Unit 6 African Americans and the Civil War, 1861-1865


Spurred by Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 and South Carolina’s continued articulation of its 1832 doctrine of nullification, eight states seceded from the Union between December 1860 and April 1861 and established a provisional government. In March 1861 in his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln indicated that although he had no intention of interfering with slavery where it existed, He would not permit secession, a confirmation of his initial intent to preserve the Union and not end slavery. Lincoln, in fact, regarded blacks as the intellectual inferiors of whites; believing the two races could not coexist peacefully, he supported black emigration as the solution to the nation’s racial problem. In 1862, for example, he implemented a pilot colonization project that used federal funds to settle about five hundred blacks on an island off the southern coast of Haiti.

By September 1862, Lincoln’s initial position regarding the war and slavery had changed. In this month he issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation: effective January 1, 1863, it made the abolition of slavery a war aim — a military objective, The untiring efforts of the abolitionists, who constantly reminded Lincoln of the military advantages of freeing the slaves, helped produce this document. The slaves themselves, who from the outset of hostilities constantly escaped to the Union lines, were also a factor. An estimated five hundred thousand of them (12.5 percent of the total slave population) ran away from their owners during the war. Thus, while the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to the Confederate-held states and territories and actually freed no slaves, it did encourage more of them to escape. This loss of slaves eventually helped impair the South’s capacity to pursue the war.

Aside from emancipation, the Civil War also affected blacks through their participation in the war — their military service, Northern blacks were initially rejected when they volunteered to fight, since their participation implied equality and blacks were believed to be too servile and cowardly to fight whites; “this is a white man’s war,” went a common expression in the North. However, because Union field commanders often found it expedient to use slaves, blacks actually saw action in the Civil War before their service was officially sanctioned. In May 1862, for example, General David Hunter declared slaves free in the South Carolina Sea Islands and impressed them into service, allowing them to fight along the Georgia coast before their regiment was disbanded.

By the summer of 1862, the official policy of not using blacks had been changed. Declining white man- power, linked to a series of military defeats that lowered northern morale and a war-weariness that sapped the willingness of many northern whites to join the army, forced the government to reconsider its exclusion of blacks. As a consequence, on July 17, 1862, Congress passed two acts providing for the enlistment of black soldiers. The first was the Confiscation Act, which empowered the President “to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of the rebellion.” The second authorized the employment of free blacks as soldiers.

In November 1862, the First South Carolina Volunteers became the first regiment organized officially after the policy reversal. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist from Massachusetts, was appointed colonel of this regiment. The first northern black unit, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, was organized in January 1863, On July 18, 1863, it led an assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate strong-hold that guarded the entrance to the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Its performance, the subject of the movie Glory, proved the bravery and courage of African American troops and facilitated their acceptance as northern soldiers. The Emancipation Proclamation and the War Department’s establishment in May 1863 of a Bureau of Colored Troops, designed to coordinate the raising of black regiments, also fostered the use of blacks as Union soldiers.

By the war’s end about 186,000 blacks, organized in 166 all-black regiments, had served in the Union army (out of a total of 1.8 million); about 26,000 blacks had served in the navy (out of a total of about 188,000). Most of the black participants were former slaves. For the most part, whites treated black soldiers with contempt; blacks were subjected to many indignities and injustices. For example, they received lower pay until June 1864 (ten dollars per month for a private versus sixteen dollars and fifty cents for a white of equal rank); their training was generally poor; their regiments were led by white officers; they were assigned disproportionately to heavy labor and fatigue duty; and they were often exploited, being given more dangerous assignments. Black soldiers experienced the highest casualty rate not only because of such deployment (37,000 of a total 360,000 Union deaths), but because the Confederate forces refused to take them prisoner. Probably the most infamous example of this policy was the Fort Pillow Massacre of April 12, 1864. After the rebels captured Fort Pillow, a Union outpost in Tennessee, an undetermined number (perhaps several score) of Union soldiers, mostly blacks, were executed after they had surrendered.

In addition to taking up arms against the South, African Americans rendered invaluable service to the Union forces behind the lines. They were scouts, spies, nurses, cooks, teamsters, carpenters, and laborers. For example, Harriet Tubman, the famed Underground Railroad conductor, saw duty as both a spy and a nurse for the Union army.

Of the 88,000 New Jerseyans who participated in the Civil War, blacks numbered 2,872 and represented 469 of New Jersey’s 6,300 fatalities. Since the state did not organize any “colored” regiments, black troops were assigned to the regiments of other states and credited to New Jersey. For example, New Jerseyans served in the famous Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, Black New Jerseyans also saw duty as sailors.

The North was not alone in using African Americans to aid its military effort. The South’s use of its slaves enabled it to release a large number of white males for direct service with the Confederate forces. Slaves were mobilized to work mines, repair railroads, build fortifications, work in factories, and continue agricultural production. Although the South never officially used slaves as soldiers, in the final months of the war it did indicate its willingness to free any slaves who would fight for the Confederacy. On March 13, 1865, Jefferson Davis signed the Negro Soldier Law which promised slaves freedom for service in the Confederacy. Although some enlistment occurred and a few companies were raised in Richmond, no regiments were formed, and the war ended before any black Confederate soldiers actually saw action.

Aside from the war itself, violence occurred during the Civil War in the form of antiblack riots in several northern cities, including Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston, Troy, Newark, and Jersey City. Occurring mainly between 1862 and 1863, these riots were sparked primarily by job competition between white and black laborers and the white workingman’s fear that emancipation would cause hordes of African Americans to come north, enter the labor market, and depress wages and by inflammatory statements expressing Copperhead sentiments of the Democratic press and Democratic politicians. The bloodiest of these disturbances was the notorious New York City draft riot of July 1863. It lasted for four days, during which eleven African Americans were killed and three hundred made homeless.

No northern state exceeded New Jersey in Copperhead strength and sentiment. Many white New Jerseyans indeed opposed the abolition of slavery, fearing that it would adversely affect the purchase of New Jersey industrial products in the South and that many freed slaves would migrate to northern states like New Jersey and compete for jobs. Opposition to abolition by some white New Jerseyans also rested in their strong belief that the emancipation of slaves by federal decree violated the rights of states. Notwithstanding such views, in December 1863, the Thirteenth Amendment, prohibiting slavery in the United States and any place subject to its jurisdiction, was introduced in Congress. By January 31, 1865, it had passed both houses in Congress, and by December it had been ratified by three-fourths of the states; New Jersey failed to ratify it. This amendment, which fulfilled the unfinished work of the Emancipation Proclamation, freed all slaves.

In March 1865, several months before the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, the Freedmen’s Bureau (officially, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands), the first federal welfare agency, was established. Charged with furnishing aid to ex-slaves in the form of food, clothing, medical services, education, and the supervision of work contracts, it lasted throughout most of the Reconstruction era. It also assisted white refugees in their efforts to recover from the war. Its first director, General Oliver Otis Howard, was a founder and the first president of Howard University.

Among earlier wartime efforts to assist ex-slaves were those on the Sea Islands (Gullah Islands) of South Carolina, which Union forces captured in November 1861. One notable participant in these efforts was Charlotte Forten, a black woman. A member of the famous Forten family of Philadelphia, she had received her training as a teacher in Massachusetts. She taught on Saint Helena Island between 1862 and 1864 as a part of the “social experiment” designed to prove that freedmen were as capable of self-improvement as whites. Her diary covering these two years is an important source of information about the life and culture of newly freed slaves.



The Civil War, in which blacks participated in appreciable numbers, brought about the end of slavery and therefore constitutes a pivotal point in African American history.

Materials and Preparation

Students should read either chapter 17 in The African American Experience: A History (“The Civil War and the End of Slavery”) or chapters 20 and 21 in African American History (“The House Divides” and “War’s End Brings Freedom”).

Students should read the Emancipation Proclamation.

Students and the teacher should read pages 27-29 in Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History.

The teacher should read chapter 11 in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (“Civil War”).

Time Period

Each of the activities that follow will take one class period.



  1. Explain the main ways in which the Civil War facilitated the emancipation of African Americans. Point out to the students the role of the Emancipation Proclamation in encouraging slaves to seek freedom. Have students analyze this proclamation and respond to the assertion that it actually freed no slaves. Ask them to explain why it didn’t apply to areas over which Lincoln exercised authority.
  2. Evaluation: Have the students imagine they were asked by President Lincoln to prepare a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. Have them prepare a draft that differs from the document issued by Lincoln. Ask them to justify their draft.


  1. Describe the kinds of military roles blacks performed while serving in the Union forces. Have students identify the various roles that blacks played in fighting for the North during the Civil War (such as soldiers, sailors, scouts, spies, nurses, cooks, teamsters, cooks). Have them discuss the importance of these roles.
  2. Evaluation: Have students imagine they are blacks serving with the Union forces. Have each student write a 500-word essay indicating what role he/she would have preferred performing and why. Both combatant and noncombatant roles should be included. Students should also indicate the importance of the particular role chosen. For example, if a student would have preferred being a cook, he/she should explain the importance of meals or food to an overall military effort.

Supplemental Activities

  1. Show students the film Glory, the story of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment (180 minutes), Point out that this unit, whose performance at Fort Wagner proved the capability of blacks for bravery and courage and thereby facilitated the acceptance of blacks in the Union forces, contained black New Jerseyans. The film can be obtained from any local video rental facility.
  2. Visit black cemeteries that contain the graves of Civil War veterans and have students obtain various data from their headstones (for example, their units, year of birth, year of death). Such cemeteries can be found in a number of New Jersey communities, including Burlington, Mount Laurel, Westampton (Timbuctoo), Camden, Lawnside, Pennsauken, Greenwich (Springtown), Eatontown, Neptune, Tinton Falls, Aberdeen, and Matawan.

Key Persons

Aaron Anderson. Served in the Union navy and received the Medal of Honor for courage in a 1865 naval battle.

William H. Carney. A sergeant with the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment, he received the Medal of Honor for bravery in planting the flag under fire at the Battle of Fort Wagner.

Charlotte Forten. Poet, diarist, and schoolteacher who taught on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, between 1862 and 1864 as part of an attempt to demonstrate that newly freed slaves could learn and were worthy of freedom.

Robert Smalls. South Carolina slave who stole a boat from the Confederate forces, piloted it safely to the Union forces, and subsequently became a captain in the Union navy and later a Congressman during Reconstruction from South Carolina.

Annotated Bibliography and Suggested Reading


Bernstein, Iver. 1990. New York City Draft Riots.
Examines the white political climate in New York City before, during and after its 1863 draft riot, one of the worst racial incidents in American history.
Billington, Ray A., ed.1953. The Journal of Charlotte Forten.
Includes a biography of a remarkable northern free black who educated ex-slaves in South Carolina during the Civil War. A touching and detailed early northern eyewitness account of the slaves, their society, and the changing times.
Cook, Adrian. 1974. The Armies of the Streets.
Details the grassroots white forces at work in the New York City draft riot of 1863.
Cornish, Dudley. 1956. The Sable Arm.
Cornish details the part played by black soldiers in the northern army.
Cox, LaWanda. 1981. Lincoln and Black Freedom.
A study of Abraham Lincoln’s racial attitudes and public policy and goals regarding the status of slavery and freedom.
Durden, Robert E. 1972. The Gray and the Black.
Most detailed study of Confederate military and social policies regarding slaves and free blacks in the South. Highlights the four-year debate over the question of arming the slaves.
Franklin, John Hope. 1963. The Emancipation Proclamation.
Short, but detailed study of Lincoln’s order to free the slaves. Franklin examines its intentions, perceptions of it, and the document’s impact on blacks and whites.
Glatthaar, Joseph T. 1990. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers.
The author explores the personal lives and world of white Union Army officers who led black troops in the Civil War and their relations on and off the battlefield.
McPherson, James. 1965. The Negro’s Civil War.
A documentary history that reveals how black Americans felt and acted during the war for the Union.
Quarles, Benjamin. 1953. The Negro in the Civil War.
A comprehensive study of black soldiers in the war, and the political and social context of their recruitment, use, and impact.
Wiley, Bell Irvin. 1938. Southern Negroes, — 1861-1865.
First major study of the economic and military roles played by slaves and free African Americans as conscripted and voluntary laborers for the Confederacy.
Zilversmit, Arthur, ed. 1971. Lincoln on Black and White.
Short but comprehensive selection of the Abraham Lincoln’s speeches about race relations, white views, and blacks.


Bradford, Sarah. 1989. Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People.
This book is a fascinating account of the woman who led more than three hundred fugitive slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Douty, Esther. 1971. Charlotte Forten. Free Black Teacher. An examination of Charlotte Forten’s life, especially her work as a teacher of freed slaves on Saint Helena Island between 1862 and 1864.
Hansen, Joyce. 1986. Which Way Freedom.
Obi escapes from slavery during the Civil War, joins a black Union regiment, and soon becomes involved in the bloody fighting at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. In exemplifying the commitment of all of those who fought to be free, he also illustrates the contribution made by many black soldiers to the Civil War.
Katz, William Loren. 1991. Breaking the Chains: African-American Slave Resistance.
Beginning with early slave rebellions and concluding with those just prior to the Civil War, Katz concentrates on breaking the myth of the happy, contented slave. He has culled numerous first-person quotations from both slaves and slave owners, the famous and the unknown, to give the true feelings of many of the people who were part of the world of slavery.
Sterling, Dorothy. 1958. Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls.
A fine biography of Robert Smalls by an author who has written successful and highly praised nonfiction books for young people.
Taylor, Susie King. 1902. A Black Woman’s Civil War Memoirs, Reminiscences of My Life In Camp.
The author traces her matrilineal line back to Africa, then unfolds her remarkable story. A freed slave, at age fourteen she became a volunteer field nurse for black Union soldiers advancing through South Carolina.
Uya, Okon E. 1971. From Slavery to Public Service: Robert Smalls, 1839-1915.
Short but detailed biography of the former South Carolina slave whose daring escape to freedom on a Confederate boat was followed by a long period of political service during and after Reconstruction.
Walker, Margaret. 1966. Jubilee.
In this novel, the Civil War years are recounted from the imagined point of view of Vyry, a slave woman who was the author’s great-grandmother. Vyry’s mother had been the favored slave mistress of the plantation owner, Marse Dutton, and at an early age Vyry comes to live in the big house, first as a playmate and servant to Marse’s daughter. Vyry marries a free black, they have two children, and, despite a series of harrowing events that were commonplace for blacks after the war, together they dream of an education for their children.


The Emancipation Proclamation (1863)

Digitized by Deborah Mercer and Edith Beckett of the New Jersey State Library.
Copyright 2003 by the New Jersey Historical Commission,
New Jersey Department of State.
All rights reserved.
Please direct questions and comments to Deborah Mercer.
Updated:Wednesday, April 23, 2003