Blacks in the Civil War

Black people from both the North and the South participated in the Civil War in a variety of ways. Free blacks from the North tried to join the fight as soldiers from the earliest days of the conflict. These men not only wanted to help free the slaves in the South, but also felt that they could improve their chances of gaining equal rights in American society by proving their patriotism and courage on the battlefield. But prejudice (unfair treatment because of their race) prevented blacks from enlisting in the Union Army until late 1862. It also created racial conflicts with working-class white in many Northern cities during the war years.

In the South, black slaves performed much of the heavy work that was required to prepare the Confederacy for war. They built forts, dug trenches, hauled artillery and supplies, set up army camps, and acted as cooks and servants for Confederate soldiers. Some free blacks in the South even fought for the Confederacy in the early years of the Civil War. However, after President Abraham Lincoln issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in 1863, Southern blacks increasingly realized what a Union victory would mean for them. Thousands of slaves escaped and took refuge behind Union lines, and many of those who remained in the Confederacy stopped cooperating with Southern whites. Some Southern blacks even aided the Union army by destroying Confederate property, spying on troop movements, or helping Union prisoners escape.

Words to Know
  • Abolitionists – people who worked to end slavery
  • Confederacy – eleven Southern states that seceded from the United States in 1860 and 1861
  • Discrimination – unfair treatment of people or groups because of their race, religion, gender, or other reasons
  • Emancipation – the act of freeing people from slavery or oppression
  • Union – Northern states that remained loyal to the United States during the Civil War

When black Americans were finally allowed to join the Union Army in 1862, they still faced discrimination. For example, they received lower wages than white soldiers who held the same rank, they did more than their share of heavy labor, and they were not allowed to become officers. Despite these problems, more than 200,000 black men fought bravely for the Union. Their courage and determination on the battlefield earned the respect of many white Americans and helped the North win the Civil War. As a result, black Americans were able to break down many barriers of discrimination after the war ended.

When the Civil War began, thousands of black men volunteered to become soldiers in the Union Army. They cited two main reasons for wanting to join the fight:

  1. They wanted to help put an end to slavery
  2. They believed that proving their patriotism and courage on the field of battle would help improve their position in American society.

However, Federal law prohibited black men from joining state militias or the Union Army, and many Northern whites wanted to keep it that way. For one thing, they claimed that the Civil War was not about slavery. They called it a “white man’s war” and said that its purpose was to restore the Union rather than to settle the issue of slavery. And since the war was not about slavery, they felt that there was no need to change the law so that black people could join the fight. In reality, the dispute between North and South involved a number of different issues, including the question of how much power should be granted to the individual states and how much should be held by the federal government. But in the end, slavery was the one issue upon which the two sides could not compromise.

Another reason that many Northern states did not want black men joining the army was deep-seated racial prejudice. Some whites believed that they were superior to blacks and did not want to fight alongside them. They also thought that black men, particularly those who had been slaves, would be too cowardly and subservient (helpful in an inferior capacity) to make good soldiers. Finally, they worried that allowing blacks to fight in the war would have negative political implications. Several states along the border between the North and South allowed slavery, but remained part of the Union anyway. Some Northern political leaders thought that these border states would join the Confederacy if the Union Army admitted black soldiers.

Black leaders in the North were outraged at the policies and prejudices that prevented them from fighting in the Civil War. They pointed out that black soldiers had fought for the United States in both the American Revolution (1775-1783) and the War of 1812 (1812-1814). Frederick Douglass charged that black men “were good enough to help win American independence, but they are not good enough to help preserve that independence against treason and rebellion.” Many Northern blacks signed petitions asking the Federal government to change its rules, but the government refused. In the meantime, some light-skinned black men passed for white and enlisted in the army anyway. Thousands of other blacks provided unofficial help for the cause by serving as cooks, carpenters, laborers, nurses, scouts, and servants for the Union troops. In addition, men served in the Union Navy, which never had a policy against blacks becoming sailors.

Blacks in the Confederate States

In the early years of the Civil War, black slaves performed much of the hard labor that was required to prepare the Confederacy for war. They built forts and dug trenches, transported artillery and unloaded shipments of arms, set up army camps and acted as cooks and servants for the soldiers. They also continued to work in the fields, growing food and cotton to be used in the war effort. The prevailing attitude in the South was that “every Negro who could wield [handle] a shovel would release a white man for the musket [gun],” according to Charles H. Wesley and Patricia W. Romero in Afro-Americans in the Civil War: From Slavery to Citizenship. Most slaves who worked for the Confederate troops found conditions difficult. Food and clothing were scarce, living conditions were cramped and unsanitary, and doctors rarely came to treat sick and injured slaves.

In some cases, free black men volunteered to serve in the Confederate Army. Although it might seem strange for black people to fight in support of slavery, there were several reasons for such wartime service. Some free blacks believed that they would receive better treatment from Southern whites if they fought for the Confederacy. Others were afraid that they would be forced to join if they did not do so voluntarily. Finally, some free blacks in the South fought due to feelings of patriotism toward their state or city. But most Southern whites did not like the idea of black men serving in the Confederate Army. They did not trust black soldiers, even when they had volunteered, and were always suspicious that their true loyalties lay with the North. They worried that giving weapons to free black men would lead to widespread slave rebellions. In fact, the Confederate government enacted strict laws to restrict the activities of free blacks during the war.

As the Civil war dragged on, life became chaotic through much of the South. Large numbers of people were forced to leave their homes, as Union forces captured Southern cities. White men were usually too busy fighting the war to pay much attention to the behavior of their slaves. Over time, many Southern blacks took advantage of this situation. Some slaves remained in the South but became less willing to submit to the authority of whites. For example, large networks of slaves formed to help Union soldiers escape from prison and find their way back to safety in the North. These slaves brought the soldiers food and water, helped them hide from Confederate forces, and served as guides through the forests and countryside.

Other slaves took their first opportunity to escape to the North. “During the first two years of the War, most slaves were loyal to their masters in the lower South,” Wesley and Romero explained. “After 1863, however, when the news and the meaning of freedom spread, there were many instances of disloyalty and dissatisfaction…As the word revealing freedom reached the South, slaves ran away from the plantations to join the advancing Union troops.”

Word of Emancipation Travels Throughout the South

President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation put an end to slavery in the United States on January 1, 1863. Word of emancipation spread slowly among slaves in the South, however. Mail delivery, telegraph lines, and other forms of communication were disrupted during the war. In addition, many Southern whites attempted to prevent the information from getting around. They worried slaves would rebel and become violent upon hearing the news. But most slaves eventually learned of their freedom. Free blacks within the Union passed word to others in the South. Some slaves were able to read about the Proclamation in Southern newspapers, and others were simply informed by their owners.

Free blacks in both the North and South celebrated the end of slavery and looked forward to the time when they would be treated equally in American society. Most slaves were thrilled to learn that they were free, although some recognized that freedom brought uncertainty and new responsibilities. Since many slaves had not received basic education and were not trained in any special skills, they were concerned about how they would make a living and take care of their families.

Educator Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was just six years old when the Emancipation Proclamation was passed. He remembered hearing it read with other slaves in Virginia: “For some minutes there was great rejoicing, and thanksgiving, and wild scenes of ecstasy. But there was no feeling of bitterness. In fact, there was pity among the slaves for our former owners. The wild rejoicing on the part of the emancipated colored people lasted but for a brief period, for I noticed that by the time they returned to their cabins there was a change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free, of having to think and plan for themselves and their children, seemed to take possession of them.”

As slaves in the South heard about the Emancipation Proclamation, they began to recognize what the Civil War meant for their future. If the North won, slavery would be abolished throughout the land. As a result, some slaves began to rebel against their masters and to help the Union cause. Some simply refused to work, while others started fires to destroy property belonging to whites. In addition to fighting the North, Southern whites increasingly had to worry about fighting slave uprisings.

Union Army finally accepts Black Soldiers

The First Black Regiment

The 1st South Carolina Volunteers-the first all black soldier regiment.

In 1862, the Union Army suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Confederates. This led to low morale among the troops and difficulty attracting white volunteers. As a result, public opinion about allowing blacks to fight gradually began to change. By this time, several Union generals had tried to set up black regiments despite the lack of government approval, including General James Lane in Kansas, General David Hunter in South Carolina’s Sea Islands, and General Benjamin Butler in New Orleans. On July 17, 1862, the U.S. Congress passed two new laws that officially allowed black men to serve as soldiers in the Union Army. But they were only allowed to join special all-black units led by white officers.

The first black regiment (unit), the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, was formed in August 1862. Massachusetts abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson was appointed colonel of this regiment. In January 1863, he led his troops on a raid along the St. Mary’s River, which formed the border between Georgia and Florida. He reported back to his superior officers that he was very pleased by his unit’s performance. “The men have been repeatedly under fire; have had infantry, cavalry, and even artillery arrayed against them, and have in every instance come off not only with unblemished honor, but with undisputed triumph,” General Higginson wrote. “Nobody knows anything about these men who has not seen them in battle. I find that I myself knew nothing. There is a fiery energy about them beyond anything of which I have ever read.” In March, Higginson’s regiment and another black regiment under James Montgomery joined forces to capture Jacksonville, Florida. As the success stories of black troops in battle began coming in, several more black regiments were organized.

The Most Famous Black Regiment

In January 1863, the U.S. government authorized Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts to put together a regiment of black soldiers from his state. Since there were not enough black men living in Massachusetts at that time, Andrew called upon prominent abolitionists and black leaders to recruit men from all over the North to form the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The 54th would be the first all-black regiment to represent a state in battle during the Civil War. Many white people in the North were opposed to allowing black soldiers to fight in the Union Army, so Governor Andrew and his recruiters staked their reputations on the success or failure of the regiment.

Since black men were not allowed to become officers in the Union Army, the governor selected several white men to lead the 54th Massachusetts. Governor Andrew knew that the regiment would receive a great deal of publicity, so he chose these officers carefully. He asked a young, Harvard-educated soldier named Robert Gould Shaw to become the colonel of the regiment. Shaw accepted the position and immediately began training his troops for battle.

The 54th Massachusetts got an opportunity to prove itself on July 18, 1863. The regiment was chosen to lead an assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate fort that guarded the entrance to Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. The soldiers had marched all the previous day and night, along beaches and through swamps, in terrible heat and humidity. But even though they were tired and hungry by the time they arrived in Charleston, they still proudly took their positions at the front of the assault. The 54th Massachusetts charged forward on command and were hit with heavy artillery and musket fire from the Confederate troops inside the fort. Colonel Shaw was killed, along with nearly half of his 600 officers and men. But the remaining troops kept moving forward, crossed the moat surrounding the fort, and climbed up the stone wall. They were eventually forced to retreat when reinforcements did not appear in time, but by then they had inflicted heavy losses on the Confederates.

The next day, Confederate troops dug a mass grave and buried Colonel Shaw's body along with his fallen black soldiers, despite the fact that the bodies of high-ranking officers were usually returned by both sides. The Confederates intended this action to be an insult, since they believed that whites were superior to blacks and thus deserved a better burial. Several weeks later, when Union forces finally captured Fort Wagner, a Union officer offered to search for the grave and recover Shaw's body. But Shaw's father, a prominent abolitionist, refused the offer. "We hold that a soldier's most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen," he wrote.


In 1989, film director Edward Zwick turned the story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment into a major movie called Glory, starring Matthew Broderick as Colonel Shaw and Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington as two of his soldiers. Based in part on Shaw's letters and diaries, Glory traces the opposition to blacks serving as soldiers in the Civil War, follows the recruitment and training of the historic regiment, and ends with the assault on Fort Wagner.

It was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture of 1989 and won Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Supporting Actor (Denzel Washington).

By late 1864, the Union Army included 140 black regiments with nearly 102,000 soldiers-or about 10% of the entire Northern army. Black men fought in almost every major battle during the final year of the Civil War and played an important role in achieving victory for the Union. Approximately 37,300 black men died while serving their country, and 21 received the Congressional Medal of Honor (this highest award an American soldier can receive) for their bravery in battle.

The black regiments fighting for the Union were so successful that the Confederates even considered arming slaves late in the war. Most Southern whites opposed this idea because they believed that blacks were inferior and worried that it would promote slave rebellions. But as the Union Army advanced through the South, the Confederate government became desperate enough to consider it. In 1865, the Confederate Congress passed the Negro Soldier Law and established a few companies of black soldiers in Richmond, Virginia. But the Union won the Civil War before any of these troops could be used in battle.

Resource Used:

Hillstrom, K., Hillstrom, L. C., & Baker, L. W. (2000). American Civil War: Almanac. Detroit, MI: UXL.