African American Experiences

By Sam, Teresa, and Waghar

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Events that led to African-Americans fighting in the Civil War

African American soldiers fought in the Revolutionary War and unofficially in the War of 1812, but state militias had excluded black soldiers since 1792 because of a law that prevented them from bearing arms. The navy, however, had let African Americans serve as shipboard firemen, stewards, coal heavers, and boat pilots since 1861.

After two years of war the north was desperate for soldiers, and while whites were tired and less willing to fight, there were many African Americans who were eager to join the army. Leaders/abolitionists like Frederick Douglass encouraged free black men to volunteer as a way to ensure eventual full citizenship. "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, the U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship." -Frederick Douglass

The Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July 17, 1862 did not directly state that African Americans could join the war but it gave the president the right, ”to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion…in such manner as he may judge best for the public welfare.” Lincoln also said in the Emancipation Proclamation that African American males could fight for the U.S. army. In February 1863, Governor John A. Andrew issued the first official call for African Americans to be able to fight in the war for the union.

African American Troops and their Generals

Famous Troops:
  • 54th Regiment Infantry U.S. Colored Troops, also known as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. General was Robert Gould Shaw
  • 38th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops, very decorated
    All Troops:
  • 1st-138th Regiment Infantry U.S. Colored Troops
  • 1st-6th Regiment Cavalry U.S. Colored Troops
  • 1st-14th Regiment Heavy Artillery U.S. Colored Troops
  • Unassigned U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery
  • Independent Battery U.S. Colored Light Artillery
  • 2nd Regiment Artillery U.S. Colored Troops A-I

Experiences of African American soldiers

Black Union soldiers did not receive equal pay or equal treatment. They were paid $10 a month, with $3 deducted from that pay for clothing, while white soldiers received $13 a month with no clothing deduction. This had carried on until June 1864, in which Congress granted retroactive equal pay (difference in wage rates).

Even in the North, racial discrimination was widespread and blacks were often not treated as equals by white soldiers. In addition, segregated units were formed with black enlisted men commanded by white officers and black non-commissioned officers.Some of the white officers had low opinions of their colored troops and failed to adequately train them.

Black units and soldiers that were captured by the Confederates faced harsher treatment than white prisoners of war. In 1863 the Confederate Congress threatened to punish captured Union officers of black troops and enslave black Union soldiers. In response, Lincoln issued General Order 233, threatening reprisal against Confederate Prisoners of War. (POWS)

Other Roles played by African Americans in the Civil War

Blacks served on both sides of the war, for example, working as nurses, cooks, and blacksmiths. The South refused to arm blacks but used them to build fortifications and perform camp duties; many Northern officers refused to believe black troops would fight, and so they were often assigned to non-combat duties or placed in the rear guarding railroads and bridges. Blacks also served as spies and scouts to the Union Army, providing valuable information about Confederate forces, plans, and familiar terrain. Information gathered from black sources were so numerous and valuable, they were put in a special category: the so-called Black Dispatches. Escaped slaves, many of whom fled to the Union lines, were referred to as contraband's (a new status for certain escaped slaves, or those affiliated with the union) in the early stages of the war since they were seen as technically being property of the Confederates states. They were carefully debriefed and some were recruited as spies, returning to slave territory with white agents posing as masters. Freed blacks, including Harriet Tubman, were also spies, scouts, and agents. Tubman even famously led a raid outside Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1863. The value of the Black Dispatches was recognized by all in the Union and even by the Confederacy; General Robert E. Lee wrote "The chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes."

Accomplishments of Black Troops/Their Impact On the War

  • The first time African American troops led an infantry attack was in 1863, July 18. The 54th Massachusetts attacked fort Wagner. However, they were outnumbered and half of the union soldiers were killed, including Robert Gould Shaw.
  • African American Troops formed a significant part of the Union force during the Battle of Nashville.
  • The first, the second, and the third Louisiana native guard fought in the October 1862 skirmish at Island Mound, Missouri.
  • Black troops played a major role at the Battle of the Crater during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia.
  • By the time the war ended 10% of union soldiers were African Americans.
  • 40,000 black soldiers died in the war, 30,000 of them from infection and disease, 10,000 died in battle.
  • Sixteen black soldiers won the Congressional Medal of Honor for their brave service in the Civil War.
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