Black Soldiers in the American Civil War

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The American Civil War

By Professor Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The Civil War was not the first conflict on American soil that witnessed black soldiers raise their arms in battle. Black soldiers had helped the Continental Army against British tyranny during the Revolutionary War, and they had unofficially battled side-by-side with their white counterparts in the War of 1812. Nevertheless, the Civil War represented the first time in history that black soldiers entered military service en masse in the United States of America.

Two rows of African American soldiers holding rifles at Fort Lincoln.
African American soldiers at Fort Lincoln in 1864. The Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, were part of the defending forces of Washington, D.C. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Since the 1790s, black soldiers had been strategically excluded from state militias. Likewise, the United States Army did not officially recruit black soldiers until the Civil War. Only one branch of the U.S. military—the Navy—was progressive enough to allow some black workers to join their ranks. By 1861, the U.S. Navy began black shipmen to work some menial jobs, such as stewards and coal heavers.

Learn more about Common Soldiers in the American Civil War.

Black Soldiers Raise Arms from the Beginning

When the American Civil War broke out at Fort Sumter, black men hoped things would change. Thousands enlisted into the military units where they were welcomed. Thousands more cheered from the sidelines, hoping the Confederacy’s secession would pave the way for abolition in the Union.

Abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass encouraged black men to take advantage of secession as a way to gain full-fledged citizenship through military patriotism. Oppressed for centuries, black residents saw hope in the chaos of the battlefield. That hope manifested even more as the Lincoln Administration, plagued by two years of ongoing Confederate rebellion, decided to enact the Second Confiscation and Militia Act of 1862.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Second Confiscation and Militia Act

Signed into order on July 17, 1862, the Second Confiscation and Militia Act was actually the brainchild of military leaders in the struggling Union Army. After years and years of barring free black men from their ranks, the U.S. Army began taking steps toward allowing free blacks to enlist.

The act gave the U.S. President the authority to allow men of African descent to join the military for the sake of public welfare. An increased number of former slaves and decreased number of white soldiers paved the way to a new era of African-American military history, one that witnessed unofficial “colored infantries” sprout up in National Guard units across the South.

While the North would ultimately serve as a beacon of African-American military recruitment, it was the small Union regiments of the South that first embraced this untapped source of human capital. Generals like John C. Fremont (Missouri) and David Hunter (South Carolina) only antagonized the entire situation by trying to declare emancipation for all slaves in their military regions (a set of requests that were later revoked by superiors).

Nonetheless, the landscape was finally becoming ripe for black military involvement—just two days after the Second Confiscation and Militia Act was passed, slavery was finally abolished in territories of the United States of America, foreshadowing the coming of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Lincoln Administration began drafting the Emancipation Proclamation as early as July 1862.

The Emancipation Proclamation

Four Union officers in front of their tent, with two African Americans.
Union officers in front of their tent, with two African Americans during the Petersburg Campaign, August, 1864. Many former slaves, emancipated in 1863, were employed as servants to Union officers. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

By January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was officially signed. It stated that “[a]ll persons held as slaves within any States…in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” This newfound freedom excited blacks across North America and the Caribbean, encouraging thousands to join the earliest authorized “colored regiments” in Massachusetts, Tennessee, and South Carolina. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass again applauded these civil rights gains, as black enlistment blossomed to 180,000 in total by the end of the war. In total, they made up nine percent of all men in uniform.

Black women assisted their newly-enlisted brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins, neighbors, and sons by joining nursing and scouting efforts. Black women could not officially join the military, but hundreds of thousands of newly-emancipated black women helped out in alternative ways.

The Black Soldiers Enlist: A Lasting Myth

Contrary to popular belief, however, black soldiers did not enlist in the Confederate army. This longstanding myth has stood the test of time in the American historical canon, but it is categorically false in nature. There’s been a good deal of discussion and publication online lately about black men enlisting in the Confederate army, and you can read in some places estimates as high as 50,000 black soldiers in the Confederate army.

While there were many black men accompanying Confederate armies, they were not serving as soldiers. They were serving in noncombatant roles. Most historians suspect that the vast majority of them were coerced into these positions and would have preferred to be somewhere else rather than accompanying their slaveholders waging war. Many would have also preferred fighting alongside free blacks in the Union Army if provided the opportunity to do so.

Learn more about the American Civil War.

Treatment of Black Soldiers in the American Civil War

A monument with three African American soldiers at the Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi.
A monument honoring the colored troops at the Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, Mississippi. (Image: Sf46 / Public domain)

Regardless of the civil rights gains made during this era, black soldiers still remained second-class citizens in the eyes of many of their white counterparts. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died during the American Civil War, most dying from illness or infection. Units remained segregated like the rest of society—a reality the persisted until well into the twentieth century.

Black soldiers were also paid less than their white counterparts, reinforcing further economic injustices. Black prisoners of war suffered greatly at the hands of their former enslavers. They were more likely to be tortured or maltreated by their Confederate overlords. While emancipation afforded freedoms, these freedoms were only relative in a landscape still impacted by racist constructs.

Nevertheless, the civil rights gains made for African-Americans during the Civil War should not be downplayed. It represented a turning point in the African-American narrative, one that witnessed the end of slavery and the beginning of the long march to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s. It also represented a turning point for the U.S. military, which suddenly, in desperate times, became a new source of occupation for hundreds of thousands of black soldiers.

Common Questions About Black Soldiers in the American Civil War

Q: How many African American soldiers fought in the American Civil War?

180,000 African American soldiers fought for the Union army during the American Civil War.

Q: How many African American soldiers fought for the South in the Civil War?

There is a longstanding myth about African American soldiers enlisting in the Confederate army. While there were many black men accompanying Confederate armies, they were not serving as soldiers. They were serving in noncombatant roles. Most historians suspect that the vast majority of them were coerced into these positions and would have preferred to be somewhere else rather than accompanying their slaveholders waging war. Many would have also preferred fighting alongside free blacks in the Union Army if provided the opportunity to do so.

Q: What role did African Americans play in the Civil War?

African American soldiers joined the war from the beginning. 180,000 black soldiers fought for the Union army during the American Civil War. Tens of thousands more also served in noncombatant roles in the Confederate army. Black soldiers received comparable medical treatment in the Union, but they were paid less than white soldiers, tortured more by Confederate prison guards, and segregated in their own units

Keep Reading
North vs. South: Prelude to the American Civil War
Politics before the American Civil War
Slavery, Compromise, and the Long Road to War