Civil War Wiki

Template:African American topics collapsible sidebar

The history of African Americans in the American Civil War is marked by 186,097 (7,122 officers, 178,975 enlisted)[1] African Americans comprising 163 units served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and many more African Americans served in the Union Navy. Both free African Americans and runaway slaves joined the fight. On the Confederate side, blacks, both free and slave, were used for labor, but the issue of whether to arm them, and under what terms, became a major source of debate amongst those in the South.

Union Army[]

Our Presidents, Governors, Generals and Secretaries are calling, with almost frantic vehemence, for men.-"Men! men! send us men!" they scream, or the cause of the Union is gone...and yet these very officers, representing the people and the Government, steadily, and persistently refuse to receive the very class of men which have a deeper interest in the defeat and humiliation of the rebels than all others.

-Frederick Douglass[2]

The issue of raising black regiments in the Union's war efforts was at first met with trepidation by officials within the Union command structure, Abraham Lincoln included. Concerns over the response of the border states (of which one, Maryland, surrounded Washington D.C.), the response of white soldiers and officers, as well as the effectiveness of a colored fighting force were raised.[3][4] Despite official reluctance from above, a number of officers in the field experimented, with varying degrees of success, in raising black regiments, including David Hunter, James H. Lane, and Benjamin F. Butler.[5]

On July 17, 1862, Congress passed two acts allowing the enlistment of African Americans[6], but official enrollment occurred only after the September 1862 issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. However, state and local militia units had already begun enlisting blacks, including the Black Brigade of Cincinnati, raised in September to help provide manpower to thwart a feared Confederate raid on Cincinnati.

File:Aam in civil war burying dead.jpg

African-American troops bury the dead at Fredericksburg, Virginia

In actual numbers, African American soldiers comprised 10% of the entire Union Army. Losses among African Americans were high, and from all reported casualties, approximately 20% of all African Americans enrolled in the military lost their lives during the Civil War.[7] Notably, their mortality rate was significantly higher than white soldiers;

[We] find, according to the revised official data, that of the slightly over two millions troops in the United States Volunteers, over 316,000 died (from all causes), or 15.2%. Of the 67,000 Regular Army(white) troops, 8.6%, or not quite 6,000, died. Of the approximately 180,000 United States Colored Troops, however, over 36,000 died, or 20.5%. In other words, the mortality rate amongst the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War was thirty-five percent greater than that among other troops, notwithstanding the fact that the former were not enrolled until some eighteen months after the fighting began.

Herbert Aptheker[8]

Early battles in 1862 and 1863[]


A map of early African American involvement in the Civil War


A company of 4th USCT Infantry

In general, white soldiers and officers believed that black men lacked the ability to fight and fight well. In October 1862, African American soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers silenced their critics by repulsing attacking Confederate guerrillas at the Skirmish at Island Mound, Missouri in October 1862. By August, 1863, 14 Negro Regiments were in the field and ready for service. At the Battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana, May 27, 1863, the African American soldiers bravely advanced over open ground in the face of deadly artillery fire. Although the attack failed, the black soldiers proved their capability to withstand the heat of battle, with General Banks recording in the his official report; "Whatever doubt may have existed heretofore as to the efficiency of organizations of this character, the history of this days this class of troops effective supporters and defenders."[9]

Fort Wagner, Fort Pillow, and beyond[]

"[The Massachusetts Fifty-fourth] made Fort Wagner such a name to the colored race as Bunker Hill has been for ninety years to the white Yankees."

-The New York Tribune[10]

The most widely known battle fought by African Americans was the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry on July 18, 1863. The 54th volunteered to lead the assault on the strongly-fortified Confederate positions. The soldiers of the 54th scaled the fort's parapet, and were only driven back after brutal hand-to-hand combat. Despite the defeat, the unit was hailed for its valor which spurred further African-American recruitment, giving the Union a numerical military advantage from a population the Confederacy did not attempt to exploit until the closing days of the war.

African American soldiers participated in every major campaign of 1864–65 except Sherman's Atlanta Campaign in Georgia. The year 1864 was especially eventful for African American troops. On April 12, 1864, at Battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest led his 2,500 men against the Union-held fortification, occupied by 292 black and 285 white soldiers. After driving in the Union pickets and giving the garrison an opportunity to surrender, Forrest's men swarmed into the fort with little difficulty and drove the Federals down the river's bluff into a deadly crossfire. Casualties were high and only sixty-two of the U.S. Colored Troops survived the fight. Many accused the Confederates of perpetrating a massacre of black troops, and the controversy continues today. The battle cry for the Negro soldier east of the Mississippi River became "Remember Fort Pillow!"

The Battle of Chaffin's Farm, Virginia became one of the most heroic engagements involving African Americans. On September 29, 1864, the African American division of the Eighteenth Corps, after being pinned down by Confederate artillery fire for about 30 minutes, charged the earthworks and rushed up the slopes of the heights. During the hour-long engagement the division suffered tremendous casualties. Of the twenty-five African Americans who were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, fourteen received the honor as a result of their actions at Chaffin's Farm.

Discrimination in pay and assignments[]


African-American federal troops participating in the march at Lincoln's second inauguration[11].

Although black soldiers proved themselves as reputable soldiers, discrimination in pay and other areas remained widespread. According to the Militia Act of 1862, soldiers of African descent were to receive $10.00 a month, with a optional deduction for clothing at $3.00. In contrast, white privates received thirteen dollars per month plus a clothing allowance of $3.50.[12] Many regiments struggled for equal pay, some refusing any money until June 15, 1864, when Congress granted equal pay for all black soldiers.[13] Besides discrimination in pay, colored units were often disproportionately assigned laborer work[14]. General Daniel Ullman, commander of the Corps d'Afrique, remarked "I fear that many high officials outside of Washington have no other intention than that these men shall be used as diggers and drudges."[15]

African American contributions to Union war intelligence[]

Blacks, both slave and free, were also heavily involved in assisting the Union in matters of intelligence, and their contributions were labeled Black Dispatches[citation needed].

File:Cicatrices de flagellation sur un esclave.jpg

Peter, a slave from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1863. The scars are a result of a whipping by his overseer, who was subsequently fired by the master. It took two months to recover from the beating. Also called "Gordon" he enlisted in the Union Army

Union Navy[]

Like the army, the Union Navy's official position at the beginning of the war was ambivalence towards the use of either Northern free blacks or runaway slaves. The constant stream, however, of escaped slaves seeking refuge aboard Union ships, forced the navy to formulate a policy towards them.[16] Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells in a terse order, pointed out the following;

It is not the policy of this Government to invite or encourage this kind of desertion and yet, under the circumstances, no other course...could be adopted without violating every principle of humanity. To return them would be impolitic as well as will do well to employ them."

Gideon Wells, Secretary of the Navy July 22, 1861 [17]

In time, the Union Navy would see almost 16% of its ranks supplied by African Americans, performing in a wide range of enlisted roles.[18] In contrast to the Army, the Navy from the outset not only paid equal wages between white and black sailors, but offered considerably more for even entry-level enlisted positions.[19] Food rations and medical care were also improved over the Army, with the Navy benefiting from a regular stream of supplies from Union-held ports.[20]

Becoming a commissioned officer, however was still out of reach for black sailors. Only the rank of petty officer would be offered to black sailors, and in practice, only to free blacks (who often were the only ones with naval careers sufficiently long to earn the rank).[21]

Union relief workers[]

"Approximately 10 percent of the Union’s female relief workforce was of African descent: free blacks of diverse education and class background who earned wages or worked without pay in the larger cause of freedom, and runaway slaves who sought sanctuary in military camps and hospitals."[22]

Confederate States Army[]

File:Black Confed-1.JPG

"Marlboro" African-American bodyservant to white Confederate soldier

"Nearly 40% of the Confederacy's population were unfree...the work required to sustain the same society during war naturally fell disproportionately on black shoulders as well. By drawing so many white men into the army, indeed, the war multiplied the importance of the black work force."[23] Even Georgia's Governor Joseph E. Brown noted that "the country and the army are mainly dependent upon slave labor for support."[24]

The impressment of slaves, and conscription of freedmen[25], into direct military labor, initially came on the impetus of state legislatures[26], and by 1864 six states had regulated impressment (Florida, Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, in order of authorization)[27] as well as the Confederate Congress.[28] Slave labor was used in a wide variety of support roles, from infrastructure and mining, to teamster and medical roles such as hospital attendants and nurses.[29]

The idea of arming slaves for use as soldiers was speculated on from the onset of the war, but not seriously considered by Davis or others in his administration.[30] As the Union saw victories in the fall of 1862 and the spring of 1863, however, the need for more manpower was acknowledged by the Confederacy in the form of conscription of white men, and the national impressment of free and slave blacks into laborer positions. State militias composed of freedmen were offered, but the War Department spurned the offer.[31] One of the more notable state militias was the all black 1st Louisiana Native Guard, a militia unit composed of free men of color. It was the first of any North American unit to have African American officers[32]. The unit was short lived, and forced to disband in February 1862.[33]. The unit was "intended as a response to demands from members of New Orleans' substantial free black population that they be permitted to participate in the defense of their state, the unit was used by Confederate authorities for public display and propaganda purposes but was not allowed to fight."[34] A Union army regiment was later formed under the same name after General Butler took control of the city[citation needed].

Will the slaves fight?−the experience of this war so far has been that half-trained Negroes have fought as bravely as half-trained Yankees.

In January 1864, General Patrick Cleburne and several other Confederate officers in the Army of Tennessee proposed using slaves as soldiers in the national army to buttress falling troop numbers. Cleburne recommended offering slaves their freedom if they fought and survived. Confederate President Jefferson Davis refused to consider Cleburne's proposal and forbade further discussion of the idea.[36] In fact, a number of prominent generals dissented, including Howell Cobb[37], Beauregard[38], and Anderson[39].

Despite the suppression of Cleburne's idea, the question of enlisting slaves into the army had not faded away, but had become a fixture of debate amongst the columns of Southern newspapers and southern society in the winter of 1864.[40][41] Representative of the two sides in the debate were the Richmond Enquirer and the Charleston Courier :

...whenever the subjugation of Virginia or the employment of her slaves as soldiers are alternative propositions, then certainly we are for making them soldiers, and giving freedom to those negroes that escape the casualties of battle.

Nathaniel Tyler in the Richmond Enquirer[42]

Slavery, God's institution of labor, and the primary political element of our Confederation of Government, state sovereignty...must stand or fall together. To talk of maintaining independence while we abolish slavery is simply to talk folly.

Charleston Courier[43]

On January 11, 1865 General Robert E. Lee wrote the Confederate Congress urging them to arm and enlist black slaves in exchange for their freedom[44]. On March 13, the Confederate Congress passed legislation to raise and enlist companies of black soldiers. The legislation was then promulgated into military policy by Davis in General Order No. 14 on March 23, 1865.[45] The emancipation offered, however, was reliant upon a master's consent;"no slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his own consent and with the approbation of his master by a written instrument conferring, as far as he may, the rights of a freedman"[46]

THE BATTALION from Camps Winder and Jackson, under the command of Dr. Chambliss, including the company of colored troops under Captain Grimes, will parade on the square on Wednesday evening, at 4* o’clock. This is the first company of negro troops raised in Virginia. It was organized about a month since, by Dr. Chambliss, from the employees of the hospitals, and served on the lines during the recent Sheridan raid.

Richmond Sentinel, March 21, 1865

Despite calculations of Virginia's state auditor, that some 4,700 free black males and more than 25,000 male slaves between eighteen and forty five years of age were fit for service[47], only a small number were raised in the intervening months, most coming from two local hospitals-Windsor and Jackson- as well as a formal recruiting center created by General Ewell and staffed by Majors Pegram and Turner.[48]. A month after the order was issued, the number was still "forty or fifty colored soldiers, enlisted under the act of congress"[49]. In his memoirs, Davis stated "There did not remain time enough to obtain any result from its provisions"[50]

African Americans in the CSA[]

A few other lesser known Confederate militia units of free men of color were raised throughout Louisiana at the beginning of the war. These units included: the Baton Rouge Guards under Capt. Henry Favrot, portions of the Pointe Coupee Light Infantry under Capt. Ferdinand Claiborne, and the Augustin Guards and Monet's Guards of Natchitoches under Dr. Jean Burdin. The only official duties ever given to the Natchitoches units were funeral honor guard details[51].

One account of an unidentified African American fighting for the Confederacy, from two Southern 1862 newspapers[52], tells of "a huge negro" fighting under the command of Confederate Major General John C. Breckinridge against the 14th Maine Infantry Regiment in a battle near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on August 5, 1862. The man was described as being "armed and equipped with knapsack, musket, and uniform", and helping to lead the attack[53]. The man's status of being a freedman or a slave is unknown.

Several African Americans are known to have participated in some capacity on the Southern side in the Battle of Gettysburg. After the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, "reported among the rebel prisoners were seven blacks in Confederate uniforms fully armed as soldiers."[54]

Dr. Lewis Steiner, Chief Inspector of the United States Sanitary Commission while observing Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson's occupation of Frederick, Maryland, in 1862: "Over 3,000 Negroes must be included in this number [Confederate troops]. These were clad in all kinds of uniforms, not only in cast-off or captured United States uniforms, but in coats with Southern buttons, State buttons, etc. These were shabby, but not shabbier or seedier than those worn by white men in the rebel ranks. Most of the Negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabers, bowie-knives, dirks, etc.....and were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederate Army." [55]

Union Brigadier-General D. Stuart observed that "...the enemy, and especially their armed negroes, did dare to rise and fire, and did serious execution upon our men. The casualties in the brigade were 11 killed, 40 wounded, and 4 missing; aggregate, 55...."[56]

The number of African-Americans, both slave and free, that served in the Confederate Army in a direct combat capacity was minor, and was never official policy. After the war, the State of Tennessee granted Confederate Pensions to nearly 300 African Americans for their service to the Confederacy[57][58]. Discussions amongst CSA officers on the potential enlistment of slaves is highlighted in the section above.

Confederate Navy[]

Naval historian Ivan Musicant has written that there were blacks who served in the Confederate Navy. Muscicant wrote:

Free blacks could enlist with the approval of the local squadron commander, or the Navy Department, and slaves were permitted to serve with their master's consent. It was stipulated that no draft of seamen to a newly commissioned vessel could number more than 5 per cent blacks. Though figures are lacking, a fair number of blacks served as coal heavers, officers' stewards, or at the top end, as highly skilled tidewater pilots.[59]

United States colored troops as prisoners of war[]


Monument to U.S. Colored Troops at Vicksburg National Military Park

Prisoner exchanges between the Union and Confederacy were suspended when the Confederacy refused to return black soldiers captured in uniform. In October 1862, the Confederate Congress issued a resolution declaring all Negroes, free and slave, that they should be delivered to their respective states "to be dealt with according to the present and future laws of such State or States"[60]. In a letter to General Beauregard on this issue, Secretary Seddon pointed out that "Slaves in flagrant rebellion are subject to death by the laws of every slave-holding State" but that "to guard, however, against possible abuse...the order of execution should be reposed in the general commanding the special locality of the capture."[61]

However, Seddon, concerned about the "embarrassments attending this question"[62], urged that former slaves be sent back to their owners. As for freemen, they would be handed over to Confederates for confinement and put to hard labor.[63] Some have claimed that the experience of colored troops and their white officers in prison life was not significantly different than members of white units.[64]. However, African American prisoners of war were forced to construct entrenchments around Richmond in 1864. There are no reports of white prisoners doing such forced labor under fire.[65]

When Ulysses S. Grant became Commander of the Union Army, all exchanges were ceased. Union General Benjamin Butler later stated that: "He (Grant) said that I would agree with him that by the exchange of prisoners we get no men fit to go into our army, and every soldier we gave the Confederates went immediately into theirs, so that the exchange was virtually so much aid to them and none to us."[66]



  1. Herbert Aptheker Negro Casualties in the Civil War The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 32, No. 1. (January, 1947), pp. 12.
  2. Douglass Monthly V (August 1863) 852
  3. James McPherson, The Negro's Civil War, p.165-167
  4. Edward G. Longacre, "Black Troops in the Army of the James", 1863-65 Military Affairs, Vol. 45, No. 1 (February 1981), p.3
  5. James McPherson The Negro's Civil War p. 165-167
  6. U.S. Statutes at Large XII, p. 589-92
  7. Herbert Aptheker Negro Casualties in the Civil War pp. 16.
  8. Herbert Aptheker Negro Casualties in the Civil War p. 16.
  9. Official Record of the War of the Rebellion Ser. I Vol XXVI Pt. 1 p. 45
  10. New York Tribune September 8, 1865
  11. Uncovered Photos Offer View of Lincoln Ceremony : NPR
  12. McPherson The Negroe's Civil War p. 200
  13. U.S. Statutes at Large, XIII, 129-31
  14. Mcpherson Negroe's Civil War p. 198
  15. Official Record Ser. III Vol. III p. 1126
  16. Steven J. Ramold Slaves,Sailors,Citizens pg. 3-4
  17. Official Record of the Confederate and Union Navies Ser. I vol. VI, Washington, 1897, pg. 8-10. See
  18. Ramold. Slaves, Sailors, Citizens pg. 55
  19. ibid pg. 82-84
  20. ibid pg. 92-99
  21. ibid pg. 76-77
  22. Jane E. Schultz "Seldom Thanked, Never Praised, and Scarcely Recognized: Gender and Racism in Civil War Hospitals" Civil War History, Vol. xlviii No. 3 pg. 221
  23. Bruce Levine. Confederate Emancipation:Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War p. 62
  24. Journal of the Senate at an Extra Session of the General Assembly of the State of Georgia, Convened under the Proclamation of the Governor, March 25th, 1863, p. 6
  25. Bergeron, Arhur W., Jr. Louisianans in the Civil War, "Louisiana's Free Men of Color in Gray", University of Missouri Press, 2002, p. 109.
  26. Bernard H. Nelson Confederate Slave Impressment Legislation, 1861-1865 The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 31, No. 4. (October, 1946), p. 393-4
  27. ibid. p. 398
  28. Confederate States of America, Journal of Congress, 1st Cong. 3rd Sess., III, p. 191.
  29. Levine, Confederate Emancipation p.62-63
  30. ibid. p. 17-18
  31. Levine. Confederate Emancipation. p. 19
  32. Louisiana Fast Facts and Trivia
  33. Hollandsworth, James G., The Louisiana Native Guards, LSU Press, 1996.
  34. Hollandsworth, James G.,
  35. O.R., Series I, Vol. LII, Part 2, p. 586-92
  36. ibid. p. 596
  37. ibid. Series IV, Vol III, p. 1009
  38. ibid. Series I, Vol. XXVIII, Pt. 2, p. 3
  39. ibid. Series I, Vol. LII, Pt. 2, p. 598
  40. Levine, Confederate Emancipation pg. 4
  41. Thomas Robson Hay. The South and the Arming of the Slaves The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 6, No. 1. (June, 1919), p. 34.
  42. Richmond Enquirer, October 6, 1864
  43. Charleston Courier, January 24, 1865
  44. Official Record. Series IV, Vol. III, p. 1012-1013.
  45. Official Record, Series IV, Vol. III, p. 1161-62
  46. ibid
  47. Statement of the Auditor of the Numbers of Slaves Fit for Service, March 25, 1865, William Smith Executive Papers, Virginia Governor's Office, RG 3, State Records Collection, LV.
  48. Levine, Confederate Emancipation. p. 125
  49. Richmond Whig, April 29, 1865
  50. Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. pg 518
  51. Bergeron, Arhur W., Jr. Louisianans in the Civil War, "Louisiana's Free Men of Color in Gray", University of Missouri Press, 2002, p. 107-109.
  52. Daily Delta, August 7, 1862; Grenada (Miss.) Appeal, August 7, 1862
  53. Bergeron, Arhur W., Jr. Louisianans in the Civil War, "Louisiana's Free Men of Color in Gray", University of Missouri Press, 2002, p. 108.
  54. New York Herald, July 11, 1863.
  55. Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (1995)
  56. Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (1995)
  57. Tennessee St. Library & Archives-Tennessee Colored Confederate Veteran Pension Applications
  58. transcript of Tennessee Colored Confederate Veteran Pension Applications
  59. Ivan Musicant, "Divided Waters: The Naval History of the Civil War”. (1995) page 74
  60. Statutes at Large of the Confederate State (Richmond 1863), 167-168.
  61. O.R., Series II, Vol. VIII, pg 954
  62. ibid. Series II, Vol. VI, 703-704
  63. "Treatment of Colored Union Troops by Confederates, 1861-1865" The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 20, No. 3. (July, 1935), pp. 278-279.
  64. ibid. 281-282
  65. Noah Andre Trudeau, Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865, New York: Little Brown and Co., 1998, p. 310-312.
  66. The True Story of Andersonville,James Madison Page,1908

See also[]

  • German-Americans in the Civil War
  • Foreign enlistment in the American Civil War

External links[]