Slaves and the American Civil War

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A company of 4th United States Colored Troops (USCT). USCT regiments formed up to a tenth of the Union army.

The slaves and former slaves played a part in the American Civil War.

The Union Army legally enlisted black people after July 19, 1862. Many black people fled North to achieve freedom and fight against their Southern oppressors. The Union utilized many black people as soldiers and other workers.

Blacks in the Union Army[edit]

First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation - Lincoln meets with his cabinet

Before Legalization[edit]

Although slave soldiers played an integral part in the Revolutionary War, a 1792 law actually barred blacks from bearing arms in the US army.[1] In the early 1860s, black volunteers for the Union army were initially rejected. President Lincoln wrestled with the idea of employing the help of freed blacks and slaves for the Union. For several years, he abstained from this idea for fear that the border states would secede if black regiments were created in the Union. However, in 1862 the number of Union volunteers plummeted and the untapped resource of black soldiers became more and more appealing to Lincoln and Congress.[1]

After Legalization[edit]

At first, volunteerism was slow. Black Abolitionist leaders, such as Frederick Douglass, urged blacks to pick up the cause and fight for freedom. In May 1863, Congress established the Bureau of Colored Troops in an effort to organize black efforts in the war.[2]

By the end of the Civil War, about 179,000 black soldiers had fought for the Union Army out of a total of 2,778,304. This number comprised approximately six percent of the total Union troops.[3] In addition, about 19,000 blacks served in the Union Navy.[2]

Roughly 40,000 black soldiers died in the process of fighting for freedom, three quarters of which were caused by infectious 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. Sergeant William Carney of Bedford, MA was the first African-American to receive the Medal of Honor.[2] Martin R. Delany (1812–1885) was the first black commanding officer to serve in the Union Army.[4]


Although they were available, black regiments were not used extensively in combat. Typically, these regiments were even commanded by white officers. Initially, blacks were paid ten dollars a month with a three dollar charge for clothes. Whites, on the other hand, were paid thirteen dollars a month and received clothes for free. In June 1864, Congress passed laws guaranteeing equal pay to US non-white troops. In addition, blacks received equal rations and improved medical care.[1]

Even once blacks were enlisted in the Union army, they still experienced racial discrimination because of their skin color. Blacks commonly received jobs that were reminiscent of slavery, such as cooking and manual labor. The harsh reality that former slaves had to face was that even once they had attained freedom, they had not gained social equality. Free blacks had few rights to property, and found it difficult to get jobs.[5]

In some cases, freedom proved to be more uncertain than slavery. Without a master to protect them, free blacks were open to all the prejudice and mistreatment of white Northern society. African Americans expected to be treated differently as free blacks in the Union Army than in slavery. This was not always the case. Scar marks on the backs of slaves indicated that whippings and other forms of abuse still ran rampant in the Union Army.[5]

Not all people in the Union believed that blacks should be free, or that blacks were equal to whites. This contributed to racism in the Union Army. Some Union Army soldiers beat the former slaves as a form of discrimination and punishment. Soldiers in the Union Army used racist nicknames and terms to refer to African Americans.[5]

Blacks in the Confederate Army[edit]

The Confederate Army did not allow many blacks to participate in the Civil War as soldiers. White Southerners were concerned that if slaves had access to firearms, the blacks would turn against them and use those firearms to kill whites.[6]

Once the South could see that it was in danger of losing the war, the Confederacy created the "Confederate States Colored Troops" to add more regiments to their army. On March 13, 1865, legislation was finally passed that would free black slaves if they enlisted in the Confederate Army, although they had to have consent from their masters. Only a handful of black soldiers, probably fewer than 50, enlisted because of this legislation and were still in training when the war ended.

Passage of slaves from South to North[edit]

Since the beginning of the war, large numbers of runaway slaves sought refuge in the Union Army camps. Runaway slaves saw the Union camps as a way to achieve freedom from the oppressive South. One example of this was a slave named John Boston who sought the Union army because the Northern encampments were seen as a gateway to a long desired freedom. In a letter to his wife, Boston explains how he attained his freedom and the rapture he felt once he finally did. Boston writes: "My Dear Wife it is with grate joy I take to let you know Whare I am i am in Safety in the 14th Regiment of Brooklyn this Day I can Address you thank god as a free man I had a little truble in giting away But as the lord led the Children of Isrel to the land of Canon So he led me to a land Whare freedom Will rain in spite of earth and hell Dear you must make your Self content i am free from all the Slavers."[7] Escaped slaves who sought refuge in Union Army camps were called contrabands. Contrabands were settled in a number of colonies, such as at the Grand Contraband Camp, Virginia and in the Port Royal Experiment.

Slaves began undermining the South once they began running to the North. The Union Army facilitated this by encouraging slave rebellions, while at the same time promising the Confederate Army that the Union Army would aid slave insurrections. These slave insurrections changed the balance of power on plantations, enabling slaves to run away to fight for the Union Army.[citation needed]

Notable battles involving African Americans[edit]

A "Dictator" siege mortar on the U.S. Military Railroad at Petersburg.
A lithograph of the storming of Fort Wagner.

Battle of New Market Heights[edit]

The most famous battle involving African American soldiers was the Battle of New Market Heights in Chaffin's Farm, Virginia. This battle occurred on September 29, 1864. Only 16 African Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.[8] Fourteen of these were awarded for bravery in the Battle of New Market Heights. The Union's African American sector of the 18th Corps had been under heavy Confederate artillery fire for half an hour. The 18th Corps charged up the hill at Chaffins Farm and overtook the Confederates.[8] Both armies suffered heavy casualties, especially the African American sector of the 18th Corps.

Siege of Petersburg[edit]

On the morning of April 3, 1865, most of the African American Union regiments were occupying Richmond.[6] A few entered Petersburg the day it fell. One of these regiments was the Brigadier General William Birney's XXV corps. They had been fighting to the south of the Appomattox River. This regiment was among the first to besiege the city from the West. Also fighting in this battle were the 7th U.S.C.T and the 8th U.S.C.T. regiments. They had formerly been fighting in Maryland and Philadelphia. Both of these regiments were present at the fall of St. Petersburg.[6]

In film[edit]

Glory is a 1989 film chronicling the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick, was assigned to command one of the first African American regiments to see combat for the Union, the 54th. The cast also features Denzel Washington as a runaway slave, and Morgan Freeman as a former Union Army gravedigger.[9][9][10]


  1. ^ a b c "Black Soldiers in the Civil War". 2011-10-19. Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  2. ^ a b c "Black Soldiers in the Civil War". 2011-10-19. Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  3. ^ "The Civil War Home Page". private. Retrieved 2016-03-27. 
  4. ^ "Delany, Martin R. (1812–1885)". Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  5. ^ a b c "Black Regiments in the American Civil War". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  6. ^ a b c "Colored Troops in the American Civil War". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  7. ^ "Eyewitness". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  8. ^ a b "History of Colored Troops in the American Civil War". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  9. ^ a b Cox , Clinton. Undying Glory: The Story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc., 1991. Print.
  10. ^ "Reelviews Movie Reviews". 1989-12-15. Retrieved 2012-05-27. 


Frederick Douglass and the White Negro Documentary film on African Americans and Irish Americans during the Civil War.

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