African Americans in the Civil War summary: African Americans served in the in the Civil War on both the Union and Confederate side. In the Union army, over 179,000 African American men served in over 160 units, as well as more serving in the Navy and in support positions. This number comprised of both northern free African Americans and runaway slaves from the South who enlisted to fight. In the Confederacy, African Americans were still slaves and they served mostly in labor positions. By 1865, the South allowed slaves to enlist but very few actually did.
At the onset of the Civil War, free Black men rushed to volunteer for service with the Union forces. Although African Americans had served in the army and navy during the American Revolution and in the War of 1812 (few, if any, served in the Mexican War), they were not permitted to enlist because of a 1792 law that barred them from bearing arms in the U.S. Army. President Abraham Lincoln also feared that accepting Black men into the military would cause border states like Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri to secede.
Free Black men were finally permitted to enlist late in 1862, following the passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, which freed slaves who had masters in the Confederate Army, and Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. By May 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established to manage Black enlistees. Recruitment was low until active efforts were made to enlist Black volunteers—leaders like Frederick Douglass encouraged free Black men to volunteer as a way to ensure eventual full citizenship.
The first authorized Black regiments (designated colored troops) consisted of recruits from Massachusetts, Tennessee, and South Carolina, the latter in areas under Union control, of course. In May 1863, the Corps d’ Afrique was formed in Louisiana by Union Major Gen. Nathanial Banks. He planned for it to consist of 18 regiments, infantry, artillery and cavalry, with engineers and mobile hospitals.
Black Union soldiers did not receive equal pay or equal treatment. They were paid $10 a month, with $3 deducted from that pay for clothing (White soldiers received $13 a month with no clothing deduction) until June 1864, when Congress granted retroactive equal pay. Even in the North, racial discrimination was widespread and Blacks were often not treated as equals by White soldiers. In addition, segregated units were formed with Black enlisted men commanded by White officers and Black non-commissioned officers. Some of the White officers had low opinions of their colored troops and failed to adequately train them.
Black units and soldiers that were captured by the Confederates faced harsher treatment than White prisoners of war. In 1863 the Confederate Congress threatened to punish captured Union officers of Black troops and enslave Black Union soldiers. In response, Lincoln issued General Order 233, threatening reprisal against Confederate POWs. At the Battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, on April 12, 1864, the disorganized Union garrison (almost 600 men, about half of whom were Black) suffered nearly 575 casualties when they were attacked by Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest. The fight was promptly dubbed a massacre in the Northern press, and it was claimed that Black soldiers who attempted to surrender were massacred. Other reports say the Union troops and their commanders refused to surrender. Exactly what happened at Fort Pillow remains controversial to this day, fueled by Forrest’s pre-war trade as a slave dealer and his post-war association with the Ku Klux Klan.
Black troops played a major role at the Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, and formed a significant part of the Union force during the Battle of Nashville.
By the time the war ended, some 179,000 Black men had served in the Union Army, representing 10% of its total. Nearly 20,000 more were in the navy. Nearly 40,000 died, three-fourths of them due to disease or infections.
Blacks on both sides of the war served in relief roles, for example, working as nurses, cooks, and blacksmiths. The South refused to arm Blacks but used them to build fortifications and perform camp duties. Many Northern officers refused to believe Black troops would fight, and so they were often assigned to non-combat duties or placed in the rear guarding railroads and bridges. Blacks also served as spies and scouts to the Union Army, providing valuable information about Confederate forces, plans, and familiar terrain. Information gathered from Black sources were so numerous and valuable, they were put in a special category—the so-called ‘Black Dispatches.’ Escaped slaves, many of whom fled to the Union lines, were referred to as contrabands in the early stages of the war since they were seen as technically being property of the Confederates states. They were carefully debriefed and some were recruited as spies, returning to slave territory with White agents posing as masters. Freed Blacks, including Harriet Tubman, were also spies, scouts, and agents. Tubman even famously led a raid outside Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1863. The value of the Black Dispatches was recognized by all in the Union and even by the Confederacy. Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote: “The chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes.”
Blacks also served in the Confederate Army, although most were impressed as a slave labor force. Others were brought along by their masters to tend to the master’s needs in camp. In some cases, these servants were entrusted with a master’s personal affects if he was killed, and returned them to his family. There are reports of a few servants who took their master’s place on the firing line and were adopted by the regiment. Records also show men who served as color-bearers in militia units. Tens of thousands may have served, willingly or otherwise.
At the midpoint of the war in 1863, when more Confederate soldiers were needed, state militias of freed Black men were offered to the Confederate war office but refused. (At the beginning of the war, a Louisiana unit offered its services but was rejected. Louisiana had a long history of militia units comprised of free men of color.) As the war continued, the issue became even more hotly debated in the Confederate Congress. On January 2, 1864, Confederate Major Gen. Patrick Cleburne proposed arming slaves. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, ordered that the proposal be suppressed. Despite his reputation as “the Stonewall Jackson of the West,” Cleburne never rose to higher command, and it is widely believed that was because of his unpopular proposal.
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 less than 50, enlisted because of this legislation and were still in training when the war ended.