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Black Soldiers in the Civil War (1861-1865)
In honor of Black History Month, all month long we will be sharing the legacies and stories of the heroes, sheroes, and events in the fight for Black suffrage on social media under the hashtag #VRABlackHistory. Follow us on Twitter (@VRAmatters) to share your own facts.

Today we honor the Black soldiers who fought in the American Civil War. The Black soldiers- in no exaggerated terms- decided the direction of the war. Because of a 1792 law that banned Black people  bearing arms or serving in the army, Black soldiers had to fight for the right to be able to fight in the Civil War. Despite this, Black soldiers were so influential and played such a pivotal role that they literally were the turning point for the Union Army, and the secret envy of the Confederate Army. Both the Union and the Confederacy held onto their racist beliefs until they saw that it was no longer beneficial for their cause; and, yet, both sides continued to hold steadfast to their racist beliefs until there was absolutely no question that Black soldiers were needed.

The Role of Black Soldiers 

The Confederacy ultimately lost the war because they were unable to secure foreign aid and the Union army took a shorter amount of time to start enlisting Black soldiers. Originally, the cause of the Civil War for the Union was to preserve the Union at all costs, and Lincoln was willing, on multiple occasions, to deny enslaved Blacks their freedom if it meant the preservation of the Union. One of the main reasons that Lincoln tied the issue of emancipation, freedom, and slavery to the cause of the Civil War was so that England and France would have a moral imperative to reject the legitimacy of the Confederacy, despite their financial incentive to do otherwise.

Even though he was born after the Civil War in 1882, John Wesley Dobbs, a Black retired railway postal worker from Atlanta, Georgia, described Blacks during the Civil War in a radio speech he delivered to interested groups. Dobbs said: "'In the Civil War, 200,000 fought in the Federal Army for their own freedom and the preservation of the Union. Three million slaves made crops by day and protected homes by night, of their masters who were fighting to keep them in bondage. Such loyalty and devotion have never been surpassed by any people in any period of history. In the World War 380,000 were enrolled - 200,000 of whom saw service in France. The Negro has fought valiantly in every American War and has yet to produce a traitor to the flat!'"

Black soldiers played many roles in the Union and Confederate armies. Not  only did their presence decide which side was winning; but, Black soldiers served as known spies for the Union, providing valuable information. They also slowly changed public opinion when coming to the North and providing many northerners with their first looks at the horrors of Southern slavery: "[f]or many northern soldiers, encounters with contraband slaves were their first introduction to the horrors of southern slavery. Slaves who had braved enemy fire and their masters’ wrath, some bearing the telltale marks of whippings, converted many a midwestern [sic] farm boy to abolitionism."

Black  men and women served roles in the Union and Confederate army- doing hard labor or leading infantries. Black soldiers worked as nurses, cooks, blacksmiths, teamsters, launderers, cooks; they built fortifications and performed camp duties; and, they served as scouts for the Union army.

Black Soldiers Were Fighting to Be Seen As People

Black soldiers not only had to fight to be able to enlist and have weapons in the Civil War; but, runaway Black slaves who escaped to the Union army had to fight for their right to just be in the Union army without being returned to their Confederate masters because of the Fugitive Slave laws. Eventually, the Union Army recognized runaway slaves as "contraband", since, by law, they were the property of their masters. "The War Department [of the Union Army] adopted the makeshift policy first employed by General Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts at Fort Monroe, Virginia, in May 1861. Butler declared escaped slaves 'contraband of war' or enemy property that could legitimately be confiscated."  By being a "contraband of war". or a "contraband slave", Union generals were able to circumvent the Fugitive Slave laws. Although, eventually, "Congress formally instructed Union Army commanders not to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, abolished slavery in the western territories, and most importantly, fulfilled a longstanding abolitionist demand, the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia."

Black Soldiers Were Fighting for Equal Pay

Black soldiers not only had to fight to be recognized as people, and not as property, but they had to fight for equal pay. White soldiers- in both the Confederate and Union armies- were paid $13 a week, usually with an allowance for  clothing; Black soldiers were paid $10 a week, with $3 deducted for clothing. This was because "[a]t the beginning of black enlistment, it was assumed that blacks would be kept out of direct combat, and the men were paid as laborers rather than as soldiers. Black soldiers therefore received $7 per month, plus a $3 clothing allowance, while white soldiers received $13 per month, plus $3.50 for clothes." 

"The army was extremely reluctant to commission black officers -- only one hundred gained commissions during the war. African American soldiers were also given substandard supplies and rations...Black troops strongly resisted this treatment. The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment served a year without pay rather than accept the unfair wages. Many blacks refused to enlist because of the discriminatory pay. Finally, in 1864, the War Department sanctioned equal wages for black soldiers."

The War Department sanctioning equal wages came after Frederick Douglass had his very first meeting with Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to protest unequal pay and rank for African Americans in the Union Army.

Black Soldiers Were Fighting for Respect

Black people weren't just paid less; they were still seen as less. They were often: not properly trained; enslaved again upon recapture; killed even after surrendering; and, were never ranked as high as White officers. 

Black soldiers faced segregation in both armies, and other forms of discrimination, including riots against them. Not everyone supported the Civil War. There were Northerners and Southerners who rejected both causes. "There were whites who refused to fight once black soldiers were admitted. The North was also hit by economic depression, and enraged white people rioted against African Americans, who they accused of stealing their jobs."

Black Soldiers Were Fighting for Suffrage

"African American and abolitionist demands helped to define the meaning of black freedom. As early as 1864, the National Black Convention called for the right to vote, arguing that if black men were good enough for 'bullets,' they were good enough for the 'ballot.' They insisted that emancipation be accompanied by black equality and citizenship. In many ways, their views and that of their Republican allies in Congress helped shape the agenda of Reconstruction, when the Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments to the United States Constitution made black citizenship and suffrage a cornerstone of Radical Reconstruction."

"Before 1865 had passed, three Northern states—Connecticut, Wisconsin and Minnesota, all of which had very few black residents—voted against giving suffrage to African-American men. Equality for blacks would have to be sought in Reconstruction, and it would remain an elusive goal for many decades following the war’s end." 

"After the overthrow of Reconstruction in 1877, African American ideas about emancipation were deferred until the Civil Rights Movement led to the passage of new laws to implement black citizenship. But even during the dark days of sharecropping, debt peonage, disfranchisement, segregation, and lynching, African Americans and their allies continued to struggle for a more complete freedom."

Black people who had fought in the Civil War were never supposed to be regarded as equal- even if they were granted emancipation. Most Southerners and Northerners from both parties did not believe that emancipation or ending slavery would ever amount to actual equality. "The Times contemptuously rejected the idea that emancipation would lead to the African American becoming 'a voting citizen of the United States.' Blacks were 'incapable' of exercising the right of suffrage, and 'for many generations to come' suffrage for the freedmen would bring about 'the destruction of popular institutions on this continent.' It was 'little short of insane' to think otherwise. At the end of 1864 the Times was still declaring that the 'black masses of the South, of a voting age, are as ignorant upon all public questions as the driven cattle.' Lincoln’s views were not quite so negative. He said little throughout the war about elevating freedmen, but a few days before his death he did express a preference for giving the ballot to a few black men—'the very intelligent' and 'those who serve our cause as soldiers.' Nevertheless, he did not envision or promote rapid improve­ment in the practical conditions and social status of the freed people."


"Black recruiters, many of them abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, brought in troops from throughout the North. [Of the Black soldiers' service in the Union Army,] Douglass proclaimed, 'I urge you to fly to arms and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave.' Others, such as Harriet Tubman, recruited in the South. On March 6, 1863, the Secretary of War was informed that 'seven hundred and fifty blacks who were waiting for an opportunity to join the Union Army had been rescued from slavery under the leadership of Harriet Ross Tubman...'"

"By the time the war ended in 1865, about 180,000 black men had served as soldiers in the U.S. Army ['186,000 black soldiers had joined the Union army; 93,000 from the Confederate states, 40,000 from the border slave states, and 53,000 from the free states'].  This was about 10 percent of the total Union fighting force. Most—about 90,000—were former (or “contraband”) slaves from the Confederate states. About half of the rest were from the loyal border states, and the rest were free blacks from the North." "[These] number[s] [are] comprised of both northern free African Americans and runaway slaves from the South who enlisted to fight." "Forty thousand black soldiers died in the war: 10,000 in battle and 30,000 from illness or infection." "It is estimated that one-third of all African Americans who enlisted lost their lives."  We could not have a series dedicated to Black suffrage without mention of the Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, the outcome of which lead to the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

Recommended Reading:

While many articles went into the research of this article, the ones below deserve honorable mention, and the author of this article encourages you to read them further for more in-depth analysis and information:

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was one of the first official black units in the U.S. armed forces. Their courageous assault on Fort Wagner played a key role in bringing about an end to slavery.

Click on the video screenshot below to be directed to a 3 minute video about the Massachusetts 54th Regiment.

This article is written by Caitlyn Cobb. All the sources are linked throughout the article in green.

Picture credits:

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