The Role of African-Americans in the Civil War - Paper Example

Published: 2021-07-19
1672 words
7 pages
14 min to read
Middlebury College
Type of paper: 
Research paper
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The American Civil is a defining event in the history of the United States. The Civil War was fought between the Northern states and the Southern Confederates in 1861-65. The Revolution of 1776-83 may have created the United States, but it is the Civil War that determined what kind of a nation the US would be. The war, which was the deadliest fought by Americans with more than six hundred thousand deaths recorded, solved two fundamental questions; whether the US would be a dissolvable union of sovereign states or a united nation governed by a national government; and whether it would be based on equality of all men or exist as the largest slaveholding nation on earth. The victory of the northern states united the country and abolished slavery leading to the emancipation of all slaves. The role of African-Americans in the Civil War has been ignored as the Civil War took place when most Africans were slaves. It is believed that African-Americans played a minor or no role in the Civil War. However, research shows that thousands African-American participated in the civil war. This article investigates the role played by these black Americans in the Civil War and the importance of the participation of African-Americans in the civil war.

Scope of the Research

This paper focuses on the role played by African-Americans during the American Civil War. The American Civil War was a brutal war fought between the Confederate (Southern) states against the Union states. In the war, the North rallied for banning of slavery and freeing all the slaves. Most African-Americans supported the Northern states due to the promised emancipation. This paper covers the role played by African-Americans who supported the Union Army. It does not consider the role played by black Americans who served forcefully as slaves or willingly in the Confederate Army. The paper discusses the roles of the blacks not only in the battlefields but also their actions in the deep inside the enemys territory.


The objectives of this paper include:

To find out the role played by African Americans in the Civil War and

To find out the importance of the African-Americans participation in the Civil War.

Literature Review

African-Americans worked as soldiers for the Union in the Civil War. When the War started in 1961, African-Americans wanted to fight for the Union as it fought for equality of man, the abolition of slavery and emancipation of all slaves. However, before 1863 African-American were not allowed to fight in the war. President Lincoln did not want the blacks to fight as he thought to enlist former slaves in combat might encourage the Border States to secede. It was also believed that the blacks would not be brave enough to face gun fire and death on the battlefield. However, pressure from abolitionists such Frederick Douglass and the need for stronger men to fight forced the Union to enlist black Americans. However, the white men and black men were enlisted in different regiments, and the black regiments were under white officers.

The performance of the first regiment of black soldiers proved everyone wrong. They were the epitome of courage, bravery, and fearlessness. It fought under General Nathaniel Banks at the Battle of Hudson, and the General praised them for both valor and bravery. It was dangerous to fight in the Civil War as a white soldier. As a black soldier, this danger was compounded as one's capture by the Confederates could lead to either execution or a return to slavery. The bravery of the African-American is demonstrated by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment that led the successful charge on Fort Wagner. Although they lost more than 40% of their soldiers including their commander, their bravery inspired all the Confederate soldiers, and by the end of the war, almost 10% of the Union soldiers had been black Americans.

Although African-Americans served the Union Army loyally and bravely, they were discriminated due to racial prejudice. They operated in their own regiments which were commanded by white, enlisted officers. Despite being freed slaves, the African-Americans earned less received fewer rations compared to their white counterparts. It was only after June 1964 that the blacks started earning equal pay with the whites after the Congress passed a law guaranteeing equal pay for all the military regardless of the color.

Additionally, African- Americans provided intelligence for the Union soldiers. In the South, the blacks were still slaves during the Civil War. During the Civil War, the intelligence provided by the blacks referred to as "Black Dispatches," usually came from runaway slaves or those who had just been freed by the Union soldiers. As white members of the Union Army could not find reliable and loyal friends in the south, the army recruited blacks serving in prominent positions such as staff in the Confederate Presidents White House. Due to the slavery culture and the menial nature of slaves work, slaves could easily move around without raising suspicions. The Confederate officers usually ignored the presence of domestic servants while discussing important war details.

The intelligence offered by black Americans included troop movement reports, troop morale and state of supplies. George Scott, who while running away from a plantation where he had been enslaved in the South, observed two fortifications placed by the Confederate army, is one of the first slaves to share information that led to a major battle. When he crossed into the North, he shared the details of the fortification with the military commanders of the Union Army. After the verification of the information, the Union Army determined that an attack was certain and they initiated a preemptive attack on the Confederate soldiers position. Other Afro-Americans who provided vital pieces of intelligence during the Civil War is John Scobell, an educated slave who used a clandestine Negro organization to gather valuable information for the Union, W. H. Ringgold and Mary Touvstre.

The value of information gathered by African-American on Confederates troop movements and states of supplies was vital in the determination of some battles. However, after the war, their contributions became obscure. This can be attributed to the racial prejudice in the army and that time and the need for anonymity by the spies. This lack of recognition can also be attributed to lack of official military records and destruction or loss of the records documenting the intelligence activities.

African-American also served in non-combat roles in the Union Army. Blacks served as carpenters, chaplain, guards, laborers, surgeons and steamboat pilots. These people served the combat by making their life more comfortable when not fighting. Most of these Afro-American were based on army camps. Guards usually guarded the camps and the supplies during the war. Carpenters constructed camps and weapons while the laborers were used to construct roads to be used during the battle. The service offered by African-Americans enables the union army to tremendously increase the number of combatants fighting in the battlefield. However, the jobs received by African-Americans were reminiscent of the slavery. Most Africans did manual labor and cooking jobs which were done by the slaves before the abolition of slavery in the North.

Some African-American worked in the south tried to sabotage the economic activities in the south hoping to weaken the South and increase the probability of the Union of winning the war. This is because they comprehended that a victory for the north would guarantee them emancipation from slavery. Some slaves even rebelled hoping to weaken the South or even escape to the North. Other slaves slowed down while working and others refused to work. This indirectly weakened the Confederates states and contributed to their defeat.

In the Civil War, women could not officially serve in the army. However, black Americans women worked unofficially in the Union as nurses and cooks. Cooks prepared meals for soldiers and their officers while the nurses to care for the wounded and the ill. According to Grant (2014), women, who worked as domestic slaves in the South, acted as a source of intelligence for the North.

African-Americans played a key role in the American civil war. The roles vary from serving as combat soldiers to working in non-combats roles such as cooking and doing manual labor for the white soldiers and collecting intelligence for the Union army. The black Americans serving as combatants served with bravery and valor. The most famous regiment was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment that led the Siege of Fort Wagner. This was a very dangerous mission, but the regiment successfully captured the fort. Although the regiment lost many of its members, their bravely motivated the whole Union Army. Black Americans also served as spies where they collected intelligence from the Confederates on behalf of the Union Army. The intelligence collected was vital in giving the Northern states an advantage in combat.


The African-Americans serving in the Union Army suffered from discrimination due to their skin color. Although they were treated as free people, they received less pay compared to their white counterparts. It was not until June 1864 when their salary was made equal to that of the whites. Most blacks were serving in non-combat roles that were performed by slaves during the slavery such as manual labor and domestic chores. African-Americans played a vital role in the American Civil War. Their participation led to the victory of the Northern States. Their bravery motivated other Union soldiers. Although they participated in combat during the final three years, their role in securing victory for the Union States cannot be ignored.



Grant, Sunday. The War for a Nation: The American Civil War. 1st ed. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. 2014.

McPherson, J. A Brief Overview of the American Civil War | Civil War Trust. [online] 2017. Available at:

Reid, Brian Holden. The Origins of the American Civil War. Routledge, 2014.

Reis, Ronald A. African Americans and the Civil War. Infobase Publishing, 2009.

Ross, Peirry. The Civil War: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence Central Intelligence Agency. [online] 2007. Available at:


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