Historical Context: Black Soldiers in the Civil War

By early 1863, voluntary enlistments in the Union army had fallen so sharply that the federal government instituted an unpopular military draft and decided to enroll Black as well as White troops. Indeed, it seems likely that it was the availability of large numbers of African American soldiers that allowed President Lincoln to resist demands for a negotiated peace that might have included the retention of slavery in the United States. Altogether, 186,000 Black soldiers served in the Union Army and another 29,000 served in the Navy, accounting for nearly 10 percent of all Union forces and 68,178 of the Union dead or missing. Twenty-four African Americans received the Congressional Medal of Honor for extraordinary bravery in battle.

Three-fifths of all Black troops had once been enslaved. The active participation of Black troops made it far less likely that African Americans would remain in slavery after the Civil War.

While some White officers, like Robert Gould Shaw (1837–1863), who commanded the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, were proud to lead Black troops in battle, others exhibited a deep resistance.

Black soldiers participated in the war at great threat to their lives. The Confederate government threatened to summarily execute or sell into slavery any captured Black Union soldiers—and did sometimes carry out those threats. Lincoln responded by threatening to retaliate against Confederate prisoners whenever Black soldiers were killed or enslaved.

In July 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first Black regiment raised in the North, led an assault against Fort Wagner, which guarded Charleston, South Carolina’s harbor. Two of Frederick Douglass’s sons were members of the regiment. Over 40 percent of the regiment’s members were killed or wounded in the unsuccessful attack, including Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a member of a prominent antislavery family.

During the war, African American troops also faced a different kind of battle: a battle against discrimination in pay, promotions, and medical care. Despite promises of equal treatment, African Americans were relegated to separate regiments commanded by White officers. Black soldiers received less pay than White soldiers, inferior benefits, and poorer food and equipment. While a White private was paid $13 a month plus a $3.50 clothing allowance, Black soldiers received just $10 a month, out of which $3 was deducted for clothing. Furthermore, Black soldiers were not provided with the enlistment bonuses commonly given to White soldiers, and, until the end of the war, the federal government refused to commission Black officers.

Within the ranks, Black troops faced repeated humiliations; most were employed in menial assignments and kept in rear-echelon, fatigue jobs. If captured by the Confederates, they faced execution. But despite these trials, African American soldiers won their fight for equal pay in 1864 and in 1865 they were allowed to serve as line officers. Drawing upon the education and training they received in the military, many former troops became community leaders during Reconstruction.

One Union captain explained the significance of Black military participation on the attitudes of many White soldiers. “A great many [White people],” he wrote, “have the idea that the entire Negro race are vastly their inferiors. A few weeks of calm unprejudiced life here would disabuse them, I think. I have a more elevated opinion of their abilities than I ever had before. I know that many of them are vastly the superiors of those . . . who would condemn them to a life of brutal degradation.”