Fighting for Freedom: African American Troops in the Civil War

By Scott Vierick, Historian

USCT troops entering the city of Richmond are cheered on by the city’s African American community and white Unionists. Source: American Antiquarian Society

In April 1865, African American and white United States soldiers marched through the streets of the former Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. After four years of brutal fighting, the city had finally fallen, forcing the Confederate government to flee. One of the soldiers who marched through the city, Garland White, had been born enslaved in the Richmond area. After an enslaver sold him away from his family, he escaped to freedom, served as the chaplain of the 28th Regiment United States Colored Troops (USCT), and had now returned to central Virginia as a liberator.

Garland White was one of over 200,000 African Americans who fought for the Union in the Civil War. At the start of the conflict, Black men could serve in the United States (Union) Navy but were barred from joining in the army. Racist ideology, perpetuated by enslavers but prevalent around much of the country, held—with no basis in fact—that African Americans lacked the intelligence and self-control necessary to be soldiers. President Abraham Lincoln, concerned about the loyalty of the slaveholding border states of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware, initially ordered recruiters to turn away Black enlistees. Even so, calls to reverse this policy grew louder. Prominent abolitionists like Frederick Douglass lobbied the president. William Henry Singleton, who escaped slavery at the beginning of the war, begged Union authorities to allow him to establish a regiment. In Virginia, a reporter visiting one of Robert E. Lee’s former plantations noted of the enslaved community: “everyone to whom I have spoken would fight for [Lincoln] if he was called upon.”

USCT soldiers charge the Confederate entrenchments at Port Hudson. Source: American Antiquarian Society

A drummer boy with the 78th USCT. Source: National Archives

As Douglass and others applied pressure on the Lincoln administration, events were changing on the ground. Many enslaved people risked their lives to reach Union lines, eventually compelling the Union high command to classify them as “contraband of war,” a half-step between slavery and freedom. Several Union commanders even began to arm African Americans. By the fall of 1862, several Black regiments were drilling in the Carolinas, Louisiana, and Kansas. Opinions in the Lincoln administration shifted as well. The Militia Act of 1862 authorized the president to begin enlisting Black soldiers. After Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, recruitment efforts began in earnest. Most of these soldiers were organized within USCT regiments.

Soldiers who enlisted in the USCT found themselves fighting two wars, one against the Confederates and another against racism. The Army paid Black troops less than their white counterparts and barred them from becoming commissioned officers. Many Northerners, including many Union commanders, did not believe that African American soldiers could fight and were reluctant to commit them to battle. As such, many USCT troops found themselves performing auxiliary tasks such as building fortifications. Being on the battlefield brought additional dangers. The Confederates viewed members of the USCT as rebellious slaves and often killed or enslaved captured USCT soldiers. During battles like Fort Pillow and the Crater, Confederate soldiers murdered Black soldiers as they sought to surrender.

USCT soldiers at Port Hudson, Louisiana. Source: National Archives

Despite these obstacles, USCT soldiers played a major role in helping the United States crush the Confederate rebellion. Estimates indicate that around 200,000 African Americans served as soldiers in the Union Army, a little over half of whom had been formerly enslaved (although estimates on this vary). Another 20,000 served in the Union Navy. While the Army forcibly drafted some Black soldiers from refugee camps or plantations close to the Union lines, others eagerly volunteered. Many USCT’s agreed with Frederick Douglass, who argued that serving in the war would help advance their efforts to secure civil and political rights for themselves and their families when it was over.

“By every consideration which binds you to your enslaved fellow-countrymen, and the peace and welfare of your country; by every aspiration which you cherish for the freedom and equality of yourselves and your children; by all the ties of blood and identity which make us one with the brave black men now fighting our battles in Louisiana and in South Carolina, 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.”

Frederick Douglass, “Men of Color to Arms,” 1863

Only men could serve in the military, but many African American women found ways to support the war effort, raising money and gathering supplies for USCT troops. Some, like Harriett Tubman, served as spies, providing intelligence to Union commanders. Others served as nurses, cooks, and laundresses. Black women in Baltimore, Maryland, sewed the flag that the 4th USCT carried into battle at New Market Heights. It is also possible that some women disguised themselves as men to fight in USCT regiments.

Picket station of Colored troops near Dutch Gap Canal, Nov. 1864.

Picket station of Colored troops near Dutch Gap Canal, Nov. 1864. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

USCT regiments fought in battles throughout the Eastern and Western Theatres of the war. Around 40,000 Black soldiers lost their lives. In June 1863, Harriett Tubman and 150 USCT soldiers made a daring raid on the Combahee River in South Carolina, liberating over 700 enslaved people and setting fire to Confederate supplies of cotton and rice. In July of that year, the 54th Massachusetts attacked Fort Wagner outside of Charleston, South Carolina, briefly mounting the parapet before being forced back.

Out west, outnumbered USCT soldiers at Milliken’s Bend successfully defended a key supply depot for Ulysses S. Grant’s army besieging Vicksburg. In Virginia, USCT soldiers successfully stormed the fortifications at New Market Heights, defended Fort Pocahontas from Confederate cavalry, and helped surround the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. USCT soldiers also won victories in their fight for equal treatment. In 1864, Congress mandated that they receive the same wages as white soldiers and back pay for their previous service.

USCT soldiers hold off Confederate forces at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend. Source: NPS/ Harpers Weekly

For USCT soldiers whose families remained enslaved, the war took on additional urgency. Victory meant reunification; defeat meant leaving their loved ones enslaved. Spotswood Rice, a Union private serving in Missouri, sent a letter to the woman who enslaved his two children, warning her: “the longer you keep my child from me the longer you will have to burn in hell and the quicker you’ll get there.” He continued by noting that he was in a regiment of over 1,000 men, each one eager to strike a blow against slavery. The enslaver remained defiant, but Rice eventually reunited with his wife and children.

In the closing days of the war, as Garland White and his fellow soldiers entered the Richmond, they were greeted by hundreds of formerly enslaved men, women, and children, some of whom were searching for family members. As the troops marched, soldiers in White’s regiment urged his to give a speech to the cheering onlookers. After he addressed the crowd a woman approached White. After asking him a few questions, she informed him, “[t]his is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son.” Two decades after enslavers separated them, White and his mother had finally reunited.

When the war concluded, many African American veterans became involved in the postwar government and advocated for civil rights for African Americans. Robert Smalls won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Medal of Honor winner Powhatan Beatty became an actor and playwright. Spotswood Rice established churches in New Mexico and Colorado. George Washington Williams became a historian and wrote histories of African Americans in the United States and the USCT during the Civil War. Other soldiers remained in the Army.

“My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”

Representative Robert Smalls of South Carolina, U.S. Navy veteran

Postwar civil rights gains, however, came in the face of a rising white supremacist backlash. Organizations like the Red Shirts and the Ku Klux Klan waged a campaign of terror and murder on Black veterans, their families, and others. Despite efforts by President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, the onslaught of violence and terrorism ultimately doomed Reconstruction—the effort to ensure civil rights and equal protections for African Americans after the Civil War. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes pulled the remaining US soldiers out of the South, and a slow tide of civil rights rollbacks robbed African Americans of many of the rights they’d won, culminating with the establishment of Jim Crow laws. Black veterans in the North also encountered racism, segregation, and in some cases, violence, as their contributions to the preservation of the United States were forgotten or ignored.

Many USCT soldiers are buried in Section 27 of Arlington National Cemetery. Source: US Military/Arlington National Cemetery

In concurrence with the backlash against Reconstruction came the rise of the “Lost Cause” ideology, which sought to glorify the Confederacy and portrays the antebellum South as idyllic and content, where enslaved people were happy and treated well. The bravery of countless Black soldiers and sailors, the thousands of enslaved people who risked their lives to reach Union lines, and the political achievements of Reconstruction threatened that narrative. Groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy waged a campaign to establish the Lost Cause as the “true” story of “the War between the States” and sought to ban textbooks that didn’t support their views. Despite the efforts of many former USCT soldiers as well as certain units of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veteran’s organization, to push back against this false narrative, the Lost Cause soon became a feature of textbooks, scholarly articles, and popular culture.

USCT reenactors commemorate the 150th anniversary of the liberation of Richmond in 2015. Source: Ron Cogswell

Despite these defeats, the memory of the Black soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War remained alive. African American historians like George Washington Williams and W.E.B. DuBois continued to write about the USCT. During the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, interest in the USCT began to grow. The 1989 feature film Glory, which provided a fictional account of the 34th Massachusetts, inspired further study and the establishment of several USCT reenactment and living history organizations. Today, scholars and historians continue to research and write about the role African American soldiers and sailors played in crushing the Confederate rebellion and the work that many veterans did to expand civil rights during Reconstruction. More museums and historic sites are also sharing this story with the general public. A few of them are listed below.

The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial (left), dedicated in 1897, and the African American Civil War Memorial (right), dedicated in 1998, are some of the few monuments that commemorate the service of African American soldiers and sailors in the Civil War. Source: Rhododendrites, NPS

Museums and Historic Sites Relating to the USCT

African American Civil War Museum, Washington, DC

American Civil War Museum, Richmond, Virginia

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC

Theodore Roosevelt Island, Washington, DC

Camp Nelson National Monument, Jessamine County, Kentucky

Richmond National Battlefield Park, Richmond, Virginia

Petersburg National Battlefield, Petersburg, Virginia

Reconstruction Era National Historical Park, Beaufort, SC

Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, MS

Fort Monroe National Monument, Norfolk, VA

A commitment to honoring Black history and combating racism today involves consistent work on individual and systemic levels. Please consider this non-exhaustive list of action items and resources: 

Educate:

NMAAHC Talking About Race; Antiracism Project; Showing Up For Racial Justice; Your Kids Aren’t Too Young to Talk About Race; Teaching Tolerance – White Anti-Racism: Living the Legacy; Antiracist Resources and Reads: Lists for All Ages

Support

The Movement for Black Lives Fund; Black Lives Matter; Color of Change; BET + United Way COVID-19 Relief Fund; Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective; Black-owned businesses

Sign a Petition

Justice for Breonna Taylor; Hands Up Act; #WeAreDoneDying; Movement for Black Lives; Rep Contact Template

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