African-Americans in the Civil War

African-Americans played a very important role the Civil War, as this article describes. Help your students better understand this period in American History.

African-Americans in the Civil War

It is easy to forget that the momentous conflict between North and South was not formally “about” freeing slaves until Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Equally easy to overlook are Lincoln's own policy pronouncements on race, which today carry more than a whiff of the white supremacist:

I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races… [Audience applauds] … that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people … And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

On the March

A number of African-American Union soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their service during the Civil War. The first was Sgt. William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, the regiment that would later be immortalized in the film Glory. Lieutenant Stephen A. Swails, also of the 54th, was the first African-American to be commissioned as an officer in the American Civil War.

—From Lincoln's 1858 Senate campaign speech in Charleston, Illinois

Words like these must be taken in the context of the (white) political climate of the times, but they must also be remembered in any sober contemporary assessment of the realities of Lincoln as “the Great Emancipator” and of the Civil War as a whole. Not always consciously, Lincoln and the nation struggled to come to terms with the vast and agonizing implications of the institution of American slavery—an institution that abolitionist John Brown had declared to entail a sin so grave that it “would never be purged away but with blood.” He was right, of course. Much of the blood, as it turned out, came from the veins of African-American soldiers.

In the North

Roughly 185,000 African-Americans served in the Union army; roughly 29,000 served in the Union navy. (The North also employed approximately 200,000 African-Americans in various service and support roles.) African-American troops took part in 449 battles during the war, of which 39 were significant engagements.

African-Americans received significantly less pay than their white counterparts in the Union army, and typically had to make do with substandard equipment and facilities.

In the South

The Confederacy realized early on that African-American labor was an essential component of the war effort, and quickly established a program of military-related forced labor projects. These projects—repairing railroads, constructing fortifications, and mining, for instance—enabling the largest possible number of eligible whites to serve in the Confederate Army.

Southern troops committed what would today be considered brutal crimes of war against African-American Union soldiers. On September 18, 1864, for instance, Confederate forces murdered all the African-American Union soldiers they had captured in a battle at Poison Spring, Arkansas.

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