out many threats. They warned that
Union officers recruiting and arming slaves were ‘outlaws’ and would be subject
to execution as felons when President Davis gave the order. And all ‘slaves
captured in arms’ would be handed to state officials (Allen).
soldiers would be treated like fugitives and would face life imprisonment or the
death penalty (Smith 307). However, this did not stop African Americans from
flocking to enlist. It was hard enough dealing with the Confederates threats
of execution, but African American soldiers were constantly being discriminated
against by many of the white soldiers in the Union Army. They refused to
consider the idea of fight along side a black soldier (Fincher). They said
blacks were not equal and it would dishonor them to have to fight along side
these Negroes. Because of this, hundreds of Union soldiers left the army
(Fincher). Black soldiers were subject to discrimination and petty harassment
everywhere they went. Through it all, African Americans still lined up for
enlistment. They never backed down and refused to show the white men their
Some soldiers were treated well and trained well, but most were
brutalized and discriminated against. Often some of the soldiers would say they
were treated no better than the slaves they were fighting to free. Black
soldiers were assigned the more menial tasks even on the battlefield (Ward 253).
They were often subject to harsh whippings if commands were not followed. They
received inferior equipment and medical care. Nearly twice as many African
Americans died of diseases on the battlefield then the white soldiers (Ward
Throughout the war, black soldiers fought for their rights to be
treated equally. They were continuously told that in order to receive equal pay
and to be considered for being commissioned as an officer, they would have to
prove themselves on the battlefield. The problem with this was they were being
denied the right to engage in battle. Many of the African American soldiers were
getting impatient and frustrated. They had signed up for the army to fight and
defend their freedom, not to do the laborious tasks the white soldiers did not
want to do.
Perhaps the most famous regiment to fight for their equal rights
was the 54th Massachusetts (Fincher). Col. Robert Shaw, commander of this
infantry, was one of the few white commanders who treated his troops with
dignity and respect. He helped them fight for their rights as soldiers. The
entire regiment, including white officers, began refusing pay until blacks were
given the same pay that white soldiers were being given (Fincher). President
Lincoln began supporting the ideas of equal treatment for both blacks and whites
in April 1864. Finally, three months later, “pressured by public opinion and
encouraged by many white officers of these black troops Congress enacted equal
pay legislation” (The American Civil War: A Multicultural Encyclopedia 56).
African Americans had won the battle in the war of equality.
American soldiers continued fighting for other rights. Besides the issue of
equal pay, they were offended at the refusal to commission black officers. They
began and continued pressuring the government, until finally the War Department
gave in to their relentless badgering. They reversed their policy and began
commissioning the outstanding black soldiers as officers (Smith 326). The blacks
had won yet another battle.
Being allowed to prove themselves in an
engagement was now the greatest challenge African Americans faced. Robert Shaw
of the 54th Massachusetts demanded that his regiment be given the opportunity to
engage in battle and not just the menial tasks assigned to them (Fincher). Many
other commanders also demanded the same things for their troops. They believed
their regiment had been well trained and prepared for battle. The black soldiers
were eager to prove that they were not different then the white soldier in
Finally they were given the opportunity to prove their abilities. In
a battle at Port Hudson, Louisiana on May 27, 1863, African American soldiers
advanced on open ground (History of African-Americans in the Civil War). They
faced heavy, deadly artillery fire. Their attack had failed, but they had proven
their willingness and ability to hold their ground and withstand the heat of
On July 17, 1863, the 1st Kansas Colored, a regiment said to be the
first African American infantry to fight in the Civil War, fought at Honey
Springs, in what is now Oklahoma (Carle). Union troops under General James
Blunt ran into a strong Confederate Force under General Douglas Cooper…. The 1st
Kansas, which had held the center of the Union line, advanced to within fifty
paces of the Confederate line and exchanged fire for some twenty minutes until
Confederates broke and ran (History of African-Americans in the Civil War).
The regiment had shown their ability to hold off the Confederates
attacks. Later General Blunt commented that the African Americans made better
soldiers than some of the white troops he had commanded. African Americans had
proved themselves to be equal to the whites in their ability to fight.
massacre at Fort Pillow, Tennessee on April 12, 1864, was probably the bloodiest
battle the African-Americans took part in (History of African-Americans in the
Civil War). General Nathan Bedford Forrest led Confederate troops and held the
fort. The fort held 557 black soldiers and a unit of white Tennessee unionist.
…they stormed the fort, then butchered as many as three hundred of its
disarmed defenders, black and white. ‘…deluded Negroes would run up to our men,’
a rebel soldier recalled, ‘fall upon their knees…scream for mercy, but were
ordered to their feet and shot down’ (Ward 335)
Though the casualties
were many the bravery of the black men who died in this bloodbath was apparent.
This tragedy gave many other African Americans the motivation to continue and
for many the battle cry had become “Remember Fort Pillow!” (History of
African-Americans in the Civil War).
In the Battle of Market Heights,
Virgina, the African-American division of the Eighteenth Corps, charged up the
slopes for an hour-long engagement, after having been pinned down for 30
minutes. During this encounter the division lost many men, but they continued
the battle. Of the seventeen men to receive Congressional Medals of Honor,
fourteen of them received the honor as a result of their courage in the Battle
of Market Heights (History of African-Americans in the Civil War). This battle
once again the determination, bravery, and passion of the African American
Perhaps the most famous battle fought by an African American troop
was the battle at Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts. It was the battle that
proved the true bravery of the black soldiers. On July 18, 1863, the regiment,
led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw, moved in slowly until the signal to engage came
(Fincher). All six hundred men charged the fort. The color bearer fell almost
immediately and orders to withdraw were given (Allen 226). However, Sergeant
William Carney refused to let that be the end and he carried the colors despite
the orders and the multiple bullet wounds to his chest, arms, and legs (Ward).
The regiment continued their attack.
When the battle had ended, less then 60
% returned (Ward). The battle had been unsuccessful. However, the 54th
Massachusetts had become heroes.
‘It is not too much to say that if this
Massachusetts 54th had faltered had faltered when its trail came,’ said the New
York Tribune, ‘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 for ninety years to the white Yankees’
They had fought in a battle that indisputably showed the
blacks courage and ability.
Because of the proven ability of African
American in combat by the Union, the Confederate Sates began contemplating the
idea of using them in battle themselves (Smith 329). The performance of the
Union black soldiers had impressed many of the Southern officers. They began
petitioning the idea, but Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, rejected
In later months talk began to stir in the southern states again
about the idea of using slaves in the war.
“… the Confederate cause grew
increasingly desperate and finally even Judah Benjamin, the Confederate
secretary of state, was won over to the necessity of making soldiers out of
slaves” (Smith 329-330).
Enlistment began, though not many enrolled to
fight for the southern states. Slaves were told they would be given their
freedom in return for their service. The war ended before those who had enlisted
were given the opportunity to engage in a battle.
According to Smith, when
the last bullet had flown, 178,985 African Americans had fought hard and proudly
to free the slaves and save their country. Just over 7100 had been commissioned
as officers. They had 449 engagement and had fought hard in 39 major battles.
Enlisted in the navy were 29,000 black soldiers. Almost 68,200 African Americans
were listed dead or missing. Congressional Medals of Honor were given to 17
When the war had ended, the country would once again be
united as one nation. African Americans had won their freedom and the end of
slavery had finally come. When the Union troops marched into the Confederates
capital they were led by the black detachments from the XXV Corps (Fincher). It
was a proud moment that would never be forgotten.
African Americans had won
their own war. They had successfully fought for their rights to fight along side
white soldiers and had won equal rights as soldiers. Though the road to equality
would last well into the next century, blacks had proven themselves to be worthy
opponents in battle. They had shown the nation that they too could fight bravely
and hold their ground. Because of this, their ability to fight as soldiers would
never be questioned again.
Allen, Thomas B. The Blue and the Gray. Washington DC: National Geograpic
“Black Soldiers, Union”. The American Civil War: A
Multicultural Encyclopedia. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Education Corp, 1994.
Carle, Gleen L. “The First Kansas Colored”: American Heritage. 43
Feb/March 1992: 78.
Fincher, John. “The Hardest Fight was Getting into
the Fight at All”: Smithsonian. 21
Oct 1989: 46
African-Americans in the Civil War.” (April 14,1999)
Smith, Page. Trail by Fire: A People’s
History of the Civil War and Reconstruction. USA: McGraw Hill Book Company,
Ward, Geoffrey C. The Civil War. NewYork: Alfred A Knoff Inc,