African Americans’ Impact in the Civil War

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Before the civil war in America, African Americans lived in bondage right from the colonial period. The basic foundation of African American involvement in this civil war had begun 100 years before the civil war. During this period, slavery had been firmly created and institutionalized in America. They endured hard labor in tobacco fields in Virginia, rice fields of South Carolina, and in other small firms in the North. The demand for slaves in America increased in 1793 with the invention of the cotton gin due to increased demand for cotton. By 1800, slavery institution was all over the south. In this setting, these people had no rights, could be leased and sold by their masters at will. They lived a terrible life of hardship and lacked in voice in government (African Americans/Slavery n.d).

These oppressive conditions increased African American’s desire to continue agitating for freedom. They became more determined more than ever to resist control by the slave masters. The sheer reaction to this desire and determination by the slaves led to outright rebellion and individual acts of defiance. The civil war which pitted the Union army and the confederate army was God’s send to African Americans. They saw it as a window of opportunity to improve their conditions and change their lives. The majority of them joined the Union army because they perceived a Union victory would usher in liberation for them. The African Americans also perceived the Union victory over the confederate forces would accelerate the slave emancipation process and increase social, economic, and political opportunities for them.

Discrimination of African Americans

In the 1860s, it was unthinkable that blacks were capable of holding arms against white Americans due to the prevailing racial conditions in America at that period. The proposal to enlist black soldiers into the army was met with widespread opposition among the white soldiers. White soldiers viewed and believed that black soldiers did not possess the courage to fight and fight well. African Americans were encouraged by Frederick Douglas to enlist in the Union army to fight for their freedom. In his speech Frederick Douglas said, “once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, United States., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets on his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States (Russell 2000, 188).” Fredericks’s words were moving and encouraged many African Americans to enlist the Union army with the sole aim of fighting for their freedom. Approximately 180,000 African Americans which comprised 163 regiments served in the Union army during the civil war. Many more served in the Union navy. Congress enacted two acts in July 1862 granted the enlistment of Americans in the army. The law did not come into effect until September 1862 issuance of the emancipation proclamation by Abraham Lincoln (Antietam n.d).

The enlistment of Blacks into the army offered them some sense of freedom and liberty. These, however, did not end discrimination against the enlisted black soldiers in the army. Discrimination still existed and was firmly institutionalized in the army. Black soldiers fought in segregated regiments with white commanders. They were subjected to fatigued duties as compared to their white counterparts. The majority of black units were designated in poor camp locations, were provided insufficient medical care, and received inferior weapons compared to white units. The white soldiers and the officers despised the Negroes and did not want to be associated with them. They had an institutionalized belief that African Americans lacked the courage to fight and fight well. According to white soldiers, a black man was incapable of stopping a bullet. To try to address these issues, the Department of United States Colored Troops was created in April 1864. The number of deaths among the black regiments was higher, more than 37%. They died from diseases and abusive labor or fatigued duties, coupled with inadequate qualified personnel to serve them. The proportion of those who died on the battlefield was higher than that of their white counterparts. Also discriminative was the fact that, African Americans who were captured unfortunately received heavier penalties than the white soldiers.

The black soldiers proved themselves during the war with lots of enthusiasm and determination. Despite all their efforts discrimination in pay and other benefits remained common in the army. The Militia Act of 1862 provided that soldiers of African descent were to receive $10 a month, including a clothing allowance of $3.50. Despite this act, African American soldiers regardless of rank were paid less compared to white privates. All black soldiers were paid $10 a month minus $3 for clothing; white American soldiers earned $13 a month including clothing. This discrimination on pay along racial lines led to a protracted struggle for equal pay by many black regiments (Russell 2000, 189). The 54th regiments and other black units in the south departments’ boycotted pay for 18 months until the federal government ended the discriminative policy. Eventually, congress on June 15th, 1864 granted all black soldiers equal pay.

Social Status

In over 200 years before the outbreak of the civil war, African Americans who had been shipped into America were engaged in cruel labor and slavery. Their masters ensured that they lived in absolute isolation from friends, family, and relatives. This was a strategy to preempt them from resistance and collaborative efforts to overpower their masters. On 1st January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued Emancipation Proclamation out of military necessity and strategy. He said, “And upon this act sincerely believed an act of justice, warranted by the constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of the almighty God (Antietam n.d).” Lincoln made the emancipation proclamation out of political concerns rather than abolishing slavery. This is because it took him too long to end the oppressive practice. President Lincoln had realized the political capital that emancipation of slaves would result and looked at it as a strategy to change the direction of the war. By ending slavery, Lincoln hoped to convince England to shift its support of the confederacy to the Union. By entering the war on slavery, Lincoln knew it would appeal to England’s strong opinions against slavery. He had also realized that the Confederacy President Jefferson Davis had fear of losing foreign support if the war centered on ending slavery. Lincoln also intended to undermine the economic advantage retained by the confederacy.

Despite doubts about President Lincoln’s real intentions of declaring emancipation proclamation on slavery, African Americans viewed the proclamation as an instrument by which their lives would radically change. Defining freedoms in their terms, they imagined more from the decree than president Lincoln and other abolitionists could have intended. They believed that President Lincoln had tacitly promised them the equality of opportunity and unrestricted citizenship in that document.

The First Kansas Colored Volunteers

The confederation and the Union had to rethink the military and economic potential of African Americans who lived in the United States of America. The State of Arkansas with a population was the last to join the confederacy. Out of this population, 111,115 were slaves and only 144 were free Negroes.The outbreak of the civil war presented enslaved population in Kansas with an opportunity to gain freedom. They viewed the invading Union army as a haven for slaves who were running away from their masters. On 24th May 1861 Benjamin F. Butler, Union general set a landmark precedent when he refused to return three runaway slaves to their master who was a confederate colonel (Ward 1991, 252). He gave the reason for not complying being that the three runaway slaves were of service to the military officer of the government. Thus they were instruments of war to be confiscated once caught by the Union army. Butler’s policy was later ushered into law on August 6, 1861, when Congress passed the confiscation Act (African American History n.d). The Act was very effective as it had devastating effects on the confederacy. It stripped the South of its black labor force. As the Union forces moved into many Southern territories, so did the contrabands that flock in large numbers to the camps Union soldiers set up for them. A second confiscation Act was enacted on July 17, 1862. This law declared all slaves owned by disloyal masters “forever free of their servitude” and directed that they be “not again held as slaves. The Act also authorized the President to employ “persons of African descent” in any capacity to suppress rebellion (Antientam n.d). The Militia Act also became law on the same day allowing blacks to be enlisted in the military or naval services. The new Act effectively ended more than 40 years of exclusion from the armed forces of the African Americans (African American History n.d).

The first African Americans to be enlisted in the U.S army were slaves who were running away from their masters. They came from Kansas, Missouri, and the Indian territories. The majority of these runaway slaves became the first members to be enlisted in the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry despite the absence of the official policy for recruiting black men in the United States army. When President Lincoln appointed Senator James Lane as recruiting commissioner in Kansas, he began recruiting black men in his cavalry unit. For those who opposed his policy, Lane answered them saying that a Negro could “just as well become food for powder… as my son.” Other Union generals followed suit in 1862 by organizing black regiments without official approval from Washington.

54th Massachusetts

The majority of the men in Massachusetts had been at the forefront of the abolitionist movement. Therefore there was a feeling that they should be the first Northern State to send a black American regiment into the field. This wish was granted in January 1963 when Governor John Andrew was given the authority to form one by War Secretary Stanton. “The Massachusetts Governor had long been an advocate of raising black regiments from the black population (Russell 2000, 187).” Stanton assured the Governor that black soldiers would be accorded equal treatment with whites in all matters related to pay and status saying: “Every race has fought for liberty and its progress,” these were Andrews’s words addressing African Americans of his State: “if southern slavery should fall by crushing of the Rebellion, and colored men should have no hand and play no conspicuous part on the task, the result would leave the colored man a mere helot (Russell 2002).”

Governor Andrew wanted to commission black officers but received an objection from the war secretary Stanton and President Lincoln who felt that the country was not yet ready for them. He, therefore, enlisted white officers for the new black regiment from wealthy families renowned in the abolition movement in his State (Russell 2000, 188). He relied on these families to assist him to finance the recruitment and outfitting of the troops. Governor Andrew then recruited Col. Robert Shaw, a son of a wealthy Massachusetts and New York abolitionist George Shaw to head the 54th Massachusetts black regiment. It was not an easy task finding recruits to fill the regiment in full. In 1860, there had only been 9,602 free African Americans in the State (Russell 2000, 188).

Consequently, Governor Andrew commissioned George Sterns, a veteran abolitionist and a friend of John Brown, to assist in recruiting blacks all over North. Stern solicited the assistance of Frederick Douglas, a prominent black abolitionist, who toured all over the country. His message to all African Americans was:” Liberty won by white men would luck half its luster (Russell 2000, 188). Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.” He also said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, the U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States (African Americans n.d ).” This was a powerful message which motivated African Americans to enlist for armed service. Sterns’s efforts succeeded well for Governor Andrew. They now formed a full black regiment of 54th Massachusetts led by Colonel Robert Shaw. The supporters of the black regiment spared no effort in proving that African Americans were capable of the task. The 54th Massachusetts regiment which was now well equipped and drilled marched over Beacon Hill and through Boston on May 28, 1863, watched by over 20,000 spectators. Among the spectators were prominent abolitionists William Garrison and John Brown (Russell 2000,).

The regiment experienced their first engagement on 16th July 1863 when the regiment repelled an assault on James Island. The main challenge to test the courage and valor of the African American soldiers came on 18th July when they were called upon to lead an assault on Battery Wagner which was a Confederate fort on Morris Island at Charleston. Colonel Shaw while addressing his soldiers before an attack across the beach said, “I want you to prove yourselves. The eyes of thousands will look on what you will do tonight (Russell 2000,).”

The massacre at Port Pillow

The Union troops had occupied Fort Pillow for two years since they captured it from the confederates. It was garrisoned by about 600 soldiers divided almost evenly between black soldiers and white soldiers (Cimprich 1982, 305). The black soldiers were under the command of Major Booth and belonged to the 2nd United States Colored Light Artillery and the 6th Colored Heavy Artillery. The majority of these black soldiers were former slaves who understood what the consequences of losing battle to the confederates would mean to them. The white soldiers were the 14th Tennessee Cavalry commanded by Major Bradford. The majority of the white soldiers were recruited. Brigadier Johnson Forrest had engaged his units in several skirmishes which did considerable damage to its supplies. He planned to launch several raids against Union fronts to capture their troops and supplies, and destroying their posts and forts. On April 4th, 1864 Forrest wrote, “There is a federal force of 500 or 600 at Fort Pillow, which I shall attend to in a day or two, as they have horses and supplies which we need,” (Cimprich 1982, 305).

On 12th April 1864, Forrest arrived at Fort Pillow at 10 a.m, already the confederacy forces had surrounded the Fort with 1500 men (Cimprich 1982, 293-294). It is reported that a stray bullet struck Forrest’s horse felling it down and bruising him in the process. This placed Forrest in a disagreeable mood that day. He deployed sharp snipers strategically on higher grounds that overlooked the Fort, thus exposing the federal troops to a direct line of attack. Consequently, Major Booth sniped on the chest by a sharpshooter and died and Bradford assumed command of the force. The Confederates overran the Union soldiers by capturing two rows of the barracks in just one hour. The battle continued until 3.30 P.M when Forrest displayed a flag of truce demanding Union troops to surrender unconditionally. “I now demand that unconditional surrender of your forces, at the same time assuring you that you will be treated as prisoners of war… should my command be refused I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.” Bradford requested an hour to consult. Forrest shortened the period to only 20 minutes believing that Union reinforcing troops would be arriving by the river. Bradford refused to surrender and Forrest ordered the charge.

The confederates attacked furiously across their lines and the fort, assisting each other to scale the parapet from where they assaulted the fort. They overran the Union forces in a few minutes making them escape towards the river and surrender. The escaping soldiers were subjected to heavy fire both from the rear and from the flank. Many of the Union soldiers were shot and others drowned on reaching the river while others were taken out by confederate marksmen on the bluff. Writer Shelby Foote summed the scene like this:

Some kept going, right into the river, where a number drowned and the swimmers became targets for marksmen on the bluff. Others dropping their guns in terror ran back towards the confederates with their hands up, and of these, some were spared as prisoners, while others were shot down in an act of surrender (Shelby 1986, 110).

Forrest did not mention the massacre in his report only insisted on the fact that the Union command had refused to surrender. Congress produced a report which indicted confederate forces on brutal atrocities, a charge which was refuted by the southerners. General Forrest was a temperamental and brutal man. He created an atmosphere ripe for the possibility of a massacre and did nothing within his power to prevent it from happening. Throughout his career, Forrest is reported to have repeatedly threatened “no quarter,” particularly to African American troops. Given these sentiments, the confederate soldiers might have taught butchering the enemy would mean carrying out his orders (Hurst 1993, 177). As Dudley Taylor wrote:

It has been asserted again and again that Forrest did not order a massacre. He did not need to. He had sought to terrify Fort Pillow garrison by a threat of no quarter, as he had done at the Union City and Paducah in the days just before he turned to Fort Pillow. If his men did enter the Fort shouting “Give them the quarter: kill them: kill them: it is Brigadier Forrest’s order,” he should not have been surprised (Dudley 1987, 175).

The Fort Pillow massacre was purely driven to a large extend by racial hatred. For instance, out of the 262 African American soldiers, 58 of them were taken in as prisoners of war. The rest were executed brutally. For white soldiers, out of the 295, 1658 were captured as prisoners of war (Shelby and Foote 1986, 110}. This is a clear indication of deliberate discrimination driven by deliberate racial hatred against troops of African descent. For instance, a southern reporter who was traveling with Forrest retorted: “Our troops, maddened by the excitement, shot down the retreating Yankees, and not until they had attained the water’s edge and turned to beg for mercy, did any prisoner fall into our hands… Thus the whites received quarter, but the Negroes were shown no mercy (Cimprich and Mainfort 1982, 304).” Dr. Charles Fitch, a Union surgeon who was also taken captive by General Forrest attested that he witnessed confederate soldiers “kill every Negroe who made his appearance in federal uniform (Wills 1992, 189).”

Annotated Bibliography

African Americans / Slavery. Web.

This web site describes the words of Frederick Douglas that motivated African Americans to join the Union army to fight for their freedom. This was a war that was meant to abolish slavery and save the Union.

Antietam, National Battlefield. The Emancipation Proclamation: 1863. Web.

This web site provides a decree by the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln in January 1, 1863. This Proclamation offered African Americans freedom slavery and oppression. It also offered them the equality of opportunity and unrestricted citizenship.

Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1987), 175.

The writer fully believes that Brigadier Johnson Forrest was fully responsible for the massacre that happened at Fort Pillow on 12th April 1863. According to him Forrest did not need to order the massacre of the black soldiers, his actions prior to the attack did. He had threatened the garrison with a no quarter as he had done at Union City and at Paducah.

John Cimprich and Robert C. Mainfort Jr., “Fort Pillow Revisited: New Evidence about an Old Controversy,” Civil War History 28 (1982): 293-294.

This book provides statistics on the number of men (1500) Brigadier Johnson Forrest used to attack the soldiers (about 600) of the Union manning the garrison.

Shelby, Foote, The Civil War, a Narrative: Red River Appomattox (New York: Vintage, 1986), 110.

The writer describes a chilling account on what he witnessed when the atrocities were committed. Confederate troops committed a massacre according to his description.


Antietam, National Battlefield. The Emancipation Proclamation: 1863. Web.

African Americans / Slavery. Web.

Cimprich, John, and Robert C. Mainfort Jr. “Fort Pillow Revisited: New Evidence about an Old Controversy.” Civil War History 28 (1982): 293-306.

Davis, William. The Battlefields of the Civil War: Oklahoma. University of Oklahoma: Press Norman, 2000.

Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative: Red River to Appomattox. New York: Vintage, 1986.

Hurst, Jack. Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Russell, Weighley. A Great Civil War. Indiana: Indiana Press, 2000.

Ward, Geoffrey, Burns, Ric, and Ken Burns. “The Civil War: An Illustrated History.” New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Wills, Brian Steel. A Battle from the start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

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