A Company of the 4th Infantry by the National Park Service
Not Allowed to Fight
It may seem only natural for us today that African-Americans would have fought on the side of the North in the Civil War. After all, they would have been fighting for their freedom and the end of slavery. However, despite wanting to end slavery, people in the North did not want African-Americans to become part of the army. Even President Lincoln was afraid that the border states would secede if he allowed the formerly enslaved to fight in the war.
African-American Soldiers Join the Army
Some abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass, argued that African-Americans should be allowed to fight. As the war continued, the North needed more able-bodied men to fight. In early 1863, the Union decided to officially allow African-Americans to join the army. White and black soldiers would still be in separate regiments and black regiments would have white officers.
The First Black Regiments
The first black regiments played an important role. Many white people believed that the formerly enslaved would not be brave enough to fight in battle. The first black regiments proved them wrong. They fought with courage and bravery in the face of gunfire and death. Two of the first African-American regiments fought under General Nathaniel Banks at the Battle of Port Hudson. General Banks would later praise them on their valor and character.
The Courage to Fight
It took a lot of courage for any soldier to fight in the Civil War, but it was even more dangerous for black soldiers. If black soldiers were captured by the Confederates while fighting for the Union, they were executed or sold back into slavery. The Confederates also executed any captured white officers of black regiments.
The Storming of Ft Wagner by Kurz & Allison
One of the most famous black regiments was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Their story was told in the award winning 1989 movie Glory. Their most famous battle was when they led the Union charge on Fort Wagner. They lost around 40% of their troops including their commander Colonel Robert Shaw. However, their bravery was an inspiration to all Union troops, especially other black regiments.
More African-American Soldiers
As the war continued, more black soldiers enlisted to fight for the North. They became a major part of the Union armed forces. By the end of the war, around 180,000 African-Americans had fought making a major difference and helping the North to win the war.
African Americans in the South
African-Americans also participated in the Confederate Army. They were mostly used as workers, although they were sometimes forced into battle when the fighting became fierce. Near the end of the war, in 1865, the South finally approved black soldiers.
Interesting Facts About African Americans During the Civil War
Through much of the war, black soldiers were paid $10 a month. This was $3 less than white soldiers. Equal pay was eventually granted by Congress in 1864.
Senator Howell Cobb of Georgia said "...if slaves make good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong."
Around 40,000 African-American soldiers died during the war. Around 70% of them died from disease and infection.
Harriet Tubman, an escaped enslaved person who worked on the Underground Railroad, worked as a spy for the North during the Civil War.
Enslaved people who escaped to the Union Army were called contrabands.