Black soldiers were among the bravest of those fighting in the Civil War. Both free Blacks in the Union army and escaped slaves from the South rushed to fight for their freedom and they fought with distinction in many major Civil War battles. Many whites thought Blacks could not be soldiers. They were slaves. They were inferior. Many thought that if Blacks could fight in the war it would make them equal to whites and prove the theory of slavery was wrong. Even though Black soldiers had to face much discrimination during the Civil War, they were willing to fight to the death for their freedom.
Both free Blacks and slaves wanted to fight in the Civil War and volunteered from the start. The free Blacks wanted to prove their equality and help the slaves win their freedom. There was much opposition from whites, because many thought that the Blacks were biologically inferior and could not be trusted with weapons. They thought arming them would cause the slaves to rebel, and because the war was supposed to be very short it would not be necessary. Also, a federal law dating back to 1792 stated Blacks could not fight in the United States Army. Abolitionists, those in the north who fought for Black rights, argued that Blacks had fought in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. They had greatly strengthened those armies, so they should be able to fight in the Civil War as well. Abolitionists also thought it would teach the Blacks responsibility and self-reliance which they would need after the war.
On July 17, 1862 Congress passed two acts allowing enlistment of Blacks in the Army, but they were ignored. The War Department still turned Blacks away when they tried to sign up to fight. Then in September of 1862, Abraham Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation which declared, “slaves within any State, or designated part of a State … then … in rebellion … shall be then, thenceforth and free forever” (Knight, Carson, 1997, 1). This law liberated about 3,120,000 Blacks. After this law Blacks were finally able to enlist in Union armies.
When Blacks began to fight many whites realized that it was for the better. Recruitment of whites had become difficult and after Blacks were allowed to enlist not as many white men would have to enlist. Soon, private agents, the federal government, and northern states had to compete for Black recruits. The government sent General Lorenzo Thomas to the Mississippi Valley to organize Black troops and in less than three months he raised more than twenty regiments of Black soldiers.
Blacks took part in 499 military engagements, thirty-nine of which were major battles. In each one of those battles they served with great distinction and proved they could serve their country well. Seventeen Blacks were awarded the Medal of Honor, a prestigious award. One of the most well known battles fought by Black soldiers was at Fort Wagner in South Carolina on July 18, 1863. The Massachusetts 54th Regiment, commanded by abolitionist Robert Gould Shaw, was ambushed by Confederate forces while trying to attack the strong Confederate fortress on Morris Island. The Massachusetts 54th fought gallantly but the Union forces fell back with heavy casualties, and 1,515 men were killed, wounded, or missing.
The Battle of Port Hudson, the last remaining Confederate fort on the lower part of the Mississippi River was another such battle. On May 27, 1863 Confederate forces had twenty siege guns and thirty pieces of artillery, a major threat to the Union warships. Five Black Louisiana regiments assaulted Port Hudson and were met with a rain of bullets. The Black troops kept fighting until almost all of them were dead. The losses were severe. The Union lost the battle but no one questioned the bravery of the Black troops. Because of this, Union Army Blacks fought with a greater sense of purpose and a better morale.
Though Black soldiers in the Army fought as bravely as the white soldiers, they were often discriminated against. Their enlistment period was longer, they were given old weapons, their pay was lower, and they had little chance of promotion. Many didn’t survive because of the poor medical care they were given. If Blacks were wounded they were carried off the battlefield as an afterthought, and if they did arrive at a hospital alive they would receive slow and inadequate care. Also, if captured by Confederate troops, a Black soldier would be immediately executed or sold into slavery.
While the Army did not allow Blacks to enlist before the Emancipation Proclamation, the Navy was always open to free Blacks. In September 1861 the Navy started to enlist former slaves because they had a constant shortage of men. These former slaves were used in very effective blockades of southern ports. Unlike the Army, the Navy treated the Blacks well, housing and feeding them with whites and offering them opportunities for promotion. Four Black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. By the end of the war, Blacks made up one-fourth of the men in the Union fleet.
Only towards the end of the war was there serious talk of enlisting Blacks in the south, but the war ended before it could happen. People in the South still insisted Blacks were too inferior to fight. One man said:
I think that the proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began … You cannot make soldiers of slaves or slaves of soldiers … The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is very wrong. (Piggins, 1994, 48)
Even so, slaves supported the Confederate troops whether they liked it or not. They built forts, cooked, tended to animals, carried supplies, and performed hundreds of jobs that freed southerners to fight. But the slaves were encouraged when they saw the brave Black Union soldiers marching into battle and often would try to escape and join up with the Union army.
Black soldiers were willing to fight bravely for their freedom during the Civil War even though they were thought to be inferior and were discriminated against. A total of 180,000 Blacks fought in the Civil War; 37,000 were killed in action and seventeen were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. But no matter how hard they fought and no matter how many lives they saved, there were always people in both the north and south who doubted them and did not give them the respect they deserved. But, they fought bravely and with dignity until the end, and along the way gained the respect and admiration of many people. Black soldiers proved that they were equal to whites.