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NPS History E-LibraryScene in Antietam National Cemetery in Sharpsburg, Maryland

Civil War Series

The Civil War's Black Soldiers



Like its officer selection, the means of obtaining enlisted men differed markedly from that of white commands. Racial prejudice and the institution of slavery created a host of problems, which forced whites to alter their methods of recruiting black soldiers. The more simple process for white units consisted of a call to arms, local enlistment quotas, the hiring of substitutes, and the threat and stigma of conscription. Those steps were merely a piece of the recruitment puzzle for the USCT.

In the North, nearly all black people supported military service. The Federal government had little trouble convincing men of African descent to enlist. They viewed the war as a golden opportunity to crush the institution of slavery, to stand on the same level and in the same uniform as the white man, and to dispel the oppressive notions of prejudice that haunted the black population.


The major problem of black recruitment in the Union was the hostile white population. Arguments of a white man's war and beliefs in black inferiority pervaded Northern white society. Neither white soldiers nor white citizens wanted black soldiers fighting alongside them. But the realities of war compelled reconsideration. Those whites in uniform realized that they needed more men in arms. They preferred whites, but black soldiers were better than nothing. At least black troops could perform the drudgery of combat support—digging ditches, building fortifications, driving wagons, and laboring as stevedores—to free white men for combat.

Civilians in selected businesses, too, realized that as whites shuffled off to war, the North lost valuable workers. Many civic leaders joined hands with military officials to alter public perceptions of black military service. They did so, strangely enough, by tapping into those tightly held racist attitudes. Advertisements for the creation of new black units not only urged them to enlist, they sometimes explained why it was in the interest of whites to tolerate and even encourage black volunteering. Each black man who joined the army kept one white man from going to war. Black enlistment reduced local manpower quotas and in numerous instances prevented a draft. It kept skilled white workers at home, many of whom produced food and materials that aided the war effort. Thus, in a peculiar way, black recruitment posters drew on racial prejudice to convince whites to elevate blacks by supporting an expansion of the USCT. And over time, this novel approach worked.


Despite the strong commitment of Northern blacks to military service, their small population base could sustain comparatively few regiments. The overwhelming number of black soldiers in the Union army, probably more than 80 percent, came from the seceding states, where almost nine of every ten black people in prewar America resided. There the institution of slavery and a hostile white population made black enlistment both complicated and hazardous.

Slaves who fled to Union lines frequently incurred enormous risks. For many, flight was a huge gamble. Seldom did they know the exact location of the Union army, and if they fell into the hands of Confederate soldiers or citizens, the consequences were grave. Beatings, whippings, mutilations, and even murder awaited captured runaways. To avoid detection, they usually traveled by night and hid during the daylight hours, obtaining food from fellow slaves or foraging as best they could. Successful fugitives often entered Federal lines utterly exhausted and famished. With the offer of three meals a day, clothing, shelter, and pay, enlistment in the army was their only means of support.


Runaways provided recruits in dribbles. A much better means of gathering enlistees was through campaigning. As Federals penetrated a region, throngs of slaves fell into Yankee hands or followed the army back to safety. Within those occupied regions or among the hundreds, sometimes thousands of bondsmen who used the army as their shield to freedom, the military could obtain enough males to fill several regiments. These campaigns offered the added benefit of securing family members of prospective enlistees. It was no small comfort for a black soldier to know that while he fought for the destruction of slavery and reunion, his family was safely ensconced behind Yankee lines.

Eager recruiters greeted freedmen as they entered Federal camps. In most cases, the individual who supervised the enlistment process would also serve as the recruit's commanding officer. This checked the worst abuses. Occasionally an officer would fail to explain clearly how long the enlistment hitch was or not discuss fully the duties of soldiering to unsuspecting former slaves. But because this officer would command that fellow, and perhaps even enter battle with him, it behooved the officer to treat the black man responsibly. Such was not the case with some civilian and military recruiters. They either had quotas to meet or got paid for each man they enlisted and had no particular interest in the man once he took the oath of service. Many unscrupulous civilian and military recruiters defrauded them of enlistment bounties lied to them, and accepted men for service with obvious illnesses, injuries, wounds, or deformities. These practices infuriated white authorities and left a bad impression on black enlistees. It took considerable effort on the part of their officers to break down this animosity toward any white official.


But for black soldiers in general, the initial days of military service were thrilling moments. For the first time in their lives, they felt as if they were on the same level as whites. They had stepped forward in their country's time of need, and the nation accepted them readily. They would wear the same uniforms, carry the same weapons, endure the same hardships, and share the same joys as white soldiers. "Put a United States uniform on his back," noticed one of their officers, "and the chattel is a man." It uplifted them as never before. "This was the biggest thing that ever happened in my life," recalled a former slave. "I felt like a man with a uniform on and a gun in my hand."

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