AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE MILITARY: CONTRABANDS,
FREEMEN, AND WOMEN
Excerpted from Conflicts in American History: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era. Brain Johnson and Edward Blums, eds. Bruccoli Clark Layman/Manly. 2009
Throughout the American Civil War, the participation of African Americans in the military was a fraught and contentious issue. The political and social implications of arming black men alarmed many Americans and galvanized others. Politically, the service of African Americans, most of whom were enslaved, meant the demise of slavery and thus threatened the Union’s coalition with slave-holding border states. Socially, black and white soldiers fighting side by side implied equality. The potential for increasing political and social equality for blacks motivated some Americans to oppose African American participation in the military and others to promote and pursue it.
At the start of the Civil War it was illegal for free black men, much less enslaved persons, to serve in the military. Black Americans had fought in every American engagement from the colonial period through the American Revolution and the War of 1812, but Congress officially prohibited African Americans from enlisting in militias or the U.S. army in 1792 and 1820. Federal policy from 1793 and 1850 legislating that fugitive slaves must be returned to their owners, meant that, legally, escaped enslaved persons could not serve in any capacity.
During the first years of the Civil War combat status for African Americans was intensely debated by politicians, military commanders, abolitionists, and the general public, black and white. President Lincoln’s concern for maintaining the loyalty of slave-holding border states, and perhaps his sensitivity to northern racism, initially prevented him from initiating policy to permit black men to serve in the Union army. Lincoln’s primary aim for the war was not to end slavery but to preserve the Union. The politics of black enlistment and emancipation were inseparable, and deeply rooted ideologies of white supremacy clashed with measures that implied racial equality.
Days after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, free blacks in the North began offering their services to the Union. Within weeks fugitive slaves reached Union camps and volunteered for the war effort. By the end of 1862, between 500,000 to 700,000 fugitive slaves had entered Federal lines. For two years politicians and the public debated how to handle the issue of black enlistment while individual Union generals had to make practical decisions about how to handle the huge influx of African American volunteers.
Ultimately the actions of the hundreds of thousand of slaves who freed themselves and fled to Union lines made black military service and emancipation inevitable. Motivated by military exigency, Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, officially liberating slaves in Confederate states and permitting their armed service. The controversial proclamation initiated the first large-scale use of African American men as combat soldiers in American history. However, Lincoln’s policy did not address whether African Americans who served the Union would receive the same treatment as their white counterparts. Throughout the Civil War black men and women risked their lives to support the Federals, but deeply rooted racial prejudice among white Americans often meant that the work of these black men and women went largely unrecognized and uncompensated.
Lincoln initially attempted to avoid the fractious issues of emancipation and racial equality by avoiding the enlistment of blacks, free or slave. However, the flood of escaped slaves into Federal lines at the onset of the war forced Union officers to consider their military use despite legal restrictions. In several cases, Union generals engaged slaves and pursued the recruitment of black men without congressional authority. When African Americans arrived at Fort Monroe in May 1861, General Butler declared the fugitive slaves “contraband of war” and refused their return despite the Fugitive Slave Act still in effect in Federal territory. Butler reasoned that since many of the fugitive slaves in his camp had escaped from working on Confederate fortifications, their return would aid the enemy. Butler instead put the men to work, with compensation, in his quartermaster department, and Lincoln permitted Butler’s policy to stand.
Four months later in August 1861 Congress passed the First Confiscation Act which nullified the claims of slave owners to slaves who had aided the Confederate war effort. Both Union commanders and slaves quickly took advantage of the legislation. Over the course of the war, an estimated 200,000 contrabands worked for the Union army in non-combat capacities such as teamsters, cattle drivers, stevedores, laborers, and camp aides. At the end of August of 1861, the head of the Department of the West, General John C. Frémont, invoked Marshall law and issued an edict freeing the slaves of disloyal Missouri rebels. This time a Union general’s unauthorized proclamation was overruled by the president who feared such a policy would alienate slave-holders in the border states. When Frémont refused to modify the edict, Lincoln ordered him to do so. Still, enslaved men and women continued to free themselves by entering Federal lines.
When Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, issued his annual report in December 1861, he had, at Lincoln’s prompting, removed passages advocating emancipation and the engagement of former slaves in the Union army. In March 1862 Congress enacted an additional article of war that further undermined the fugitive slave laws by prohibiting military and naval personnel from “returning fugitives from service or labor, who may have escaped from any persons to whom such service or labor is claimed to be due.” President Lincoln began to urge the border states to enact gradual, compensated abolition and advocated the colonization of former slaves outside of the U.S.
A step ahead of federal policy, Union general David Hunter, Commander of the Department of the South, began arming slaves at Port Royal, South Carolina in April 1862 and declared free all slaves in South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida in the following month. Lincoln issued a proclamation to nullify Hunter’s edict, and the War Department initially refused to pay or equip his black soldiers. However, Hunter’s 1st South Carolina Volunteers was the first unit of former slaves to unofficially join the Union army. They served in combat under Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson and were ultimately designated the 33rd Regiment of US Colored Troops in February 1864. In the summer of 1862, a few months after Hunter began to arm former slaves in South Carolina, Kansas senator James H. Lane began to recruit former slaves from Missouri and Arkansas to form the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry, later known as the 79th Infantry Regiment. The tide of federal policy was about to turn.
In July 1862 Congress passed two measures that directly linked African American enlistment to emancipation. The Second Confiscation Act freed slaves of rebel owners and permitted the seizure of the latter’s property; it also prohibited military personnel from surrendering fugitives or deciding on the validity of an escaped slave’s claim to freedom. Finally, the act authorized the president to employ “persons of African descent” in any capacity to suppress the rebellion. The Militia Act, also passed in July, provided for the employment of African Americans in “any military or naval service for which they may be found competent,” and granted freedom to slaves so employed and to their families if their owners were rebels. On September 22, 1862 Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that would go into effect at the start of the following year.
In October 1862 a small detachment from the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry fought in an engagement at Island Mound, Missouri, initiating the use of black troops in active combat. A month earlier in Louisiana, General Benjamin Butler had officially mustered the first three all-black units in the Union army, known as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards or the Corps D'Afrique, initially led by African American commanders. In December 1862, Jefferson Davis issued a Confederate proclamation that former slaves serving as Union soldiers would not be treated as prisoners of war and their white officers would be executed.
Lincoln’s final Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 authorized that emancipated slaves “will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” While the proclamation only liberated slaves in Confederate territory not under Union control, and left slavery in the border states in tact, it established emancipation as an official objective of the war. Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation also instigated an active recruitment policy for African American soldiers, paving the way for the first large-scale use of black combat soldiers in U.S. history. In May 1863 the federal government established the Bureau for Colored Troops to systematize African American recruitment and enlistment.
Approximately 180,000 African American soldiers fought in the Union army, constituting ten percent of all Union troops that served in the war. Over half of these enlisted black soldiers were from Confederate states, the vast majority of whom were former slaves as were most of the African American soldiers from border states who comprised almost a quarter of the troops. About 50,000 of the Union’s black soldiers, roughly twenty percent, were from Northern states and free from birth, manumission, or escape.
Reluctant to commission black officers, the Union army commissioned between eighty and one hundred African American officers during the Civil War. Eight black men served as Federal army surgeons, including Lieutenant Colonel Alexander T. Augusta, the highest-ranking black solder in the Civil War. Fourteen African Americans served as army chaplains. The Union’s black soldiers were organized into 133 infantry regiments, four independent companies, twelve regiments of heavy artillery, ten batteries of light artillery, and seven cavalry regiments. The United States Colored Troops (USCT) fought in approximately 450 engagements, including forty major battles.
The engagement of the Louisiana Native Guard units at Port Hudson, Louisiana in March 1863 was the first major assault by black troops. Many of the members of the Louisiana Native Guards were free men of color who had previously cast their lot with the Confederacy but had never been put into service; others were former slaves. While the assault failed, the valor of the black soldiers impressed observers. Two months later the 1st Mississippi Volunteers of African Descent, composed of former Mississippi and Louisiana slaves, repelled a Confederate attack at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana. Their efforts, described by Ulysses S. Grant as “gallant,” smoothed the way for the systematic recruitment and utilization of USCT regiments for the remainder of the war.
In July 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first black regiment raised in a free state, spearheaded an assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina that was a military failure but a political victory. Greatly outnumbered, Union forces were not able to take the fort and sustained heavy casualties. The 54th Massachusetts lost two-thirds of their officers, including their commander, Robert Gould Shaw, and half of their troops. For his heroism during the Fort Wagner assault, Sergeant William H. Carney became the first African American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor in August 1863. The skill and sacrifice of the soldiers of the 54th garnered national attention and widely signaled the success of black military recruitment.
Confederate troops were often particularly cruel to black Union soldiers, and debates continue over whether particular events constituted outright massacres. At Fort Pillow, Tennessee in April 1864, Confederate troops killed sixty-four percent of the Union’s African American soldiers, double the death toll for the equivalent number of white Union troops there. Congressional inquires found that many of the killings took place after black soldiers had surrendered. Days later in Poison Spring, Arkansas Confederates killed troops from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry who had surrendered. While black troops contributed to the success of the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, cutting off supplies to the Confederate capital of Richmond, the vast majority of those who fought in Petersburg’s Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864 were killed by Confederate troops. African American soldiers at the Crater sustained the heaviest single-day casualties of the entire war.
The greatest number of United States Colored Troops served in the Virginia theatre as part of General Grant’s Petersburg-Richmond campaigns that helped bring the Civil War to an end. African American units fought in all of the significant Virginia campaigns and were especially active in the fighting around Petersburg during the summer of 1864. In September, two months after the Battle of the Crater, black troops experienced victory but also heavy casualties at the Battle of New Market Heights near Richmond. Fourteen black soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their bravery and leadership during this battle.
The US Colored Cavalry (USCC) was primary put into service on scouting and reconnaissance missions. However, in December 1864 and January 1865, the 3rd USCC joined white cavalry troops in a 450-mile raid in Mississippi, liberating some one thousand slaves. In April 1865, the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, composed of African American horsemen, was among the first of the Federal troops to enter Richmond upon its capture. Black troops were among the Union forces at the Appomattox Court House when General Robert E. Lee surrendered. African American troops from the 62nd US Colored Infantry Regiment fought in the war’s final battle at Palmito Ranch, Texas in May 1865.
The Union army discriminated against black soldiers, providing them substandard supplies, equipment, rations, training, medical care, and pay. Black troops and their white commanders strongly protested salary discrepancies in print and in their actions. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment served a year without pay rather than accept substandard wages. In 1864 the War Department sanctioned equal wages for black soldiers. Most northern states provided local and state aid for the dependents of white soldiers but not their black counterparts. In July 1864 the federal government began to give assistance to the families of African Americans killed in service; enslaved family members were not eligible.
Like the Union, the Confederacy ultimately recognized the necessity of recruiting black soldiers, but not until the war was at its close. Confederates had long debated the use of African Americans in the military, generally limiting their service to non-combat roles such as laboring on fortifications. On March 13, 1865 Confederacy President Jefferson Davis signed a bill authorizing the enlistment of slaves and their emancipation beginning on April 3. Six days later on April 9, General Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House.
While black troops did not appear on the battlefield in large numbers until after the Emancipation Proclamation, black sailors fought from the onset of the war. African American men had long served on American naval vessels in substantial numbers, and black sailors faced much less official discrimination than African American soldiers during the Civil War. Unlike their counterparts in the army, black sailors served in integrated crews and received the same pay, benefits, promotion opportunities, legal recourse, and living standards as white sailors. Approximately 20,000 black men served as sailors during the Civil War. Recent estimates suggest that as many as one in every six Union sailors was black.
At the war’s outbreak, escaped slaves sought refuge on navy vessels, and many provided intelligence on Confederate movements and fortifications. By July 1861 Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells, had established a policy to recruit black sailors. Within months thousands of men of African descent, including fugitive slaves and freemen, many of whom had been born outside the US, enlisted as sailors, transforming the composition of the Union navy and serving in every major naval battle and campaign. After the Civil War, the Navy would begin to restrict black enlistment.
Several of the men who served in the Union navy had survived daring escapes from slavery. On May 23, 1862 Robert Smalls, an enslaved man in Charleston, South Carolina employed by Confederates to pilot the Planter, masqueraded as the ship’s white captain and delivered the war ship along with his family and twelve other slaves to Union lines. After meeting with President Lincoln who authorized an award of federal monies for the delivery of Confederate supplies, Smalls served the Union as the first African American captain of a U.S. Navy vessel for the remainder of the war. Smalls went on to serve in the U.S. Congress in 1875 and 1876.
Numerous African American women served the Union effort as nurses, spies, scouts, camp aids, and laborers. Mary Ann Shadd Cary was appointed by the Union army as a recruiting officer. Maria Lewis served with the 8th New York Cavalry, while Mary Dyson, a former slave, fought in several battles disguised as a man. Harriet Tubman served the Union for three years as a spy, nurse, and scout. Her intelligence facilitated several successful raids by the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, a black regiment, on Confederate strongholds. Tubman was reported to have led one of these raids, which liberated close to 800 slaves. Upon her death in 1913, Tubman received a funeral with full military honors.
Susie King Taylor, a former slave, joined the 1st South Carolina Volunteers initially as a laundress and teacher. Taylor ultimately served on several expeditions as a camp aid cleaning and loading firearms and, primarily, as an army nurse. Many southern black women provided Union soldiers with intelligence and supplies. Ellen Bower, a free woman, went undercover as a slave named Ellen Bond in Jefferson Davis’ Richmond home where she, pretending to be illiterate and mentally impaired, collected information for Union solders. When she came under suspicion, Bower escaped to Union lines after attempting to burn the Confederate white house in January 1864.
Days after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter initiated the Civil War, free blacks in the North offered their services to the Union and within weeks the first of the roughly half a million fugitive slaves who escaped to Federal lines volunteered for the war effort. During 1861 and 1862 politicians and the public debated how to handle the issues surrounding black military service while individual Union generals made on-the-ground decisions about how to handle the vast influx of black volunteers. In 1863 President Lincoln recognized African American enlistment as a necessity and initiated federal policy to systematize black recruitment. Between 1863 and 1865 over 200,000 African Americans served in the Federal army and navy. These enlisted black soldiers and sailors, as well as countless black men and women who served the Union forces in unofficial capacities, played varied and vital roles in the Union’s military victory. The treatment and use of black combatants remained controversial throughout the war. The Union’s black supporters faced discrimination and hostility not only from Confederate ranks but from Union forces as well.
Although Lincoln was initially opposed arming African Americans, he ultimately acknowledged that the emancipation and arming of slaves were crucial to the Union’s victory. In addition to the African American units that were officially mustered, numerous black men and women aided Union forces in unofficial capacities, supplying labor, resources, and information. Between 40,000 and 60,000 enlisted African Americans lost their lives in the Civil War. Twenty-three African American soldiers and sailors received the Medal of Honor for their Civil War service. After the war, several black regiments assisted the Army of Occupation and Reconstruction efforts until 1867. The Spanish American War in 1898 brought many of these conflicts to surface once again. While African American soldiers played a crucial role in the success of U.S. forces in Cuba, these soldiers faced discrimination and violence at home.
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