Life as a Union Black Soldier During the United States Civil War Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Life as a Union Black Soldier During the United States Civil War

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For many, the United States Civil War was a fight for freedom, but for a time, those seeking to be free had to fight for the right to fight for their freedom first. When they were granted this right in 1863, thousands of black men joined the Union armed forces, eventually making up ten percent of the fighting force, close to 200,000 men.

A Start

At the beginning of the Civil War, slaves who escaped their owners in the Confederate-ruled south were considered contraband of war and often returned to their former owners. The Confiscation Act of 13 March, 1862 prohibited the return of slaves to the rebel forces. On 17 July of the same year the Militia Act and the Second Confiscation Act were passed. The Militia Act enabled 'persons of African descent' to join the navy or army for 'the purpose of constructing entrenchments, or performing camp duty, or any other labour'. Furthermore, the Act offered freedom to the slaves of anyone who 'has levied war, or has borne arms against the United States, or has adhered to their enemies by giving them aid and comfort', as well as 'his mother, and his wife, and children', if they joined the Union armed forces under the act. After the Second Confiscation Act, slaves of southerners, once in the Union-controlled territory, were considered Prisoners of War rather than contraband. In effect, the Militia and Confiscation Acts were precursors to the Emancipation Proclamation, the first draft of which was presented only five days later, on 22 July, and which stated that blacks 'will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations and other places'. The Proclamation did not specifically allow ex-slaves or free blacks to join as soldiers.

The Search for Equality

After the Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas) the northern belief that the war would soon be won was proven erroneous, and blacks were allowed to enlist as soldiers in separate regiments under white officers. The pay rate did not go up to reflect their new duties as fighting men. The black soldier's pay of seven dollars plus a three-dollar clothing allowance per month (compared to the white soldier's 13 dollars including the clothing allowance) added to tension and became a major bone of contention throughout the conflict. James Henry Gooding, a corporal with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry put it eloquently:

Ten dollars by the greatest government in the world is an unjust distinction to men who have only a black skin to merit it. To put the matter on the ground that we are not soldiers would be simply absurd, in the face of the existing facts. A soldier's pay is $13 per month, and Congress has nothing to do but acknowledge that we are such. It needs no further legislation. To say even, we were not soldiers and pay us $20 would be an injustice, for it would rob a whole race of their title to manhood.

In a letter to President Abraham Lincoln he simply asks: 'We have done a Soldier's Duty. Why Can't we have a Soldier's pay?' Gooding and the other men of the 54th regiment of Massachusetts refused to take the ten dollars, and even refused to allow the State to supplement the pay, preferring to wait until the pay was equal for black and white soldiers. Gooding died before the rectification was made. In July, 1864 an act was passed to equalise pay, backdated to the beginning of the year. Blacks who were free before they signed up were also given the difference in pay for the previous years they were employed as soldiers. Many ex-slaves claimed they were free in part for the extra privileges granted, and also to avoid being found by their former owners.

Black Soldiers, White Officers

The black soldiers' regiments were commanded by white officers. The commander of the Department of the Gulf, Major-General Benjamin F. Butler, had commissioned educated black men as officers. His successor, Major-General Nathaniel P Banks, however, replaced the black officers with white men, using 'a variety of stratagems, ranging from formal boards of examination to outright deception, to purge the black commissioned officers'. When black officers were faced with the refusal of their white subordinates to follow orders, the black officers were told to resign as no one would recognise their authority. Black men could thereafter rise to the rank of Major, but only outside the chain of command, as chaplains or surgeons. The War Department finally relented in the face of the opposition of black soldiers and northern abolitionists, and a few blacks were made commissioned officers, but mostly only in the north.

During battles black men were often placed in greater jeopardy than their white counterparts, and their mortality rates were correspondingly higher. Black soldiers generally expected to be killed if they were captured, and of those who were placed in Prisoner-of-War (POW) camps, only a few survived to be set free in March 1865. Wounded men were not given proper, if any, medical treatment, and the south refused to recognise black soldiers as POWs, instead treating them as insurgent slaves, so they were not included in prisoner exchanges.

The Confederated States President Jefferson Davis said in December 1863 that commanders of black troops should be 'reserved for execution', a threat which was often carried out. The Confederate's Congress ruled that 'white commissioned officers of coloured troops when captured should be put to death or otherwise punished at the discretion of the military court before which they should be tried'. White officers of black regiments therefore had a strong incentive to make sure their men were good fighters. They were generally men like Colonel A Wild, who had an 'uncompromising belief in the value of black soldiers', and a 'deep-rooted hatred of the Confederacy'. Colonel James C Beecher took one of Wild's regiments to Charleston, and complained that the men were being reduced to slaves again when they were given menial tasks, fatigue assignments and lower pay. White officers in charge of black regiments were often insulted and ostracised by friends and loved ones, but generally received respect from their men. Gooding called Colonel Robert Gould Shaw1 one of the regiment's 'best and most devoted friends'2. A Union officer was recorded as saying, 'I have changed my opinion of the negroes as soldiers, since they showed themselves so efficient at the storming of Fort Wagner, and I honour any man who will take command of a body of them against all prejudice'. The officer later enlisted in a black regiment. Gooding described the officers of the 54th regiment in glowing terms, and related some of the recreation the officers organised for their men, with cash prizes for games and a Christmas dinner paid for out of the officers' own pockets.

Many officers are not so deserving of praise. Nathaniel Paige reported for the New York Tribune that the General in charge of the storming of Fort Wagner, Truman Seymour, discussed deliberately sending black men into dangerous positions:

We'll let Strong3 lead and put those d---d n*****s4 from Massachusetts in advance; we may as well get rid of them, one time as another.
The black soldiers also received unenviable treatment from many of their compatriots in arms, the white soldiers. Gooding off-handedly referred to their regiment being tricked into believing they were to be visited by Governor Andrew, quite probably one of many such incidents. Colonel James S Brisbin writes that the 'coloured soldiers' were the brunt of ridicule, jeers and taunts on the way to battle, but 'in no instance did I hear Coloured Soldiers make any reply'. After fighting and losing 114 out of 400 men, plus four officers at the Battle of Fort Wagner, 'those who had scoffed at the Coloured Troops on the march out were silent'. In the belief that to be caught in the same bunker as black soldiers meant instant death, in at least one incident black soldiers were killed by their own men.

The American Public

The public's reaction to the inclusion of black troops differed according to region. In Massachusetts, Gooding wrote of people donating 'towels, looking glasses, blacking and brushes, and three barrels of apples', 'sewing purses containing needles, thread, buttons, yarn, a thimble and paper of pins', and 50 pounds of tobacco. In the south, many black regiments were treated with derision by the public, but as soldiers of the Union the black men had more rights and protection than they would have had as free black men, including the right to testify against whites in courts of law. After the war, veterans and their families were sometimes viciously attacked.

When the war was won, Union black regiments stayed in the south to help police and guard the former rebels. Often whites leveled unsubstantiated charges against black soldiers, and the white Union officers sometimes punished the black soldiers without investigating the matter. On July 28, 1866 the United States Congress authorised regiments of black soldiers for the post war peace establishment.


186,000 black men fought for the Union in the United States Civil War, and between 36,000 and 38,000 of them died5.

Organised into separate black regiments, paid at a lower rate than white soldiers, denied the opportunity to become commissioned officers, often ill-used by commanders whose mode of discipline resembled that of slave masters, and frequently assigned to menial duties rather than combat, black soldiers learned forcefully the continued inequities of American life.

This aptly describes the treatment of black soldiers during the Civil War. The appalling death rate, the substandard treatment, the segregation and the unceasing prejudice faced by all black soldiers show that their lives were not easy ones. However, the men learnt new skills, advanced the claims of all black people to their right of citizenship, and received a chance to retaliate against their former masters. The Civil War was in part a culmination of centuries of unjust treatment, and while it certainly was not a cure for the prejudice prevalent in the country, it set the precedent for equality more than any one event in the history of the United States.

Further Reading

Freedom's Soldiers, edited by Ira Berlin, Joseph P Reidy, Leslie S Rowland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
Gooding, James Henry, On the Altar of Freedom, edited by Virginia M Adams, (Boston: University of Massachusetts, 1991).
Miller, Edward A Jr, The Black Civil War Soldiers of Illinois, (South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1998).
Trudeau, Noah Andre, Like Men of War, (Canada: Little, Brown and Company, 1998).

1Colonel Shaw was the 54th Massachusetts regiment's commander.2For further information on Colonel Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment see the film Glory.3General Strong was the commander of the 1st brigade. The 54th regiment was the advanced regiment of the brigade which led the attack.4The second word has been starred out to comply with the rules. It was not starred out in the original.5Another 65,000 black soldiers fought for the Confederate forces, where they were paid the same as the white soldiers.

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