African American Roles in the Civil War

by Justin Flaumenhaft

Introduction | African Americans in the Union Army | African Americans in the Union Navy | African Americans in Confederate Forces | | The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment | Frederick Douglass | Bibliography


The American Civil War was a turning point for the nation and the consequences of the Civil War were felt all over the world. In the global spotlight were the generals and the war heroes, the state of the art weapon technology and ground-breaking battlefield tactics, the tragic massacres with incomparable casualties, but the truly amazing part of this war was the emergence of a people. From the skinny dark-skinned teenager in a dusty blue uniform to a former slave advising the president, signs of revolution were springing up everywhere. This was not just a white man’s war again. This was not just Union against the Confederacy. There was something better that stretched farther than the Mason-Dixon Line and went higher than the bald eagle could fly. It was freedom. After generations of enslavement, 180,000 African Americans finally had a chance to fight for their freedom and belonging.

African Americans in the Union Army

African Americans became a driving force for the Union during the Civil War, but despite the large impact black soldiers eventually had on Union success, Abraham Lincoln was initially hesitant to allow African Americans to enlist. Because some states had strong economic or cultural ties to both the Union and secessionist states their loyalties were not clear. Lincoln believed that the loyalties of these “border” states were vital to the success of the Union. He feared that the enlistment of African Americans would deter the border states from joining the Union and was not willing to jeopardize the loyalty of the border states. In addition, Lincoln did not want to risk angering prejudice Northerners within the Union or further alienate the Confederacy. As strong as Lincoln’s morals were his most convictional ambition was to keep the nation together.
An authentic poster from the Civil War encouraging African Americans to enlist. It reads "COME AND JOIN US BROTHERS."

It was not until late 1862 that Lincoln decided the enlistment of African Americans would be beneficial to the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect January 1, 1863, freed all slaves in the rebelling states and provided an official and well-publicized invitation for African Americans to enlist. However, Lincoln’s intentions were not primarily to strengthen the Union forces. By making the war about ending slavery, Lincoln knew foreign nations would not support the pro-slavery Confederacy. Even though the primary objective of the Union in creating the Emancipation Proclamation was to prevent foreign nations from supporting the Confederacy, ending slavery was a cause Africans Americans would full heartedly fight for. Many African Americans rushed to enlist. The motivation for the Union army was split. Most white soldiers were driven mostly by their loyalty to the Union and their determination to preserve it, while most black soldiers were determined to free their enslaved brethren. A final Union victory would satisfy both of these ambitions. But while it seemed slavery was dying, prejudice was still very much alive. Even fighting alongside fellow Unionists black soldiers were discriminated against. African Americans were rarely promoted above the rank of Major and most black regiment were headed by a white Officer. Only about 100 black soldiers were commissioned as an Officer in the entire war. African American regiments were often not as well equipped and many African Americans were merely assigned to laboring positions as opposed to combat.

African Americans in the Union Navy
Men abord the USS Miami, a Union side-wheel gunship.

In the beginning of the war, problems began developing off shore for the Union. There were hundreds of miles of Confederate coast to be blockaded, but the naval force was miniscule. As the Union navy prepared and sent out ships it became apparent that there was a shortage in personnel. In response to this shortage, African Americans began to fill the ranks of the navy. African Americans had been involved in maritime endeavors since the Revolutionary War and many had obtained maritime skills. While laws were set up to prevent African Americans from enlisting in the army, it was accepted that African American could join the navy. In addition, naval work was considered a lower class job so many white men felt the navy was below their dignity. It is not clear how many African Americans served in the navy, but it is estimated to be around fifteen percent out of a total 118,000 men in the navy. The African Americans who served the navy were interestingly different from the African American who eventually entered the army on a demographic level. The army was filled with freed slaves from the South while most naval recruits were freemen from the Northeast and one out of every eight African Americans in the navy were from a foreign nation. In general, African Americans were treated better in the navy than in the army. They received pay, healthcare, and criminal justice equal to that of their white counterparts. Even the ship crews the men separated into were fully integrated almost 100 years before most states were integrated. Without the help of skilled African American sailors, the navy could unlikely have carried the Union to victory and the navy quietly proved that black and white people could live together in peace.

African Americans in Confederate Forces

Even in a deeply prejudice society where being African American generally meant you were property, the Confederacy was first to organize a unit of African American
1st Louisiana Native Guard consisting of free black men.
soldiers in the whole Civil War. This unit was commissioned in 1861 in the early stages of the Civil War, but its service was discontinued. A large percentage of the free black confederate soldiers could be found in Louisiana. In New Orleans, 1400 out of 28000 troops were African American. While a such a large number of free black men in a specific Confederate force may be unique to New Orleans, some freed black people wanted to keep a title distinct from the average slave encouraging free black men to enlist. As well renowned African American Union Officer Christian Fleetwood articulated, “…the heart of the Negro was with the South but for slavery.” In other words, if not for slavery some African Americans would have preferred the South to the North. Despite this, African Americans did not contribute extensively to the Confederate war effort and those who did were discriminated against similarly as black soldiers in the Union.

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment

An illustration depicting the famous battle at Fort Wagner,SC.

The accomplishments and sacrifices of the all black 54th Massachusetts were well publicized and proved the competence of African American soldiers. The regiment was commissioned by Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew who believed black people should help fight to end slavery. Ever since the beginning of the war Governor pushed for the authorization of African American enlistment. He believed the men should fight to prove their dignity and their citizenship as well as disprove common stereotypes. Andrew appointed Robert Gould Shaw, son of a prominent abolitionist family in Boston, to lead the 54th Massachusetts.Andrew was aided in the recruiting process for this regiment by prominent African American leaders and abolitionists including Frederick Douglass. By the time recruiting efforts had been halted there were enough volunteer to create a 55th regiment. On May 28, the regiment left to South Carolina. Over 20,000 people gathered to celebrate the regiment. The regiment was first saw battle at James Island where three companies of the regiment resisted a force of 3,200 confederates and assisted in a Union victory. After the regiment had earned a reputation as an elite fighting squad, Officer Shaw and his regiment were asked to lead the land attack against Fort Wagner and Shaw accepted without hesitation. The assault failed. Shaw and two other officers had been killed along with 272 out of 650 in the unit, but the bravery of this regiment was never forgotten.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was an intellectual, a writer, a brilliant speaker, a controversial and influential idealist, and he was a slave. His success after escaping from slavery alone proved the competence of the slave and throughout his life Frederick Douglass provided a voice for a people oppressed to such a disturbing extent it is almost unimaginable. His literature and orations impacted people around the world and in the highest circles. He developed strong political connections with Radical Republicans providing him indirect power in the American government. Douglass masterfully spread his ideas of equality and everything Frederick Douglass had done preceding the Civil War had pushed slavery to the edge. The Civil War was his chance to help free the slaves once and for all. For the majority of the Civil War, Douglass was annually publishing Douglass' Monthly and Frederick Douglass' Paper. Even while he sustained his prominent literary career Douglass continued to pursue his activist ambitions. In 1863 Douglass would help recruit for the 54th Massachusetts regiment, which would go down in American history as one of the most important regiments of the Civil War. In the same year, Douglass would push for equal pay and better treatment for black soldiers in the Army. He also had spoke to Lincoln about helping slaves escape if the Union does not completely win the war. Frederick Douglass had major influences on other powerful people and, leading up to and during the Civil War, few other abolitionist had been so active in their cause.

Important Milestones for Frederick Douglass During and Preceding the Civil War

Begins publishing Frederick Douglass' Paper.
Begins publishing Douglass Monthly.
Helps recruit soldiers for 54th Massachusetts Regiment .
Discusses unequal pay that black soldiers earn with Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln asks Douglass to prepare to help slaves escape if Union is not completely victorious.


Book Source:

Frankel, Noralee. Break Those Chains at Last: African Americans, 1860-1880. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.

Online Sources:

Avila, Rolando. "African Americans in the Union Army: American Civil War." United States at War: Understanding Conflict and Society. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 16 May 2010. <>.

Rosenberg, Charles. "African Americans in the Confederate Army: American Civil War." United States at War: Understanding Conflict and Society. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 16 May 2010. <>.

Ramold, Steven J. "African Americans in the Union Navy: American Civil War." United States at War: Understanding Conflict and Society. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 23 May 2010. <>.

Charles H. "54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment: American Civil War." United States at War: Understanding Conflict and Society. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 23 May 2010.

Waugh, Joan. "Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment." In Waugh, Joan, and Gary B. Nash, eds. Encyclopedia of American History: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1856 to 1869, vol. 5. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2003. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE52&iPin=EAHV106&SingleRecord=True (accessed May 23, 2010).

Dubovoy, Sina. "Douglass, Frederick." Civil Rights Leaders, American Profiles. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1997. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE52&iPin=afbio0077&SingleRecord=True (accessed May 23, 2010).