Lesson Plan

United States Colored Troops in the Civil War

Rather die freemen than live to be slaves - 3rd United States Colored Troops
Rather die freemen than live to be slaves - 3rd United States Colored Troops

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

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Grade Level:
Eighth Grade-Twelfth Grade
African American History and Culture, Civil Rights Movement, Civil War, History, Social Studies
3-4 days for complete lesson
Group Size:
Up to 36 (6-12 breakout groups)
USCT, primary source analysis, united states colored troops, Civil War, Mississippi, teaching with primary sources, black soldiers


African American troops fought valiantly in the Civil War. This Teacher Ranger Teacher created lesson uses a web quest and primary sources to look at the contributions of these brave soldiers.


  •  To learn about the role of the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War through web research and use of primary sources.
  • The student will investigate the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation in allowing blacks to join the United States army. 
  • The students will investigate the role African American soldiers played during the war. 



 At the outbreak of the Civil War there were a limited number of black soldiers who were a part of the Union Army. Both sides were confident of victory, and neither fully understood how much death and destruction would come to pass before the South surrendered. As the war raged on, the number or men who were needed increased daily. With dwindling armies on both sides, due to losses from disease and combat, the Union started to look toward black for manpower. Many blacks served in support roles in the Union army, but it was not until Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, that blacks were able to officially serve as soldiers and sailors in combat.

By the end of the war 200,000 black soldiers had served and fought in many major battles such as the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, the Battle at New Markets Height, the Battle of Brices Cross Roads, the Battle of Tupelo, and many others. Many whites had their doubts about the bravery of the black soldiers, but their doubts were dispelled at Fort Wagner when the 54th Massachusetts charged gallantly only to be killed in mass.

Despite the acceptance of blacks as soldiers in the Union army, very few were given ranks of any importance. Whites who were willing to take commissions as officers over a black regiments enabled their careers to skyrocket. Each officer treated the men underneath him differently depending on his attitude toward the abilities of black soldiers. Even though it would be years before much progress would be accomplished in the Civil Rights Movement, the black soldiers of the Civil War contributed directly to changing the opinion of many whites about the black race. When soldiers fight side by side sharing the common goals of survival and victory many barriers are broken down that otherwise existed without the strains of combat.

Fifteen men from the USCT received Congressional Medals of Honor from the United States government over the course of the war. This award is the highest recognition for valor that the United States government bestows for service of our country. The men who died were posthumously rewarded with the passage of the 13th Amendment freeing all slaves throughout the United States. Their efforts were not in vain. 


Students must have web access to complete the web quest which is provided as both a Powerpoint presentation and as a PDF file. All primary sources and worksheets are provided in the lesson plan. 

For the complete lesson plan, please email natr_education@nps.gov or call 1-800-305-7417. Please indicate whether or not you need an accessible lesson plan.



 Students will engage in a primary source analysis using an 1865 illustration called "Emancipation". 


Additional Resources

 Some relevant Civil War websites:

Mississippi's Final Stands is the partner visitor center for Brice's Cross Roads and the Battle of Tupelo (Harriburg)

Civilwar.org is the official website of the Civil War Trust

Last updated: January 11, 2018