Fighting for Freedom, Black Union Soldiers of the Civil War

On March 2, 1863, eminent abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass sent out this powerful message in his newspaper, Douglass Monthly. Titled "Men of Color, to Arms!" it urged black men to support the nation's war and the crusade to end generations of slavery.

Page updated on Oct 25, 2021 at 5:03 PM

Fighting for Freedom

Frederick Douglas, C. 1869

Approximately 180,000 African American soldiers took up the call to fight for the Union, comprising more than 10% of all Federal forces. Knowing that a Northern loss could mean possible re-enslavement, freemen and former slaves showed dedication to their country and a commitment to the freedom of their people forever.

"Who would be free themselves
must strike the blow,
Better even to die free than to live slaves."

Frederick Douglass, C. 1869

Gallant Service 

Black regiments, commanded by white officers and designated U.S. Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) were quickly raised by the War Department following the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in early 1863. Often used as assault troops, the U.S.C.T. saw action in more than 400 engagements, 39 of which were major battles including Port Hudson, Louisiana; Fort Wagner, South Carolina; the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia; and Nashville, Tennessee. More than 9,000 black seamen in the U.S. Navy added to the Union's strength as did thousands of others who served in military support positions. Disease and combat wounds claimed almost 38,000 casualties in the Colored Troops, a large portion of the total number of men enrolled. The U.S. government awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, first issued during the Civil War to recognize gallant service, to 24 African Americans.

Black Civil War sailor aboard the USS New Hampshire Drummer Boy Jackson

Black Civil War sailor aboard the USS New Hampshire, one of 9,000 blacks who served as seamen for the Union Navy.

Drummer Boy Jackson, former slave and then drummer for the Union Army in the 79th U.S. Colored Troops in Louisiana.


Sgt. Major Christian A. Fleetwood

Sgt. Major Christian A. Fleetwood, 4th U.S. Colored Troops, Medal of Honor Recipient; post-war civic leader in Washington.

The Federal program to admit black soldiers during the Civil War was not without precedent or resistance. American blacks had taken part in the country's defense since the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. By the mid-nineteenth century, their earlier efforts were all but forgotten. The government's call for 75,000 volunteers in April 1861 compelled many Northern blacks to offer their services to a War Department opposed to arming blacks for fear it would induce the loyal slave-holding border states to join the Confederacy. However, by the fall of 1862, events had changed in favor of accepting black soldiers. Declining Union enlistments, heavy battle losses and the realization that the war would take more time and resources than expected, confronted President Abraham Lincoln and the Union Army. Continued pressure by abolitionists and awareness of the potential of black labor as the Confederacy had already discovered, also contributed to lifting the Army's prohibition of "Negroes or Mulattoes," in existence since 1820.

The formal Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January, 1863, freed all slaves in rebellious states with the exception of those in areas already under Union control. The Proclamation also declared that freed slaves would be officially received into the armed forces. Lincoln's decision gave a higher meaning to a war initially focused on preservation of the Union - abolition. "A double purpose induced me and most others to enlist, to assist in abolishing slavery and to save the country from ruin," wrote Medal of Honor winner Sgt. Major Christian Fleetwood of the 4th U.S.C.T. Frederick Douglass and other leaders saw black military service as an opportunity to win a Union victory and to gain equality and rights as citizens. As Douglass stated: "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters 'U.S.,' let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States."

Recruitment Efforts 

Sojourner Truth, image

Sojourner Truth

In 1862, several black regiments were recruited by white officers in the South and West without Presidential or Congressional authorization. The combat actions of the 1st South Carolina, a regiment of ex-slaves raised by Generals David Hunter and Rufus Saxton, received notice in the Northern press. The regiment's commander, Massachusetts abolitionist and man of letters Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, wrote encouraging reports about this regiment: "Nobody knows anything about these men who has not seen them in battle...No officer in this regiment now doubts that the successful prosecution of the war lies in the unlimited employment of black troops."

Like Higginson, a number of Northern white officers, many from leading anti-slavery families and circles, were genuinely sympathetic to the cause of black troops, among them Robert Gould Shaw, Edward N. Hallowell, Norwood P. Hallowell and James C. Beecher. Kansas raised the next early regiment, the 1st Kansas Volunteers, under the direction of Senator James Lane. Their performance in a Missouri raid further helped dispel the notion that blacks were unable or unwilling to fight.

In Union-held New Orleans, military governor Gen. Benjamin Butler's 1st, 2nd and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards, the Corps D'Afrique, were formed from existing free black militia units and supervised by Gen. Daniel Ullmann. Major Francis E. Dumas and Paris-educated Captain Andre Cailloux, who proudly described himself as the blackest man in New Orleans, exemplified the affluent freeman who commanded these units. Many were to resign, however, because of tension in the ranks and the Army's official policy of excluding blacks from leadership positions and officer promotions.

Southern territory under Union control provided the largest number of black soldiers during the war, further weakening the South's economic base. Many were fugitive slaves or "contrabands," a military term for seized enemy property like cotton, machinery or other goods. The refugees sought freedom, safety and employment behind the Federal lines where many served as soldiers, laborers, servants, teamsters, scouts, spies, teachers and nurses. Former slave Susie King Taylor chronicled her experiences as a laundress, teacher and nurse for her husband's regiment, the 1st South Carolina. Charlotte Forten, a well-educated teacher from the North, recorded her wartime participation in the Federal experiment to educate and prepare slaves for emancipation along the coast of South Carolina. Noted pre-war black activists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth served as spies and nurses, Tubman in the South and Truth in the North.

Acts of Bravery 

Bombproof quarters of Maj. Strong at Dutch Gap, VA, 1864

Bombproof quarters of Maj. Strong at Dutch Gap, Virginia, July, 1864

Many blacks were to perform acts of bravery in the name of the Union and human liberty. Robert Smalls seized freedom for himself and his family when he heroically captured a Confederate ship and delivered it to the Union Navy which was blockading Charleston Harbor in May 1862. "I thought that the Planter would be of some use to Uncle Abe," claimed the 23-year-old slave who went to work for the Navy and later became a U.S. Congressman from South Carolina. The U.S. Navy had a long history of accepting men of all colors and backgrounds due to its continual manpower shortages. As early as September, 1861 the Union Navy began enlisting blacks into naval service as stewards, servants and later as seamen on integrated ships. The Navy awarded the Medal of Honor to eight sailors for outstanding service, two of whom were John Lawson for action at Mobile Bay, Alabama and Joachim Pease who served aboard the USS Kearsarge.

Numerous advances in the employment of black troops took place in 1863, a year in which Gen. Ulysses S. Grant wrote Lincoln, "By arming the Negro we have added a powerful ally." Colored troops were originally restricted to labor and fatigue duties, but the successful skirmishes of 1862 had proved their ability to fight in combat situations. A Bureau of Colored Troops was established in Washington to supervise national recruitment and training of the U.S.C.T., and to oversee selection and schooling of white officers who were in command of the black regiments. Widespread recruitment occurred in the North assisted by leaders such as Frederick Douglass, who acted as a government recruiting agent, and in occupied Southern areas such as South Carolina where abolitionist and first black field officer Major Martin R. Delany recruited for the 104th and 105th U.S.C.T.

Inadequate facilities, mistreatment 

Lt. Col. Alexander T. Augusta, medical doctor

Lt. Col. Alexander T. Augusta, medical doctor and the highest ranking black soldier in the Civil War; Howard Medical School faculty.

Camp William Penn near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Camp Casey near Alexandria, Virginia and Camp Birney in Baltimore Maryland, were some of the many U.S.C.T. draft and training centers set up for eager new recruits. Once enlisted, black soldiers received basic, sometimes inadequate preparation for field service. Inferior firearms and equipment poor camp conditions and hospital facilities, and a shortage of doctors were not uncommon. Only eight black surgeons served in the Union Army, one of whom was Lt. Col. Alexander T. Augusta, a physician trained in Canada. After the war, Dr. Augusta settled in Washington, D.C. and served on the Howard University Medical School faculty. Black chaplains, 14 in all, provided spiritual guidance and educational instruction to black soldiers.

Random public assaults on men of color in uniform, violence towards blacks in Northern cities, and mistreatment by white comrades and the enemy afflicted the black troops. The fact that black soldiers were paid less was a particularly offensive issue; black enlisted men and officers received only $7 per month whereas white privates earned $13. Due to the intervention and protests of Frederick Douglass, the Governor of Massachusetts and commanding officers such as Col. Higginson and Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the unequal pay issue was amended by mid-1864. In spite of the injustices, the Colored Troops demonstrated their determination and bravery in a number of engagements in the final two years of the war.

1863 and 1864 campaigns 

Storming of Fort Wagner Shaw Memorial

The Storming of Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Morris Island, Charleston, S.C., July 18, 1863.

Shaw Memorial, dedicated to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Boston, 1897.

The earliest major offenses in which black troops participated were in Louisiana, at Port Hudson and Milliken's Bend, in May and June of 1863. By far, however, the most famous was the assault on Fort Wagner at Charleston, South Carolina by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. John A. Andrew, Massachusetts' influential abolitionist governor, directed the organization of this distinctive unit, the first black regiment of the North. Col. Robert Gould Shaw and Lt. Edward N. Hallowell, two young Northern men with anti-slavery and humanitarian backgrounds, were chosen to lead the proud men of the 54th. Shaw had studied at Harvard and in Europe, and served at Antietam before accepting command of the black unit.

In May 1863, with great confidence and high expectations, Col. Shaw's regiment departed Boston for the South in a jubilant parade attended by many dignitaries and well wishers. A few days later, Shaw reflected, "...if the raising of colored troops proves such a benefit to the country and to the blacks...I shall thank god a thousand times that I was led to take my share in it." Once in South Carolina, Shaw pressed for his anxious men to take part in the operations against Charleston's fortifications. Their chance came on the evening of July 18, 1863 when some 600 tired and hungry, but ready men of the 54th led the charge against Fort Wagner on Morris Island. Outnumbered by a larger Confederate force inside the fort, the Massachusetts regiment suffered many losses including the 25-year old colonel who was buried by the opposition in a common grave with his men. His final words had been "Onward 54th!" Confederate officer Lt. Iredell Jones admired the courage of the 54th in the unsuccessful assault, "The Negroes fought gallantly and were headed by as brave a coronel as ever lived."

Sgt. William H. Carney of Co. C characterized the valor for which the unit became so well known. Suffering multiple wounds, Carney managed to keep the flag flying during two advances, earning both the Medal of Honor and the Gilmore medal for gallant and meritorious conduct at Charleston. Lewis Douglass, 22-year-old son of the noted abolitionist, served as a Sgt. Major in the 54th and survived Fort Wagner. He wrote his future wife two days after the attack,"Remember if I die, I die in a good cause. I wish we had a hundred thousand colored troops we would put an end to this war." The spirit of the 54th Massachusetts, which went on to fight in other engagements including Alist, Florida, is remembered in their regimental song:

So rally boys, rally, let us never mind the past;
We had a hard road to travel, but our day is coming fast;
For God is for the right, and we have no need to fear,
The Union must be saved by the colored volunteer.

The war's single most brutal incident involving black troops took place at Fort Pillow, Tennessee in April, 1864. Publicized Congressional inquiries determined that many Colored Troops in the Union fort were massacred after having surrendered to Confederate attackers. Some black units responded with the avenging battle cry, "Remember Fort Pillow" in subsequent retaliations. The atrocities committed at Fort Pillow and several other sites reflected an action of Confederate Congress in May, 1863, which declared that black men bearing arms and white officers "inciting servile insurrection" would be turned over to state authorities - which meant punishment by death. The complicated prisoner of war situation lingered, but the Lincoln administration did approve strong measures to deter inhumane practices which denied basic rights to black troops and their white officers if captured. The Union government also notified Confederate officials that equally harsh treatment of rebel captives would occur if threats of murdering or enslaving black soldiers did not cease. Black troops and white officers were well aware of their common fate which sometimes served to affirm their mutual goals.


Picket Guards near Petersburgh, VA 1864

Picket guards near Petersburg, Virginia 1864

U.S. Colored troops were used extensively in several 1864 campaigns. Of particular note in the West was the Battle of Nashville, fought on December 15-16, in which eight black regiments played a key role in the Federal defeat of the Confederate Army of Tennessee by the Army of the Cumberland. The greatest number of U.S.C.T., however, served in the Virginia theatre as part of Gen. Grant's operations against Petersburg and Richmond in the last two years of the war. Black units were especially active in the fighting around Petersburg during the summer of 1864. Referring to several combat missions which occurred near this city, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton asserted, "The hardest fighting was done by the black troops. The forts they stormed were the worst of all."

The Colored Troops figured prominently in the ill-fated Battle of the Crater fought on July 30, 1964 as part of the Petersburg Campaign. In utter confusion, black and white Federal units poured into a crater which resulted from a planned mine explosion set off by Union soldiers under the small Confederate fort. Northern soldiers were cut down in the chaos with blacks experiencing the heaviest single-day casualties of the war.

Two months after the tragic Petersburg episode, black soldiers displayed their worth at the Battle of New Market Heights (Chaffin's Farm) near Richmond on September 29, 1864. Fourteen men, including Christian Fleetwood, who later became an active community leader in Washington, D.C. were presented the Medal of Honor for valor at New Market Heights. Several were awarded to men who took charge of their units after all white commanders had fallen. Soldiers of distinction were also given the Army of the James or "Butler" medal, designated by champion of the black troops, Gen. Benjamin Butler and the only medal created solely for the U.S.C.T.

War draws to a conclusion 

Band of the 107th USCT, Arlington, VA

Band of the 107th U.S.C.T., Arlington, Virginia (Fort Corcoran?) November, 1865.

Many black troops engaged at Petersburg, notably the 28th and 29th U.S.C.T., were transported to Alexandria, Virginia for medical treatment. Alexandria served as a major military center for the Union in close proximity to the Federal capital. Hospitals and barracks for black soldiers, such as Slough and L'Ouverture, had been set up to accommodate the sick and wounded. More than 200 African-American U.S. troops from the Civil War were buried in Alexandria's National Cemetery, many of whom died in the city's hospitals after succumbing to disease or wounds received at Petersburg. Black units were also attached to the camps and fortifications that comprised the Defenses of Washington. The 28th and 29th U.S.C.T., raised in Indiana and Illinois, had trained briefly at Camp Casey, near Fort Albany not far from Alexandria, before being dispatched to the Virginia front. Several black regiments were recruited and trained in the Washington, D.C. area - the 1st U.S.C.T in D.C., the 2nd U.S.C.T. sin Arlington, the 23rd U.S.C.T. at Camp Casey and several Maryland regiments raised in Baltimore. At the close of war, several veteran black units returned to Washington to serve guard duty in the city's defense system, notably the 107th U.S.C.T. at Fort Corcoran and Christian Fleetwood's Regiment, the 4th U.S.C.T, at Forts Slocum and Lincoln.

The final participation by blacks in the Union war effort amounted to 120 infantry regiments, 12 heavy regiments, 10 light artillery batteries, and seven cavalry units. Several regiments, not placed under direct Federal authority, retained their state designations in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Louisiana. Black troops were present at the surrender at Appomattox and the entrance to Richmond. They also participated in the pursuit of Lincoln's assassin and in some of the funeral activities for the slain president.

Once the nation was at peace, a number of black regiments stayed in service until 1867, especially in the South where they assisted the Army of Occupation and Reconstruction efforts. Many black soldiers and veterans cooperated with the Freedmen's Bureau, created in 1865 to help with education, employment and the overall transition of newly-freed slaves into society.

The contributions of black soldiers to the Union during the Civil War was not unrecognized. Gratitude for their services was acknowledged by President Lincoln himself:

"And then there will be some black men who can remember that with silent tongue and clenched teeth and steady eye and well-poised bayonet they have helped mankind on to this great consummation." 


Study Web Award