The Untold History of African American Soldiers in the Civil War

Dutch Gap, Virginia. Picket station of Colored troops near Dutch Gap canalPhoto: Library of Congress
“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, 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 Douglas

One of the most overlooked parts of the history of the American Civil War is the contributions made by African American soldiers. Contrary to what many believe and have learned, black people were not just onlookers in the war. They were a vital and necessary part of it and fought bravely next to the white soldiers. However the issues of emancipation and military service were intertwined, and it took a little time before black troops were recruited.

Two soldiers, one black and one white smoking a long pipe in front of tent.Photo: Library of Congress (LOC) 1865Two soldiers, one white and one black, smoking a long pipe in front of a tent

When Fort Sumter was fired upon, in April 1861, black men raced to sign up for military service with the North (though some blacks did fight for the Confederacy as well) but were turned away at first. A 1792 law forbade black people from bearing arms in the U.S. Army. Resolutions were made asking the government to change the law, but nothing happened quickly.

Company E, 4th United States Colored InfantryPhoto: Library of Congress (LOC)The men in this picture are from Company E, 4th United States Colored Infantry. Theirs was one of the detachments assigned to guard the nation’s capital during the American Civil War.

The initial concern of Lincoln and the government was that border states would be pushed to secede like the Southern States if they allowed recruitment of black troops. It was such a concern that when Generals Hunter and Fremont freed the slaves in their areas and tried to establish a regiment of black troops, Lincoln rebuked the generals and told them they must disband the regiments.

However, by mid-1862 the number of black volunteers, declining white volunteers and the high number of former slaves all combined to tip the decision to allow recruitment. In July of that year slaves who had masters in the Confederate army were freed, and two days later slavery was abolished throughout the U.S.

View of Capt. James M. Robertson, 1st Brigade, Horse Artillery, February 1864.Photo: Library of CongressView of Capt. James M. Robertson, 1st Brigade, Horse Artillery, February 1864. Photograph is from the main eastern theater of the Civil War, winter quarters at Brandy Station, Virginia. The print shows uniformed African-American in back of white officers.

There was of course still discrimination and segregation. Black troops were kept apart from whites in the same units, even though they fought the same battles, and in other units they were kept to guard duty. Black troops had a double fight, both against the Confederate Army and the suspicions of the white soldiers they served with. That said, they fought well and proved their worth in many a battle. It still took until the war ended for black soldiers to be paid what the white soldiers were, but finally the military not only approved the equal pay but made it retroactive.

Petersburg, Virginia (vicinity). Hanged body of William Johnson, a Negro soldierPhoto: Library of Congress (LOC)The hanging of William Johnson, a black soldier

One of the big differences between black troops and their white counterparts was the danger they faced if captured. Not only would they be taken as prisoner of war, but sold as slaves as well, and in some cases hung or shot for firing on white men. President Lincoln issued a General Order that threatened severe reprisals on Confederate prisoners if the black troops were mistreated. This helped a little, but cases of extreme abuse still occurred, one of the more significant during the fight of Ft. Pillow, TN, when Confederates shot the black prisoners to death.

City Point, Virginia. Negro soldier guarding 12-pdr. NapoleonPhoto: Library of Congress (LOC)Black soldier guarding 12 cannons

At the end of the Civil War, 10% of the army (179,000) was made up of black men, 19,000 more were in the Navy, and approximately 40,000 had died. The majority of these were not battle deaths but those resulting from disease and infection due to the living conditions and the state of medical knowledge at the time. Black women contributed to the war effort too, as scouts and spies. Black people did every job there was in the army, including roles in infantry and artillery, in cooking, and as teamsters, wheelwrights and more.

Aiken's Landing, Va. African-American soldiers resting near the Aiken house, view looking toward the housePhoto: Library of Congress (LOC)Photograph from the main eastern theater of war, the Army of the James, June 1864-April 1865. Shows forty African American soldiers sitting and standing on a slight hill.

One of the first battles that black troops participated in which started to dissolve doubts that they could fight effectively was an assault on Port Hudson, Louisiana by two regiments of the Corps d’Afrique in May 1863. In June, another two regiments of freed men held off an assault by Confederate troops on Milliken’s Bend. This started to ease the worry of white officers about the United States Colored Troops (USCT) bureau.

Photograph of Washington, 1862-1865, view of the defenses of Washington. Shows group of twenty African American soldiers with musical instruments.Photo: Library of Congress (LOC)Photograph of Washington, 1862-1865, view of the defenses of Washington. Shows group of twenty African American soldiers with musical instruments.

Even though no black people were meant to be officers as per regulations, 100 did rise to that rank, and more than a dozen were given the Medal of Honor, the highest medal at the time.

Cold Harbor, Va. African Americans collecting bones of soldiers killed in the battlePhoto: Library of Congress (LOC)Cold Harbor, Va. African Americans collecting bones of soldiers killed in the battle

This is one of the most heartbreaking images in this collection and shows the toll of war in a way nothing else can. Black troops fought in 449 engagements and 39 were major battles. They performed against all odds: distrust from white compatriots, danger of further enslavement if captured, and simple lack of belief in their effectiveness by officers. However, without the invaluable contribution made by black troops to the Civil War, the result could have been different, or at the least far more protracted.

Sources: 1, 2, 3