Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.
These words, spoken by Frederick Douglass, moved many African Americans to enlist in the Union Army and literally to fight for their freedom. When President Abraham Lincoln, on January 1, 1863, declared that the Emancipation Proclamation was in effect, the Civil War became, for the Union, a war to free the slaves.
Approximately one hundred and eighty thousand African Americans, comprising 163 units served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and many more African Americans served in the Union Navy. Those who joined the war effort ranged from free blacks fighting for their rights to escaped slaves fighting for their freedom. The Union Army used blacks as laborers and slaves from the beginning of the war.
In July 1862, after the disastrous Peninsular Campaign, President Lincoln signed the Second Confiscation Act stating that the Union could “employ, . . . persons of African descent . . . for the suppression of the rebellion.”
On July 17, 1862, Congress passed two acts allowing the enlistment of African Americans. Official enrollment of blacks into the Union Army occurred only after the September 1862 issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Thanks to several Union officers, however, five regiments of black infantry had already been formed in the Union-held Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.
Once the proclamation had taken effect on January 1, 1863, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island began to recruit free black men from all over the North. After congregating in Readville, Massachusetts, they became part of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Colored Regiment. This unit proved itself in a deadly assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina, in July 1863. However, this celebrated group was only a small part of the total number of almost one hundred eighty thousand African Americans who served in the Civil War. Of these forces, only thirty three thousand came from the northern states. Forty two thousand came from the border slaveholding states of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri and Kentucky—half of these were from Kentucky. Tennessee provided twenty thousand and Louisiana twenty four thousand. Mississippi yielded eighty thousand black soldiers. From the other states of the Confederacy came forty thousand black soldiers.
By the first week of August 1863, fourteen Negro regiments were in the field and ready for service. The general opinion of white soldiers and officers was that black men lacked the courage to fight and fight well. Given the opportunity, however, African Americans silenced their critics with exemplary bravery. One of the first combat experiences for black troops came in October 1862. The soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment defeated attacking Confederate forces at the battle of Island Mound, Missouri. At the battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana, May 27, 1863, blacks fought well. They advanced over open ground in the face of deadly small arms fire. Although the attack failed, the black soldiers proved their capability to withstand the heat of battle.
On July 17, 1863, at Honey Springs, Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, the 1st Kansas Colored established its military reputation. Union troops under General James Blunt ran into a strong Confederate force under General Douglas Cooper. After a bloody engagement lasting two hours, Cooper’s soldiers retreated. The 1st Kansas, which held the center of the Union line, advanced within fifty paces of the Confederate line. They exchanged fire for some twenty minutes until the Confederate line broke and ran. Critics were silenced in the face of the 1st’s bravery and courage. General Blunt wrote after the battle, “I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro regiment. . . . The question that Negroes will fight is settled; besides, they make better soldiers in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command.”
The most widely known early battle fought by African Americans was the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts on July 18, 1863. The 54th volunteered to lead the assault on the strongly fortified Confederate position. The soldiers of the 54th showed great courage as they charged the stronghold under heavy fire. While the attack failed, the soldiers proved their courage. They were proud that they were willing to die for their freedom.
The 54th was not the only regiment to face great odds and show such courage. Every time a black soldier faced a Confederate force, he knew that, if captured, he would be killed, but yet he fought on with great courage and skill. At the end of 1863, Christian A. Fleetwood, a free African American from Baltimore who had joined the army, expressed the feelings of most black men, as he wrote in his diary, “This year has brought about many changes that at the beginning were or would have been thought impossible. The close of the year finds me a soldier for the cause of my race. May God bless the cause, and enable me in the coming year to forward it on.”
Although black soldiers proved themselves reputable soldiers, discrimination in pay and other areas remained widespread. According to the Militia Act of 1862, soldiers of African descent were to receive ten dollars a month, three dollars of which was to be paid in clothing. A white soldier of the same rank received thirteen dollars a month, plus a clothing allowance of three dollars and fifty cents. Many regiments struggled for equal pay, some refusing any money until, on June 15, 1864, Congress granted equal pay for all black soldiers.
African-American soldiers participated in every major campaign of 1864–1865 except Sherman’s invasion of Georgia. The year 1864 was especially eventful for African-American troops. On April 12, 1864, at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest led his forces 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 charged and swarmed into the fort with little difficulty. White and black Union soldiers surrendered. African- American soldiers were shot down in cold blood by Rebels who yelled, “No quarter! No quarter!”
The Committee on the Conduct of the War concluded that the Confederates had been guilty of atrocities which included murdering most of the soldiers after the garrison had surrendered, burying black solders alive, and setting fire to tents containing Federal wounded. The battle cry for the African-American soldier east of the Mississippi River became “Remember Fort Pillow!”
One of the most heroic, lesser known, engagements involving African Americans was the September 29, 1864 battle of New Market Heights and Fort Gilmer, Virginia. The conflict at New Market Heights, part of a larger operation planned and directed by Union Major General Benjamin Butler, became known as the confrontation at Chaffin’s Farm. After being pinned down by Confederate artillery and small arms fire for about thirty minutes, the Negro division of the XVIII Corps charged the earthworks and rushed up the slopes of the heights. The division suffered tremendous casualties. They were engaged in battle for just over one hour. For their heroic efforts, fourteen African Americans received the Medal of Honor. This is especially significant because only sixteen Medals of Honor were awarded to any members of black army troops during the entire Civil War.
In January 1864, a group of Confederate officers in the Army of Tennessee, headed by General Patrick Cleburne, proposed that because the Union was using slaves against the South, the Confederacy should use them as soldiers, too. Cleburne’s reports also offered African Americans the option of freedom if they fought and survived. Confederate President Jefferson Davis refused to consider Cleburne’s proposal and forbade discussion of the idea. The concept, however, did not die. By the fall of 1864, the South was losing more and more ground, and some believed that the only way to avoid defeat was to arm the slaves. On March 13th, the Confederate Congress passed General Order 14. President Davis signed the order into law. The order was issued March 23, 1865. Only a few companies of black Confederate soldiers were raised. The war ended—with the surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865—before they could be used in battle.
In actual numbers, African-American soldiers made up an estimated nine to ten percent of the Union Army. Losses among African Americans were high. From all reported casualties, approximately one-fifth of all the African Americans enrolled in the military lost their lives during the Civil War. Black soldiers did not have a high desertion rate despite the discrimination in pay and duty, the threat of death or return to slavery if captured, and the ravages of battle.
African-American soldiers overcame the tremendous odds against them and made an important and valuable contribution to the Civil War. They fought for their freedom with courage and bravery. A government commission that investigated the condition of the freedman summed up, in May 1864, the impact African Americans had had on the Civil War.
The whites have changed, and are still rapidly changing, their opinion of the Negro. And the Negro, in his new condition as a freedman, is himself, to some extent, a changed being. No one circumstance has tended so much to these results as the display of manhood in Negro soldiers.
Despite the vast knowledge we have about Civil War armies, comparatively little is known about the navies, and next to nothing about the lives of ordinary sailors. Few know that black men may have constituted as many as twenty-five percent of the navy’s enlisted force. On some ships they represented seventy-five percent or more of the crewmen. Fewer still appreciate that a number of black women were enlisted—mostly as nurses—and that eight black sailors won medals of honor for their heroism.
The number of African-American sailors who served is not known. Low-range estimates hover around ten thousand men while high-end estimates assume that thirty thousand of the estimated one hundred and eighteen thousand enlistees were black men. Unlike the Union Army, which created a Bureau of Colored Troops to administer affairs concerning the approximately one hundred seventy-nine thousand soldiers who served in the racially segregated black regiments, the Navy neither segregated African-American sailors nor created a separate administrative bureau.
Most African-American enlistees were young men, particularly ones in their twenties. A majority had been born in the southern United States. Of that group, perhaps four-fifths had escaped from slavery prior to enlisting. African-American enlistees from the free states of the North came from far and wide, although the majority hailed from the seaboard states of the north Atlantic coast. A good number had had prior seafaring experience—for perhaps ten percent this had included a stint in the U.S. Navy prior to the war. Men of African ancestry from offshore points also served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. Although most of these men came from the West Indies, others came from Africa and Europe, and from the islands of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Once enlisted, the men were rated and paid according to their skill and experience.
Over the course of the war, the numbers of African-American sailors increased, and so did their percentage on board naval vessels. Whereas, in 1861, they may have constituted at best five percent of any given vessel’s crew, by the closing months of the war the average figure was closer to twenty- five percent.
Ironically, informal segregation helps account for the large proportion of African- American crewmen on certain vessels. Black men accounted for disproportionately large numbers of the crewmen on board store ships and supply ships. These men tended to occupy the low-paid, low-prestige enlisted ratings. This pattern of informal segregation also extended to sailing craft generally, but often with unforeseen results. On April 1, 1865, for instance, the complement of the mortar schooner Adolph Hugel numbered forty-eight men; forty-six were rated as landsmen (or raw recruits); there were three seamen, three cooks and one steward.
Most significantly, black men held four prestigious petty-officer ratings: boatswain’s mate, captain of the hold, master at arms, and quartermaster. As this case suggests, vessels where de facto segregation prevailed also offered opportunities for advancement.
Unlike their counterparts in the army, black sailors stood no chance of gaining commissioned office during the Civil War. The navy did not commission African-American officers until World War II. Moreover, not a single warrant officer of the Civil War era appears to have been African American, despite the fact that any number of men had the requisite skills and experience. Most African- American sailors occupied the lowest enlisted ratings and, of those who were rated petty officers, most were cooks and stewards.
1. When did President Lincoln decide to employ African Americans in the Union army?
a. after the battle at Port Hudson, Louisiana
b. following the failed Peninsular Campaign
c. after the conflict at Fort Wagner, South Carolina
d. immediately after the declaration of war
2. On which date did the Emancipation Proclamation go into effect?
a. January 1, 1863
b. March 3, 1861
c. April 1, 1865
d. September 17, 1862
3. With which statement about the African-American troops who participated in the Civil War would Frederick Douglass most likely agree?
a. Southern African Americans were traitors.
b. African-American soldiers were brave and upstanding.
c. The African Americans were incompetent.
d. The Union military did not need African Americans.
4. The First Kansas Colored unit fought a Confederate force
a. and subsequently surrendered.b.led by General Douglas Cooper.c. for almost two weeks.d.under the command of General James Blunt.
5. What did the defeat of the 54th Massachusetts regiment at Fort Wagner prove?
a. The African-American troops needed better leadership.
b. The Union did not have a viable strategy.
c. The African-American troops were courageous.
d. The South had a stronger force.
6. What was significant about the battle known as Chaffin’s Farm?
a. The Union lost important ground in the attempt to take Richmond.
b. For heroism there, fourteen African Americans received the Medal of Honor.
c. It was an accidental and completely unplanned confrontation.
d. General Benjamin Butler did not succeed in defeating the Confederate artillery.
7. Why did General Patrick Cleburne propose the use of slaves in the Confederate Army?
a. He wanted to create a division between northern and southern African Americans.
b. Cleburne wanted to send the slaves North as spies.
c. He was certain that the African Americans from the North would not fire on the slaves.
d. Cleburne thought that the South needed the help of the slaves in order to win.
8. When did the navy begin appointing African Americans to official positions?
a. during World War II
b. immediately before World War I
c. during the Civil War
d. just after the Civil War
9. How do you think the experience of fighting in the Civil War changed African Americans and their opinions of themselves? Explain Frederick Douglass’s opening remark in this passage and then illustrate how it proved to be true.