African-American Troops in the Civil War

African-American troops fought alongside white soldiers in the Civil War.
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On April 12, 1864, Maj. Gen. Nathan Forrest led 2,500 Confederate troops in an attack on 292 African-American soldiers and 285 white soldiers at Fort Pillow, near Memphis. Eventually the Confederates overwhelmed the fort. The Union soldiers who survived fled down a ravine behind the fort. Here the Rebels caught them in a withering crossfire. They followed up by shooting even those who surrendered, with hands raised, the freedmen because they were African-Americans, the whites because “you fight with niggers.” “Remember Fort Pillow” became a Union battle cry thereafter, especially for African-American troops.

On the March

First Sergeant Powhatan Beaty of the Fifth U.S. Colored Troops performed service above and beyond the call of duty when he took command of Company G at the Battle of Chaffin's Farm. All the officers were dead or wounded. Beaty rallied the surviving troops and led them in a successful charge, for which he received the Medal of Honor.

On September 29 and 30, 1864, in the Battle of Chaffin's Farm and New Market Heights outside of Richmond, Virginia, 13 Colored Infantry units were involved, along with numerous white regiments. The Union Army attacked Confederate forts at dawn on September 29. The Colored Division of XVIII Corps charged uphill against one fort, in the face of sustained fire. They had horrendous losses. After a two-day battle, which resulted in casualties of over 4,000, the Union Army managed to establish itself successfully in the area, while tying down large numbers of enemy troops. Fourteen African-Americans received Medals of Honor for their bravery in this engagement.

Individual Accomplishments

Although unsung enlisted men did most of the close, brutal fighting, some African-Americans also served as commissioned officers, even if in small numbers (120, to be specific). They served as doctors and chaplains as well as commanders, and became first and second lieutenants, captains, and even majors.

Eight African-American sailors won Medals of Honor. Twenty-nine African-American soldiers received the award.

One African-American who stood out as a war leader was a woman. Harriet Tubman, famous as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, served the Union Army as a scout, nurse, cook, and spy. On June 2, 1863, she also led an attack on rice plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina, destroying thousands of dollars worth of food and goods and freeing close to 800 slaves. The Second South Carolina Colored Volunteers, under the overall command of Col. James Montgomery of Kansas, served as her troops. In her honor they altered an old spiritual to “Swing Low, Sweet Harriet [instead of “chariot”], comin' for to carry me home.”

Excerpted from

The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History
The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History
Melba J. Duncan
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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