African Americans in the U.S. Civil War (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors  by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

The Beginnings of the Civil War

By the 1850s the abolitionist (anti-slavery) movement in the North had gained much momentum, as the North became increasingly industrialized. Throughout this decade, slavery was the hotbed issue in Congress and in state legislatures. During the 1860 Presidential campaign, Abraham Lincoln, who privately despised slavery, supported halting the spread of slavery into the territories opening up in the west. He did not, however, intend to free the slaves of the South.

Nonetheless, beginning immediately after Lincoln’s election, several states seceded from the United States. In December 1860 South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas formed a new, independent nation known as the Confederate States of America. Former U.S. Secretary of War, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was named the first President of the Confederacy.

In early 1861, after the United States ignored petitions to remove troops from Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the fort was attacked. This began the U.S. Civil War.

Four additional states—Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas—seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy after the War began. Richmond, Virginia, became the capital of the Confederacy, and President Davis relocated his seat of government to that town.

In a speech on 21 March 1861 in Savannah, Georgia, Confederate Vice President Alexander P. Stephens stated,

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists amongst us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. ...Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [of equality of the races]; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.

Despite revisionist assertions that the Confederate states seceded upon principles of “states’ rights,” Stephens’s comments, and the applause with which they were met, affirm that the immediate cause of secession, and that for which the Confederate government (if not individual soldiers) would fight, was the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

The African American Contribution to the War

As the war began between the Union and the Confederacy, African Americans—both free and enslaved—were barred from serving in either army. Ironically, in this war where slavery played a central role, the Union still used slave labor while denying free African American citizens the right to enlist. Objecting to this policy, Frederick Douglass wrote in 1861,

Why does the Government reject the negro? Is he not a man? Can he not wield a sword, fire a gun, march and countermarch, and obey orders like any other?...If persons so humble as we can be allowed to speak to the President of the United States, we should ask him if this dark and terrible hour of the nation’s extremity is a time for consulting a mere vulgar an unnatural prejudice?...We would tell him that this is no time to fight with one hand, when both are needed; that this is no time to fight only with your white hand, and allow your black hand to remain tied.

Groups of free African Americans from around the Union continued to volunteer their services, some even going so far as to organize into regiments, but the government continued to refuse their aid. Even when two Union generals attempted to allow the enlistment of black soldiers—mostly runaway slaves in the south—on the battlefield, President Abraham Lincoln countermanded their orders.

In Lincoln’s estimation, were the Union to allow the enlistment of African Americans, the border states of Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, and Missouri—slave states that did not secede—would certainly go over to the Confederacy. The potential loss of Maryland was especially dangerous to the United States. The District of Columbia, the nation’s capital, was surrounded on all sides by Virginia and Maryland. With Virginia having already seceded, secession by Maryland would have placed the seat of government wholly within enemy territory.

Following several losses in battle, Lincoln and Congress reversed their positions. In July 1862, the Second Confiscation Act, passed by Congress, allowed Confederate slaves who ran away to Union army camps to be allowed into service. The same day, the Militia Act of 1862 made universal African American enlistment permissible. The first all-black regiments came from South Carolina, Massachusetts, Louisiana and Tennessee. In May 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established, and regiments were raised throughout the nation.

Across the lines of war, Confederate law did not allow any African Americans, free or enslaved, into military service until March 1865. Convinced that their slaves had no place fighting in this war, the Confederates suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the African American soldiers in the Union Army. The war was officially lost a month later, without a single regiment having been mustered.

Unlike army service, there were no race limitations to service in the U.S. Navy prior to, or during, the Civil War. Quite a few African Americans served in the Navy during the War. Some enlisted prior to the War, as well, so do not limit your search to those enlisting during the War. A good source for naval service by African Americans is the “Sailors” section of the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database .

In addition to service as soldiers, African Americans provided the primary labor force for the construction of military structures for both armies. Records of this service are often more difficult to find, but do exist. See, for example, the Tennessee State Library and Archives collection, “Employment Rolls and Nonpayment Rolls of Negroes Employed in the Defenses of Nashville, Tennessee, 1862-1863”

Enslaved African Americans also experienced the front lines of battle as hand-servants to their masters, on both sides of the war. These servants have currently received significant attention by revisionist historians who claim that African Americans willfully served in the Confederate service. By the early twentieth century, all of the former Confederate states offered pensions to these former servants. However, this does not signify volunteer Confederate military service on the part of African Americans, and should not be considered as such.

Finally, African Americans served as “colored cooks” in the ranks of the U.S. Army. Though not literally soldiers, these men were officially mustered into their regiments in the same manner as other soldiers. Colored cooks did not necessarily serve in the U.S. Colored Troops; they may have served in any regiment, including primarily “white” units. Because they were mustered into service, they do have compiled service records and pension records.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.