Civil War black soldiers were eager to enlist in the Union Army. They were anxious to join the fight against slavery and they believed that military service would allow them to prove their right to equality.
Celebrated abolitionist Frederick Douglass was a strong advocate of allowing black men to fight, believing that this would prove their right to citizenship and the vote. Two of Douglass’s sons served in the Union army. John Brown was another abolitionist who strongly believed that blacks were capable and willing to fight for their freedom if given the chance.
Military service had been connected with the right to vote as long ago as ancient Athens and Douglass hoped that African American service in the war would guarantee black men’s right to vote. Douglass was also an advocate of woman’s suffrage, but he believed that the black man’s right to vote should come first, for it would be a matter of survival to freed blacks in the south. Because of the connection between voting and military service, many in the North did not want to allow blacks to fight.
At the beginning of the war, only six northern states allowed blacks to vote. Ironically, the South also considered using blacks to fight, but most Confederates objected on the grounds that they would then have to be given freedom and the vote. One of the “justifications” for slavery in the minds of many southerners was the supposed inferiority of blacks to whites; some claimed that blacks were like children who needed someone to care for them, but if blacks proved capable soldiers this pseudo-theory would be shot to ribbons.
A Union militia act allowed enrollment of blacks early in 1862 and the Emancipation Proclamation permitted blacks to enlist in the military. This began African American military history. However, it was thought that African Americans would be used as military laborers, rather than fighters. For this reason, black soldiers were originally paid a laborer’s wage ($10 a month) rather than the wage paid to white soldiers ($13 a month). In 1864, after much opposition, Congress passed a bill allowing retroactive equal pay for Civil War black soldiers, but this act allowed for equalization only from January 1864.
White Union soldiers often treated blacks soldiers with derision, although a few respected them. Despite these obstacles African American soldiers were determined to serve their country and to fight for their rights. Civil War black soldiers of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, which was organized in 1862 by a white officer who recruited freed slaves from Florida and the Sea islands, at first received no pay at all; when offered half-pay, they refused saying that they would volunteer service to their country, rather than be treated as less than full soldiers. The regiment eventually received full pay due to the persistence of the men and one of their white officers, but they saw relatively little action.
However, the bravery of another black regiment won some respect for Civil War black soldiers. The 54th Massachusetts regiment consisted of freed blacks recruited in the North; they were led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of ardent Boston abolitionists. Shaw had to argue with his commander in order for his men to have a chance to fight. On July 18, 1863, Shaw led the 54th Massachusetts in an assault against Fort Wagner, which guarded Charleston, South Carolina. Under heavy fire, a small group of these troops broke through the Fort’s earthworks and for an hour held the parapet, until Confederates drove them back. Shaw and almost half of his troops were killed in the assault, but the tragic incident showed that black troops would fight well and bravely if given a chance. The story of the 54th was told in the movie Glory.
In all over 200,000 Civil War black soldiers served in the Union army and navy; ten percent of the Union army was black. African Americans were often more welcome in the navy or as Civil War marines, than in the army, but here too, they were usually barred from actual fighting and instead served in a variety of support positions. When they did fight they faced not only the prospect of being killed or maimed in battle, but also the prospect of being executed if they were captured by Confederate forces. The Confederates declared that all black men fighting for the Union were rebel slaves, regardless of whether they were actually former slaves or had been born free, and frequently executed them. One example of this is the execution of many black soldiers after they had surrendered during the battle of Fort Pillow. With sorrow, Lincoln responded that he would have to execute southern prisoners of war, if the south executed any Union prisoners. For the most part Lincoln’s threat paid off, but captured Civil War black soldiers were treated more harshly by the Confederates than were white Union soldiers.
Despite their distain for black Union soldiers, early in 1865 the Confederate congress decided it must use slaves as soldiers and Jefferson Davis planned to buy 40,000 slaves to work with the army. Confederate General Patrick Cleburne had suggested this once unthinkable idea early in 1864. Davis and Cleburne both believed that they would free these men and their families after the war and this caused other southerners to strenuously object to the proposal of Confederate black soldiers. General Robert E. Lee had earlier told the Confederate congress that he believed these extra fighting men were absolutely needed (Lee, of course, believed from the war’s onset, that the south would be better off without slavery). The bill to allow black soldiers to be acquired passed in the Confederate House, but failed in its Senate. Virginia’s state legislature authorized its own bill and organized two companies of slaves in Richmond, but the war ended before these could serve.
By the war’s end 40,000 Civil War black soldiers had died, the majority from disease. Although initially reluctant to commission black officers, the Union government eventually commissioned eighty black military officers. Eighteen Civil War black soldiers were given the Medal of Honor for their heroic service. Sadly, while voting rights and other equal rights were added to the Constitution, the Southern states found a way to get around these laws and continue to deprive blacks of many of the basic rights of the citizenship they had fought so hard to achieve.