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

Civil War Series

The Civil War's Black Soldiers



Late in 1862, Confederate president Jefferson Davis attempted to strike a fatal blow to the prospects of Union recruitment of African Americans. He ordered government forces to turn over any captured black troops to state authorities. The white officers would be tried according to state law for inciting servile insurrection; the runaways would return to slavery or suffer the death penalty, like their white officers. No proviso covered the capture of free blacks in Union uniform. As reinforcement, in late April and early May, the Confederate Congress passed a joint resolution, also calling for the death of white officers for inciting servile insurrection and the reenslavement of black soldiers.

Although this position may have comforted Southern whites, from a practical standpoint it was unworkable. Europeans, whom the Davis administration was courting for military assistance, found the policy offensive. And international law, as the Lincoln administration quickly pointed out, supported the position that these were legitimate soldiers and must receive the same rights as white prisoners of war. Lincoln vowed to retaliate man for man for executed Yankees, and for each black soldier the Confederacy returned to slavery, he would place a Rebel soldier at hard labor. Since there were more Confederate than Federal prisoners of war, Lincoln could ultimately outlast Davis.

In the end, the Davis administration backed down, but Confederate officers on the scene sometimes established their own policy. Either they refused to take black soldiers as prisoners or fought under the black flag, which indicated that they would take no prisoners, nor would they expect the Yankees to take any.


As a result, wartime atrocities against the USCT were commonplace, as Confederates hoped to discourage black enlistment and sought revenge for their contributions to the Union army. The first killings were isolated incidents. But as the war dragged on and Confederates became more and more frustrated, atrocities in battle escalated. In 1864, at Poison Springs. Arkansas, the Federals abandoned the field, leaving behind wounded soldiers, many of them from a black regiment. Eyewitnesses assured a Union colonel that Confederate troops murdered them on the spot. During the Battle of Saltville, Confederates executed numerous black troops who fell into their hands. Over the next two days, two separate parties of Confederate troops entered Rebel hospitals and executed seven wounded black soldiers in their beds.

Without doubt, the most infamous series of atrocities in the war occurred approximately forty miles north of Memphis, at Fort Pillow. The Federal garrison consisted of 550 soldiers, nearly one-half of whom were black. In April 1864, 1,500 Confederate cavalrymen under the command of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest demanded the surrender of the fort. When the Union commander refused, Forrest's troops stormed the fort and killed, wounded, or captured almost the entire garrison. Two-thirds of all black soldiers at Fort Pillow were killed, compared to 36 percent of the white Yankees.


After the battle, Federals accused Forrest and his troops of committing all sorts of atrocities against black soldiers. Forrest and Confederate authorities insisted that no such brutal acts had occurred, that only black soldiers who continued to fight or tried to escape lost their lives. The U.S. Congress's Committee on the Conduct of the War launched an investigation and concluded that Forrest's men had butchered black troops. Southerners, and Forrest in particular, continued to claim that his command had done nothing wrong. But testimony from both Federal and Confederate troops and civilians on the scene indicates that Forrest's men did execute some black soldiers.

Atrocities only served to solidify the USCT's reputation in the Union army and unite the white officers and black soldiers within those units. Black regiments responded by fighting under the black flag on occasion or executing Confederate prisoners without warning. Black soldiers cried, "Remember Fort Pillow" as they entered battle, and in numerous instances they gained revenge. In the assault on Fort Blakely, where black units charged without orders, their behavior differed little from that of Forrest's men. According to a lieutenant in the USCT, when the black troops charged, "the rebs were panic-struck. Numbers of them jumped into the river and were drowned attempting to cross, or were shot while swimming. Still others threw down their arms and run for their lives over to the white troops on our left, to give themselves up, to save being butchered by our niggers the niggers did not take a prisoner, they killed all they took to a man." White officers sometimes overlooked such retribution, while other times they proved incapable of putting a halt to it. In fact, the problem of black soldiers executing Confederates became so widespread that black Chaplain Henry M. Turner complained publicly about these acts of brutality.


On April 18, 1864, approximately 3,600 Confederate cavalry overran a forage train guarded by 1,170 Union troops at an obscure spot in southern Arkansas called Poison Springs. The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry, the largest unit in the Union escort, bore the brunt of the Rebel assault and suffered heavily. Out of 438 officers and men engaged, the regiment lost 117 slain and 65 wounded. Several Federal survivors claimed they saw their victorious foes killing black prisoners, including men too badly injured to get away, which accounted for the fact that the 1st Kansas had nearly twice as many personnel killed as wounded—an unusual occurrence in Civil War combat.

Confederate participants confirmed these atrocity stories. "The havoc among the negroes had been tremendous," a Texas officer confided to his journal. "Over a small portion of the field we saw at least 40 dead bodies. . ., some scalped & nearly all stripped. . . . No black prisoners were taken." The editor of the Washington Telegraph, the mouthpiece of Confederate Arkansas, justified such merciless behavior in these terms: "We cannot treat negroes . . . as prisoners of war without a destruction of the social system for which we contend. . . . We must claim the full control of all negroes who may fall into our hands, to punish with death, or any other penalty."


News of the Poison Spring Massacre soon reached Major General Frederick Steele's 13,000-man Union army at Camden, twelve miles to the east. Colonel Samuel J. Crawford and the officers of the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry grimly vowed "that in future the regiment would take no prisoners so long as the Rebels continued to murder our men."

The 2nd Kansas Colored redeemed that pledge on April 30, 1864, when Steele's retreating forces turned on pursuing Confederates at Jenkins' Ferry on the south side of the Saline River. At one point in the battle, Crawford's black soldiers charged two enemy cannon, thrusting their bayonets into surrendering gunners while shouting: "Poison Springs!" A private in the white 29th Iowa Infantry, whose regiment supported the 2nd Kansas, wrote his family: "One of our boys seen a little negro pounding a wounded reb in the head with the but of his gun and asked him what he was doing. the negro replied he is not dead yet!" During a subsequent lull in the fighting, details from the 2nd Kansas ranged the field, cutting the throats of Confederate wounded. "We found that many of our wounded had been mutilated in many ways," reported the surgeon of the 33rd Arkansas Infantry. "Some with ears cut off, throats cut, knife stabs, etc. My brother . . . had his throat cut through the windpipe and lived several days."

Reflecting on the racially motivated killings at Poison Springs and Jenkins' Ferry, an officer in the 40th Iowa Infantry concluded sadly: "The 'rebs' appear to be determined to show no quarter to Black troops or officers commanding them. It would not surprise me in the least if this war would ultimately be one of extermination. Its tendencies are in that direction now."

—Gregory J. W. Urwin

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