The Importance of African-American Soldiers in Civil War History -

Civil War history is often presented in terms of white Northern actors fighting against white Southerners, with African Americans waiting on the sides as their fate was decided. Of course, this is far from the truth. What may come as a surprise to some is the fact that both the Union and the Confederates brought African American troops to the battlefield. Before the Civil War broke out in 1861, there were an estimated almost four million slaves in the United States, and just under 500,000 free African Americans. Combined they comprised about 14 percent of the country’s population.

Of these 4.5 million, some 180,000 African Americans served in 163 units for the Union army as well as surely thousands more in the Navy. However, while only one percent of all African Americans in the United States resided in the North, slaves and freedmen only began serving the Confederate Army in 1865, and did so to a far lesser degree than in the North. It took a clear and dire urging from the beloved General Robert E. Lee to convince the Confederate Congress to begin enlisting black soldiers. The legislation required the consent of the slave and his master, and would confer the rights of a freeman after the war. Yet a month after the order came out, Virginia was only able to muster some forty or fifty enlistees.

Units from the United States Colored Troops (USCT) fighting for the Union made their mark on Civil War battlefields in every theater of the war. Though seen by white soldiers and officers as lacking the courage and ability to fight and fight well after Congress allowed the enlistment of African Americans in July 1862, after just three months the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers had changed everyone’s minds. The Union victory at Island Mound in October 1862 was the first engagement of African-American soldiers, during which the 1st Kansas proved their mettle as soldiers.

Cases of African American units’ essential involvements abound throughout Civil War history, in nearly every major battle except Sherman’s invasion of Georgia. One might wonder how the course of the Civil War could have been different if the South had not been so reticent to muster some of its non-white population to Civil War battlefields.

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