Reception to the Enlistment of Black Soldiers

Although the onset of the American Civil War was inextricably linked with the practice of race-based slavery in the states that became the Confederacy, African Americans were prohibited from serving in the conflict during the war’s early years. The war, argued Union leaders, was being fought to restore the Union, not to end slavery. As the war progressed, however, the need for soldiers increased, and the tone of the conflict became more antislavery. With the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 came the decision to recruit African American soldiers from both the North and the South for the Union Army. From 1863 onward, African American volunteers enlisted in great numbers, wishing both to aid efforts to abolish slavery and to encourage the restored United States to grant them full citizenship rights. Despite initial reservations, many military leaders came to welcome their contributions to the struggle.

Summary Overview

Although the onset of the American Civil War was inextricably linked with the practice of race-based slavery in the states that became the Confederacy, African Americans were prohibited from serving in the conflict during the war’s early years. The war, argued Union leaders, was being fought to restore the Union, not to end slavery. As the war progressed, however, the need for soldiers increased, and the tone of the conflict became more antislavery. With the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 came the decision to recruit African American soldiers from both the North and the South for the Union Army. From 1863 onward, African American volunteers enlisted in great numbers, wishing both to aid efforts to abolish slavery and to encourage the restored United States to grant them full citizenship rights. Despite initial reservations, many military leaders came to welcome their contributions to the struggle.

Defining Moment

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, free African Americans in both the Union and the Confederacy sought to answer the call to serve. African American soldiers had served in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and the Civil War seemed even more relevant to these Americans’ pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Yet the free African Americans in the North who attempted to join the Union Army were unsuccessful. A 1792 federal law barred African Americans from service in the US military–a law conveniently ignored during the War of 1812–and black men were equally forbidden service in state militias. Some African Americans continued efforts to join nevertheless, with one group in Massachusetts beginning drill exercises and repeatedly petitioning for a change in the discriminatory laws. In Massachusetts and throughout the North, the answer was always a firm no. The war, leaders argued, was based on the stability of the Union rather than the issue of slavery, and as such, it was not one of especial concern to the nation’s African American population. This contention aimed to assure border slave states such as Maryland and Kentucky that their continued loyalty to the Union posed no threat to the continuation of the institution of slavery within their borders, but it gave little comfort to the free blacks rejected by their national and state governments.

Contrary to early expectations, however, the war was not quickly or easily won. Levels of white enlistment dropped off, and in 1862 Union leaders began to reconsider the viability of black units. In July of 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act and the Militia Act, which freed those African Americans enslaved by owners who were fighting for the Confederate Army and encouraged the Union Army to take on freed slaves as fighters and support workers. As the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863, Northern recruitment of black soldiers began apace. Although many African Americans were initially reluctant to volunteer, leaders such as Frederick Douglass urged enlistment, believing that a strong showing of African American service for the Union cause would help secure black citizenship rights after the war ended. Enlistments increased, and in the spring of 1863 the Bureau of Colored Troops was created to oversee black soldiers. In time, some 179,000 African Americans enlisted in the army and about 19,000 in the navy. African American troops fought in combat, served behind the lines, and proved valuable as scouts and spies.

Author Biography


Unquestionably the leading antislavery publication in the United States, the Liberator was founded as a weekly newspaper in Boston in 1831 by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Intensely opposed to slavery, Garrison was among the first and was certainly the loudest voice to call for complete and immediate abolition throughout the nation. He commenced publication of the Liberator with a strong statement supporting the equality of all people, including enslaved African Americans, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Over the next several decades of the fight against slavery, Garrison never backed down from this stance, earning a reputation as arguably the most radical of the abolitionist figures operating in the United States at that time. Under his guidance, the Liberator, although boasting a paid circulation of just three thousand, became widely recognized as influential well beyond its nominal readership.

During the Civil War, Garrison called not only for emancipation and a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery throughout the United States, but also for the inclusion of African American soldiers in the Union Army, with pay equal to that of white soldiers. With the passage and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery in 1865, Garrison considered the work of the Liberator complete. It ceased publication with a declaration of victory on December 29, 1865.

North American

In contrast, the North American was a mainstream publication founded in Philadelphia in 1839. Through a merger with the competing American Daily Advertiser, the North American could lay claim to connections with the oldest daily newspaper in the United States. Unlike the Liberator, the North American had no particular antislavery agenda and as late as the 1850s offered only tempered support for the Republican Party. Unlike Garrison, the editors of the North American largely supported the Civil War as a method to restore the divided Union, not as a moral crusade to obtain liberty and civil rights for African Americans.

Document Analysis

The Civil War was a time of great change for African Americans, not only because it led to the abolition of slavery throughout the nation but also because it set the stage for a brief period of time during which African Americans made significant strides in legal and political equality. In the closing days of the conflict and Reconstruction, for example, African Americans were fully emancipated from slavery; given legal citizenship rights equal to those of white Americans; granted the franchise on equal footing with white men; successfully elected to representative office at the local, state, and federal levels; and, through the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau, slowly propelled along a path toward economic advancement through education and training. Although the promise of Reconstruction was not fully realized due to its abrupt end in 1877, those rights that had been granted constitutionally could not be entirely revoked. Slavery in particular could not be restored. Yet these changes required a level of public support in order to be successfully enacted, even in the Republican-dominated legislature of the Civil War era. Before the war, many Northerners opposed the extension of slavery, and a smaller but growing number had come to support the idea of nationwide emancipation; whether that emancipation should be immediate or gradual and whether those who gained liberty should attain suffrage remained unsettled questions. Over the course of the war, however, sufficient support for African American rights spread through the North and enabled these changes to take place.

One important factor in achieving these reforms in the North was the dedicated military service of African Americans in the Union Army. Although African Americans were initially believed to make poor soldiers and were thus rejected for service, changing needs and the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 meant that free blacks in the North and emancipated blacks in the South could be recruited for service in the Union military. This force in transforming white Northern public opinion of the value of their African American neighbors as possible citizens can thus be traced through the appeals to African American recruits in the 1863 Liberator article and the celebration of black military service in the 1865 North American article reprinted here. In 1863, white acceptance of black soldiers was growing due to the valor of the earliest black troops in battle; by 1865, white respect for those soldiers’ contributions had only grown, helping African Americans throughout the nation work toward the goals of liberty and equality. African American military service was thus inextricably linked with emancipation.

The Liberator

Formal calls for that service rang loudly by mid-1863, when the abolitionist weekly the Liberator published an article encouraging support for recruitment efforts in Pennsylvania. Along with providing the details of the service expected of recruits, the article calls on readers to offer financial support to help cover the great burden of paying for such efforts; tax revenues in these pre–income tax days were too low to cover the costs of fielding a large fighting force for an extended period, and Pennsylvania lacked the needed monies to pay for its planned African America militia. It also lacked sufficient men, the article argues, calling for the expansion of recruitment efforts outside the state’s borders following a model similar to that used by Massachusetts. Some Union states retained the institution of slavery, and these states were obviously reluctant to organize their own African American militias. Yet free African Americans did live in these states and provided a possible body on which other states could draw.

The article then moves to stir its readers’ “influence and sympathy” for the cause and value of African American soldiers. The respect of the white community, the author argues, gave black soldiers an additional incentive to enlist in the army of a nation “which has thus far given [them] but a stepmother’s affection”–affection that is unwilling and inadequate, thanks to the oppression of both free and enslaved blacks in the North and South. The article then calls strongly for the recruitment of African American soldiers to oppose the rebellion and reminds the reader of the contributions of black soldiers throughout US military history. Americans, the article notes, may have become “forgetful of past experience in [their] two wars with England”–that is, the American Revolution and the War of 1812, both conflicts in which black soldiers fought as members of the American military. Thus, the article suggests, many Americans may have equally forgotten that African American soldiers were more than capable of challenging white soldiers on the battlefield.

Yet the “generous self-sacrifice” of black soldiers in the Civil War battles of Fort Hudson and Milliken’s Bend, the author argues, served to reverse that forgetfulness. The battle of Fort Hudson (more commonly known as the Siege of Port Hudson) was one of the first major altercations to involve some of the Union’s newly recruited African American soldiers, in this case the first and third Louisiana regiments. Both regiments, known as the Native Guard, were made up mostly of freedmen–the Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves held within rebelling states at the beginning of the year–and the First Regiment was particularly well known, having formed under free African American officers in New Orleans. As part of the overall campaign against the hotly contested city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, Union forces launched an attack on the Confederate outpost at Port Hudson in late May of 1863. Among the first Union troops to lead the assault against the heavily defended stronghold were the black Louisiana regiments, who fought with great bravery and distinction despite failing to carry the day. One African American officer, historical accounts report, continued to rally his men even after his own arm had been shattered by munitions fire. Like the Liberator, white publications throughout the North hailed the black soldiers for their “unsurpassed courage” in this battle, beginning the shift in opinion and expectations of African American troops.

On June 7, 1863, black soldiers fighting in enemy territory again showed their valor. Recently recruited regiments of freedmen successfully repelled a Confederate attack on the Union outpost at Milliken’s Bend, a point on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River not far from Vicksburg. Milliken’s Bend had been used as a supply stop and medical center, and many of the troops stationed there were African Americans with little training or battle experience. A force of Confederate troops estimated at about 1,500, under the command of Brigadier General Henry E. McCulloch, attacked the outpost before dawn. Despite suffering heavy casualties, the Union force managed to resist the attack until the arrival of two gunboats helped chase away the Confederate forces in earnest. Particularly notable in the battle was the bravery of the untested black regiments, whom leaders on both sides of the conflict acknowledged as especially effective soldiers. Indeed, the African American soldiers of the Ninth Regiment took the heaviest casualties of the Union forces; 62 of the regiment’s men were killed and 130 wounded out of a total force of 285. Because of the high numbers of African American casualties in this and other battles, scholars have speculated that Confederate troops may have specifically targeted black Union soldiers or even killed them after they had surrendered–an action that violated military ethics. Some black soldiers were taken prisoner by the Confederate forces, and later reports indicated that these men had been enslaved in Texas and not freed until the war’s end. In contrast, the Liberator claims that “when properly trained and officered, [the African American solider] may be implicitly relied on to observe the rules of honorable warfare.” African American soldiers, the article suggests, were not just competent and brave; they were, in fact, more valiant and reliable than the white soldiers of the Rebel army.

The actions of the black troops at Milliken’s Bend helped dispel commonly held conceptions within the military and the civilian populace that African American soldiers simply would not fight as diligently or as well as white ones. Military leaders who oversaw the Vicksburg campaign stated that the African American troops had proven themselves, and the assistant secretary of war, Charles Dana, declared that the bravery of the troops at Milliken’s Bend had completely changed the way that all black soldiers were viewed at all levels of command. Thus, as the Liberator notes, “the last objection” to black recruitment was “removed, and no loyal citizen [could] hesitate to aid in every practicable mode a movement which must prove most efficient in quieting the rebellion.” The article’s sentiment is clear: no one could reasonably oppose the enlistment of black soldiers for the Union cause, for no logical objection to their efforts existed. This is consistent with the Liberator’s ongoing message during the conflict, that African American soldiers must be recruited and deserved pay equal to that of the white soldiers with whom they fought.

Backed by these claims of African American valor and fitness for fighting to both restore the Union and end slavery, the Liberator article concludes with a call to moral and financial action in support of the enlistment of black soldiers. The article notes that the publication’s readers are certain to support this cause, for it aids the Union at large, a goal obviously compatible with the aims of a group opposed to slavery and the oppression of African Americans.

Reprinted in the article is a standard recruiting message used by the Union Army. Proclaiming itself a message to “men of color,” the advertisement notes the delay in recruiting African American soldiers but asserts that the “well or ill-founded” reasons on which that delay was based were no longer considered valid. Instead, the advertisement uses persuasive language and reasoning that seeks to convince the reader to enlist. The Civil War, it points out, was a conflict concerning issues of great interest to African Americans as well as one that endangered the continuation of a country that had been inhabited by people of African descent for centuries. This country, the advertisement asserts, “now invites [African Americans] to arms in her defense”–a clear call to enlist in the Union Army.

That the black residents of North America had overwhelmingly arrived unwillingly and in chains in the bellies of slave ships was apparently not considered relevant to this patriotic argument, although the advertisement does acknowledge that the experience of African Americans had often been at minimum a difficult and troubled one. The United States, the messages argues, is the place to which for reasons unknown and incomprehensible to humankind, God drew people from their African homes. The conflation of God with human slave traders does not necessarily seem likely to appeal to free African American men who may have been born into slavery, but the comparison does serve to support black racial pride and confidence to an extent. If God was the ultimate force driving Africans to the Americas, then their presence there was divinely ordained and morally proper. If the US government was now acknowledging this propriety, the often-discussed plan to relocate native-born African Americans to colonies in West Africa was at last being accepted as a poor solution to the question of managing the nation’s black population. The advertisement attempts to draw in possible troops by suggesting that service in the “fiery furnace” of military conflict could cleanse both white and black Americans of “the sins and the wrongs of the past,” allowing a future to emerge in which the nation’s African American residents and their descendents might enjoy a more just and equitable stature. This language allowed the advertisement’s white authors to admit guilt in the oppression of their readers subtly without condemning the society that they so fervently hoped to sustain in part through African American military action. Black military service, according to those who sought to recruit, thus allowed African Americans both to fulfill their patriotic duty to a country that now acknowledged having treated them unfairly and to prove to the same country that they deserved to be accepted as its legitimate children.

The North American

African Americans in both the Union and the Confederacy responded to that call, largely joining the Union Army in segregated units commanded by white officers. The extent to which the bravery and patriotic spirit of these African American soldiers managed to reshape white opinion of black abilities–at least in the North–is evident in the tone of the 1865 North American article reporting on the warm welcome given to African American militia members during a victory march in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. According to the article, several thousand African American noncombatants joined the returning soldiers on their parade. The author hails the reception of the troops as being “as it should be, respectful and honorable.” This language obviously expresses approval of the crowd’s welcome of the African American soldiers, affirming that the respect and honor given to these troops was proper and befitting their status as US soldiers.

The next portion of the North American article focuses on the congratulatory speech given by Simon Cameron, who had served as secretary of war in Lincoln’s cabinet at the outset of the conflict. Cameron had argued for the recruitment of free African Americans as early as 1861; in October of that year, for example, he had authorized military leaders in South Carolina to employ fugitive slaves in their forces. Cameron’s tenure in office was short, however, and he was replaced by Edwin Stanton in early 1862, several months before serious consideration of arming black soldiers began. In his speech, Cameron reiterated the bravery and patriotism demonstrated by African American troops in battle, which he declared had “nobly redeemed all [they] promised.” He affirmed the idea that African American military service was likely to lead to increased civil rights and hailed black soldiers as having the same claim to self-determination as all other humans. Such language reflected the growing acceptance of African Americans as humans rather than subhuman slaves.

Cameron then briefly outlined the plan for Reconstruction proposed by “a great man… able and determined to deal justly with all,” President Andrew Johnson. Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction was similar to that proposed by his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, in that it offered a relatively easy path for rejoining the Union to the rebellious states but required them to affirm certain rights and freedoms for their black residents. Among these requirements was the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, and a series of measures that eventually became part of the Fourteenth Amendment: equal protection under the law and the right to due process of law, both widely denied to African Americans by state and federal law in the years leading up to the war. Cameron then hailed the emancipation of African Americans, tying this action to the will of God. Just as the 1863 Union military recruitment advertisement claims that God had caused Africans to come to the Americas as slaves, so did the 1865 US military spokesman credit God with ending that institution.

The North American article concludes by detailing the formal celebrations that honored the Pennsylvania soldiers’ war contributions. A number of military leaders hailed the troops, and the event’s religious speaker praised the work done by African Americans “in the struggle for American nationality, civilization and freedom” despite their history of oppression by the country. The keynote speaker expanded upon these recurring themes and again argued for the political and social advancement of the nation’s black population as a result of their countrymen’s military service. Formal support and respect for the contributions of those soldiers whose offer to enlist had been rejected just four years previously had grown so greatly that the article mentions “distinguished men of color,” a concept previously foreign to many in the United States, and the state government hosted a grand ball to honor its soldiers. Truly, African American military service had brought about what decades of antislavery action had failed to achieve: full emancipation and, for a time, increased popular support for black equality.

Essential Themes

The enlistment of African American soldiers in the Union Army both reflected the changing nature of the war and helped encouraged the ultimate Northern victory. Slavery had been a political, economic, and social fact of life in the United States since the earliest colonial era; the majority of white Americans, regardless of whether they supported the expansion of slavery, believed that African Americans were naturally inferior to whites. When the war began, its stated purpose was not to end slavery or enfranchise repressed free blacks but rather to force the rebellious Confederate states to accept the validity of the US federal government. Lincoln and the moderate Republicans opposed the expansion of slavery but not its continuation in the places where it already existed, a stance that allowed them, they believed, to retain the loyalty of those border states that permitted slavery but remained part of the Union. Although the question of slavery was the obvious spark for the conflict, US leaders avowed that the war itself was not fought based on issues of race or slavery.

This stance changed dramatically as the war progressed. A war to maintain the status quo–particularly one as politically contentious as slavery had been since the time of the nation’s founding–did little to arouse Northern vigor as the conflict proved a long, costly, and bloody one. Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and extend African Americans the opportunity to fight for the Union altered the tenor of the conflict. It was no longer simply a political war fought for the power of one government over another; instead, it was a moral crusade to promote the American ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy. The inclusion in the Union military of African American soldiers, who enlisted despite the knowledge that they were likely to be brutally abused or even killed if captured by Confederate troops in battle, helped carry this wave of sentiment forward. It also provided practical assistance to a military sorely challenged by the Southern forces. The nearly 200,000 African Americans who served in the Northern military–some 10 percent of the total Union Army–were vital to the war effort. African American regiments went on to contribute significantly to battles in Louisiana, Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina, among other efforts. During the war, a number of African American soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor in recognition of their service.

The many African Americans who enlisted in the war effort found their service rewarded during Reconstruction. The so-called Reconstruction amendments went far beyond what might have been expected when the Civil War began in 1861. Slavery was abolished throughout the country. Birthright citizenship and equal protection under the law were extended to all Americans regardless of race. Black men gained the right to vote. Yet racism and discrimination, including in the US military, endured for many decades to come.


  • Hargrove, Hondon B.Black Union Soldiers in the Civil War. Jefferson: McFarland, 1988. Print.
  • McPherson, James M.The Negro’s Civil War: How American Black Felt and Acted during the War for the Union. New York: Vintage, 2003. Print.
  • Smith, John David, ed.Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2002. Print.
  • Weigley, Russell F., et al.Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: Norton, 1982. Print.

Additional Reading

  • Blackerby, H. C.Blacks in Blue and Gray: Afro-American Service in the Civil War. Tuscaloosa: Portals, 1979. Print.
  • Cornish, Dudley Taylor.The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861–1865. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1987. Print.
  • Glatthaar, Joseph T.Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: Free, 1990. Print.
  • Hansen, Joyce.Between Two Fires: Black Soldiers in the Civil War. New York: Watts 1993. Print.
  • Quarles, Benjamin.The Negro in the Civil War. Boston: Little, 1969. Print.