African Americans in the Civil War

African-Americans served in the Civil War on both the Union and the Confederate side. In the Union army, over 179,000 African American men served in over 160 units, as well as more serving in the Navy and in support positions. This number was inclusive of both northern free African Americans and runaway slaves from the South who enlisted to fight. In the Confederacy, African Americans were still slaves and they served mostly in labor positions. By 1865, the South allowed slaves to enlist but very few actually did.

African-Americans in the Union Army: Even though African American had served in the Army and Navy during the American Revolution and in the War of 1812, they were not permitted to enlist because of a 1792 law that barred them from bearing arms in the US Army. President Abraham Lincoln also feared that accepting black men into the military would cause border states like Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri to secede.

Free black men were permitted to enlist late in 1862, following the passage of the Second Confiscation and the Militia Act, which freed slaves who had masters in the Confederate Army, and Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

First Black regiments:The first authorized black regiments were recruits from Massachusetts, Tennessee and Union controlled South Carolina. Black Union soldiers did not receive equal pay or treatment until June 1864; Congress granted retroactive equal pay.

Black units and soldiers captured by the Confederates faced harsher treatment than white prisoners of war. At the Battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in April, 1864, almost 600 men, about half of whom were black—suffered nearly 575 casualties when they were attacked by the Confederate cavalry. The fight was promptly dubbed a massacre in the Northern press, and it was claimed that black soldiers who attempted to surrender were massacred.

By the end of the war, some 179,000 black men had served in the Union Army, representing 10 percent of its total. Nearly 20,000 more were in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 died.

Other Roles of African-Americans: Blacks on both sides of the war served in relief roles—as nurses, cooks and blacksmiths. The South refused to arm black soldiers, but used them to build fortifications and perform camp duties. They also served as spies and scouts to the Union army.

Black Slaves in The Confederate Army: Blacks served in the Confederate Army but most were impressed as a slave labor force. Others were there to tend to the master’s needs in camp. On January 2, 1864, Confederate major general Patrick Cleburne proposed arming slaves. On March 13, 1865, legislation was finally passed that would free black slaves if they enlisted in the Confederate Army, although they had to have consent from their masters. Only a handful of black soldiers, probably less than 50, enlisted and were still in training when the war ended.

Source: African Americans in the Civil War
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