The African-American Experience

From Enslavement to Emancipation
By Clayton Butler

The Civil War is believed by many historians to be the watershed moment in African-American history -- the great four year chasm which separates the period of slaveholding from the period of constitutionally-guaranteed freedom in the United States. In 1857, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court declared that a black man had, "no rights which a white man was bound to respect." Less than ten years later, after the blood and suffering of the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution revoking that fateful decision and ensuring citizenship, with all its rights and responsibilities, to everyone born in the United States regardless of race.

It was a remarkable transformation. In 1861, there were nearly four million slaves in bondage throughout the South, almost half the population. Beginning in 1863, approximately 180,000 free blacks and escaped slaves -- more than 85 percent of the eligible population -- served in the Union Army and Navy. And in 1865, after four years of deadly struggle, slavery was abolished forever in America. What had started as a struggle to preserve the Union became a war of emancipation without an equal in history for its moral scope.


Go In Depth

Historian Hari Jones summarizes the experience of African American Civil War soldiers, from emancipation to the authorization of United States Colored Troops to their experiences on the battlefield. This video is part of the Civil War Trust's In4 video series, which presents short videos on basic Civil War topics.

Watch the Video »

'Inhuman Bondage'


slave sale

Slavery in North America was very nearly as old as the oldest European settlements, and was a fixture of life - particularly in the South but also in the North.  Twenty African slaves were brought to the Jamestown colony in 1619.


slave ship

Men and women were kidnapped from their homes in Africa, placed on large ships and subjected to the most brutal and inhumane of conditions as they traveled across the Atlantic for a life of involuntary servitude. This Harpers Weekly engraving was made from a photograph.

contraband 2

"No day ever dawns for the slave, nor is it looked for.  It is all night - all night forever."
--Jermain Wesley Loguen


contraband 1

"If I could have convinced more slaves that they were slaves, I could have freed thousands more."
--Harriet Tubman

'The Peculiar Institution'

field scene

"I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness.  It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake.  Slaves sing when they are most unhappy.  The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.  At least, such is my experience."
--Frederick Douglass, 1845



Josiah Henson, an escaped slave born in Maryland, wrote of servants' quarters that, "Wooden floors were an unknown luxury. In a single room were huddled, like cattle, ten or a dozen persons, men, women, and children. We had neither bedsteads, nor furniture of any description. Our beds were collections of straw and old rags, thrown down in the corners and boxed in with boards; a single blanket the only covering." The photograph above depicts the slave quarters at Brierfield, Jefferson Davis' island plantation in Mississippi, 20 miles downriver from Vicksburg, which was occupied by Union troops early in the war.  Davis himself owned more than 75 slaves. 

5 generations

Five generations on a plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina.  Slaves could be separated from their families, 'sold down the river,' at the whim of their owners.  At the start of the Civil War, slaves outnumbered white citizens in Beaufort County four to one.


nat turner

In 1831, Nat Turner led a slave uprising in Virginia, killing sixty local whites before he was caught and executed.  In his confessions, Turner described a vision he had in which, "white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened -- the thunder rolled in the heavens, and blood flowed in streams."  Fear of a slave uprising persisted in the South, fostering a culture of fear.

Key Figures



Harriet Tubman, herself an escaped slave, continually risked her own freedom and indeed her life by returning to the South to aid slaves in reaching the North and Canada via what came to be known as the Underground Railroad.



Frederick Douglass, the son of a slave woman and a white man, stole himself from slavery and became one of the most prominent abolitionists and the most famous black man in the country thanks to his incredible oratory and writing talents.

dred scott

In 1857, in the Dred Scott v. Sanford decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that Congress had no right to regulate slavery in the territories and that a black man "has no rights which a white man is bound to respect."  It was a major coup for the slaveholding aristocracy and galvanized many outraged northerners.


john brown

The militant John Brown was perhaps the most famous of all abolitionists.  In 1859, he organized an armed slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.  It failed, but his trial and execution caused a national sensation.  Brown's actions brought tensions to a head and helped to spark the Civil War.

The War


secession cartoon

When the Civil War began and Union troops started moving into Southern territory, slaves immediately began crossing over into the Union lines, creating a quandary for the Northern army, which was not yet an army of liberation.


slaves crossing rap

This photograph, taken by Timothy O'Sullivan in August 1862, shows a fugitive African-American family fording the Rappahannock River in Virginia.  By this time, Gen. Butler had begun implementing his policy of harboring escaped slaves as 'contraband of war.'

slave pen

Many slaves, still unable to join the armed forces, contributed to the Union war effort in whatever way they could.  Many served as spies and as guides through Confederate territory.  This woman stands outside a former slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia.



On New Year's Day, 1863, President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, making the destruction of slavery a specific war aim.  "Upon this act," Lincoln wrote, "sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind."

'United States Colored Troops'


usct flag

With the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, voices clamoring for the rights of black men to be represented and fight in the Union ranks grew louder.  War Dept. General Order 143, issued May 22, 1863, sanctioned the creation of the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T).  Thousands volunteered to fight on behalf of their country and their race.


fort wagner

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts led an assault on Fort Wagner on the South Carolina coast.  Losses were severe, including their commanding officer, Col. Robert Gould Shaw.  Their actions proved to the watching world that colored troops possessed all the bravery needed for combat and more.


Christian Fleetwood, a free black man born in Baltimore to free parents, enlisted in the 4th regiment U.S.C.T. in August 1863.  He and his regiment saw action during the Petersburg campaign of 1864.  At the Battle of New Market Heights, in September of that year, Fleetwood took up the flag after several color bearers had fallen as he and his men charged Confederate fortifications.  His courage under fire earned him the Medal of Honor.


dutch gap

By the end of the war, there were 180,000 colored troops comprising 163 units.  More than 85 percent of the eligible population had volunteered.  In the Navy, 1 in 4 that served was of African descent.  This photograph, taken at Dutch Gap, Virginia in 1864, depicts a scene that would have been utterly unthinkable to the majority of Americans in 1860 -- uniformed black soldiers firing government-issue rifles.

'Free At Last'


lincoln in richmond

When Lincoln entered Richmond on April 4, 1865, throngs of former slaves surrounded the commander in chief, hailing him as their savior.  The war was all but over, the Union was victorious; the specter of slavery that had hung over the nation since its inception had finally been lifted.


haxalls mill

This photograph by Alexander Gardner, taken at Haxall's Mill in Richmond, exhibits clearly the incredible change wrought by the Civil War -- the family of former slaves, posing in the foreground, with the charred ruins of the former Confederate capital looming in the background.

4th usct

In 1865, a black soldier recognized his former master amongst a group of Confederate prisoners he was guarding.  "Hello, massa," he said, "bottom rail on top dis time!"


cold harbor closeup

"Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins."
--Frederick Douglass 

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