The Contribution of African American Soldiers to The Civil War

In 2011, the United States of America commemorated the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War between the bourgeois states of the North and the rebellious slave states of the South. This war was the apogee of the confrontation between the two systems – slavery and free labor for hire. In the middle of the 19th century, disagreements in the sphere of state policy and the existence of slavery on the territory of the United States emerged between the white Americans of the South and the North. Thus, the four-year long fratricidal slaughter killed more than half a million people on both sides of the conflict. At the same time, the positive outcome of the war was the abolition of slavery, the development of the American West, the creation of conditions for the accelerated development of agricultural and industrial production, and the strengthening of the domestic market. Since the people of various nationalities participated in the war, all of them had made a great contribution to it. Of special importance was the participation of African Americans in the most significant battles of the Civil War. Moreover, I have the greatest interest in this subject as many of my family members are African American veterans and, thus, I would like to study how my ancestors had helped in the effort in fighting for their freedom.


By the middle of the 19th century, slavery in the south of the United States became a significant brake for the country’s social and economic development while the number of slaves in the country was quite significant. Specifically, Reis noted that “close to 4 million were living in bondage at the time of the Civil War, 1861 to 1865.” However, capitalism developed rapidly in the North. The industrial revolution entered a decisive stage, embracing all the main branches of industrial production. Along with Germany, France, and Britain, the United States firmly established its place among the four advanced industrial powers of the world. At the same time, the South of the country continued to be an extremely backward region since slavery prevailed there, which hindered any further development, caused by industrialization and capitalism. By the start of the war, the alignment of class forces in the country had changed. If the old commercial bourgeoisie, cotton manufacturers, and bankers were economically connected with the South, the new industrial bourgeoisie constantly clashed with the planters on customs tariffs and internal development such as financing the construction of harbors, canals, and railways. The interests of the development of capitalism required the creation of favorable conditions for the formation of a single national market and the transformation of Negro slaves into hired free workers. The decade immediately preceding the Civil War was the time of a rapidly developing revolutionary crisis. All Negro slaves waited impatiently for the upcoming changes as they wanted to receive freedom and achieve equality with white people. Therefore, their role in the Civil War was enormous as they were the ones who wanted changes in their social position and status.

The Participation of African Americans in the Civil War

From the very beginning of the Civil War, the Negroes of the North made persistent attempts to obtain the right to serve in the federal army and defend their right to freedom with weapons in their hands. However, their attempts were hampered in every possible way. Thus, generals and officers of the federal armed forces often rejected Negro servicemen. They believed that African Americans could not occupy general positions. Frederick Douglas tirelessly explained that the decisive political issue was the destruction of slavery and insisted on the admission of Negroes in the Union army. However, until mid-1862, the government refused to do it. Only under the influence of military failures, significant losses in people in battles, and growing pressure from the masses, it was decided to allow African Americans to serve in the army of the Union.
Before the Civil War, African Americans were recruited into the Navy but only to non-combat positions such as orderlies and cooks without the permission to carry arms. As a rule, they were not taken to the army at all, except for the sled drivers in convoys. When the war began, it would be natural to accept African Americans who fought against the rebel-slaveholders, free Negroes, and Liberated slaves. Nevertheless, the republican government allowed African Americans to join the army only on July 17, 1862 since before that, those generals, who took African Americans in their units, were punished and removed from command. In the second half of 1862, several Negro regiments were formed. Nonetheless, a large number of African Americans were enlisted in the army only in 1863. Thus, almost two years of the war, African Americans were not allowed into the army and only a series of serious defeats had forced the Republicans to accept the participation of African American volunteers in the army, which was one of the most important moments of the transition to a revolutionary war.
As a rule, Negro units were formed under the command of white officers. For example, as Controvich stated, “during the Civil War approximately 179,000 African American soldiers served in the Union Army; of that total, only 75 were commissioned officers.” Moreover, among 178,000 privates and 7,212 officers, who served in the operating North Army, only 75 officers were African Americans. Altogether, there were 160 Negro regiments in the army, including 13 artillery and 7 cavalry regiments, while the rest were infantry. In addition, up to 250,000 African Americans took part in the digging of trenches and another 30,000 of them served in the Navy. Moreover, there were cases when volunteers from Africa came to Negro regiments. Thus, Negro soldiers fought with an unparalleled courage and played a huge role in the victory of the northerners. They were entrusted with the most responsible operations. About 70,000 African American soldiers lost their lives on the battlefield. Abraham Lincoln claimed that without the help of Negroes, the army of the North would not win. Along with working regiments, African American ones were the best units in the army of the northerners. Moreover, they received many benefits from fighting in this war and “through their military participation, some African Americans used their free time to learn to read and write.” Thus, African Americans did have some positive outcomes in the Civil War. Nevertheless, they also suffered numerous diseases during the war that were mainly connected with poor hygienic conditions. Thus, the war had positive and negative outcomes for African Americans.

The Contribution of African American Soldiers

When the formation of African American regiments began, tens of thousands of blacks voluntarily joined the federal armed forces. In such a way, they expressed their readiness to take part in the defeat of rebellious slaveholders not with their words but by their actions. The enthusiasm, with which Negroes joined the army, was explained by the fact that in their armed struggle against the slaveholders, they saw the way to their liberation from slavery. Shortly after the beginning of the war, African American Pilot Robert Smalls displayed exceptional resource and courage and led the rebel ship out of the harbor, bringing it to the disposal of the Federal Navy. The news of this heroic act traveled across the country. Smalls’ name became well-known in all states of the North and South. He claimed that African Americans were ready to fight in the federal armed forces but they wanted to have a guarantee that they would get freedom. The fact that Negroes rarely surrendered to captivity, thus preferring death on the battlefield, also showed their courage during the Civil War. A discharge from Negro regiments was an extremely rare phenomenon.
African American regiments played a significant role in the final battles of the Civil War, in which rebellious slaveholders fought with the fury of the doomed. Particularly, African American soldiers distinguished themselves in the battles near Richmond. The command of the federal army highly appreciated the help of Negroes to the armed forces of the North as skillful guides. Moreover, African Americans were excellent scouts who could be sent anywhere. They also took an active part in the partisan movement and in the actions of subversive detachments that were sent from the North to the rear of the rebels.


In the Civil War of 1861-1865, such tasks as the abolition of slavery, the bourgeois-democratic transformation of society, and the transfer of political and economic power throughout the country to the hands of the industrialists of the North were pursued. The struggle between the South and the North was nothing more than the struggle of two social systems – the system of slavery and the system of free labor. African American soldiers took an active part in the Civil War. They showed many examples of ingenuity and heroism during the war. Negroes heroically fought on the side of the Union for their freedom, but the bourgeoisie applied a regime of discrimination to them.


Controvich, James T. African-Americans in Defense of the Nation: A Bibliography. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011.
Covey, Herbert C., and Dwight Eisnach. How the Slaves Saw the Civil War: Recollections of the War through the WPA Slave Narratives. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2014.
Humphreys, Margaret. Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War. Baltimore: JHU Press, 2010.
Lardas, Mark. African American Soldier in the Civil War. New York: Osprey Publishing, 2012.
Reis, Ronald A. African Americans and the Civil War. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009.
Winsboro, Irvin, D. S. “Give Them Their Due: A Reassessment of African Americans and Union Military Service in Florida During the Civil War.” Journal of African American History 92, no. 3 (2007): 327-346.
Ronald A. Reis, African Americans and the Civil War (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009), 15.
Lardas, Mark. African American Soldier in the Civil War (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2012).
James T. Controvich, African-Americans in Defense of the Nation: A Bibliography (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011).
Irvin, D. S. Winsboro, “Give Them Their Due: A Reassessment of African Americans and Union Military Service in Florida During the Civil War,” Journal of African American History 92, no. 3 (2007): 327.
Controvich, African-Americans in Defense, 2.
Herbert C. Covey and Dwight Eisnach, How the Slaves Saw the Civil War: Recollections of the War through the WPA Slave Narratives (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2014).
Margaret. Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2010).
Humphreys, Margaret. Intensely Human.
Reis, African Americans and the Civil War.