The Civil Radical Battles of the Black American Soldier


The Civil Radical Wars

of the Black American Soldier


The African-American Medal of Honor Statue, Wilmington, DE pays homage to African-American veterans.

“Throughout America’s history, from the Battle of Lexington to the Battle of Fallujah, Black Soldiers have honorably answered the call to duty, serving with great valor and distinction in America’s armed forces.

The Army story cannot be told without reflecting on the historical achievements made by Black Americans and preserving those memories. Black Americans have served and sacrificed in every conflict in our nation’s history, with more than 245 years of honorable service.

Black Americans, who have defended our nation since the Revolutionary War, have built a legacy of courage and professionalism by serving the U.S. Army with great honor and distinction, inspiring generations to come – we recognize and honor that legacy always.”


Retired Lt. Col. Michael Lee Lanning,  – “The African-American Soldier: From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell”

“Americans appropriately celebrate the valor, bravery, and courage of the men and women who have fought and risked their lives for this country. But the history of racial terrorism and violence endured by thousands of African American veterans remains unacknowledged.”  – Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans


“The end of the Civil War ushered in a new era of racial terror lynchings and violence directed at Black people in America that was designed to sustain a system of white supremacy and hierarchy, one whose brutal repercussions have not been fully acknowledged in this country.

No one was more at risk of experiencing targeted violence than Black veterans who had proven their valor and courage as soldiers during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Military service sparked dreams of racial equality for generations of African Americans, but rather than being welcomed home and honored for their service, many Black veterans were targeted for mistreatment, violence, and murder during the lynching era due to their race and military experience.

Between the end of Reconstruction and the years following World War II, the experience of military service for African Americans often inflamed an attitude of defiant resistance to the status quo that could prove deadly in a society where racial subordination was violently enforced. Throughout the American South, parts of the Midwest, and the Northeast, dozens of Black veterans died at the hands of mobs and persons acting under the color of official authority; many survived near-lynchings; and thousands suffered severe assaults and social humiliation. 

The disproportionate abuse and assaults against Black veterans have never been fully acknowledged. Targeting Black Veterans highlights the particular challenges endured by Black veterans in the hope that our nation can better confront the legacy of this violence and terror. No community is more deserving of recognition and acknowledgment than those Black men and women veterans who bravely risked their lives to defend this country’s freedom, only to have their freedom denied and threatened because of racial bigotry.

Targeting Black Veterans builds on our Lynching in America report, which documents over 4000 lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950. Lynching in America explores how racial terrorism profoundly shaped the nation’s demographics and reinforced a myth of racial inferiority and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today.

Research on mass violence, trauma, and transitional justice underscores the urgent need to engage in public conversations about racial history that begin a process of truth and reconciliation in this country. Documenting the atrocities of lynching and targeted racial violence is vital to understanding the incongruity of our country’s professed ideals of freedom and democracy while tolerating ongoing violence against people of color within our borders.”


“United States Colored Troops (USCT) were Union Army regiments during the American Civil War that primarily comprised African Americans, with soldiers from other ethnic groups also serving in USCT units. Established in response to a demand for more units from Union Army commanders, by the end of the war in 1865 USCT regiments, which numbered 175 in total, constituted about one-tenth of the manpower of the army. Approximately 20% of USCT soldiers were killed in action or died of disease and other causes, a rate about 35% higher than that of white Union troops. Numerous USCT soldiers fought with distinction, with 16 receiving the Medal of Honor. The USCT regiments were precursors to the Buffalo Soldier units which fought in the American Indian Wars.”

African Americans have always been involved in United States military service since its inception despite official policies of racial segregation and discrimination. 


The United States War Department issued General Order Number 143 on May 22, 1863, establishing the Bureau of Colored Troops to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers to fight for the Union Army. Regiments, including infantry, cavalry, engineers, light artillery, and heavy artillery units were recruited from all states of the Union. Approximately 175 regiments comprising more than 178,000 free blacks and freedmen served during the last two years of the war. Their service bolstered the Union war effort at a critical time. By the war’s end, the men of the USCT made up nearly one-tenth of all Union troops. The Regular Army troops made up about 3% of total US Troops who fought in the war

The USCT suffered 2,751 combat casualties during the war, and 68,178 losses from all causes. Disease caused the most fatalities for all troops, both Black and White. In the last year and a half and from all reported casualties, approximately 20% of all African Americans enrolled in the military lost their lives. Notably, their mortality rate was significantly higher than White soldiers:

“[We] find, according to the revised official data, that of the slightly over two millions troops in the United States Volunteers, over 316,000 died (from all causes), or 15.2%. Of the 67,000 Regular Army (White) troops, 8.6%, or not quite 6,000, died. Of the approximately 180,000 United States Colored Troops, however, over 36,000 died, or 20.5%. In other words, the mortality rate amongst the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War was thirty-five percent greater than that among other troops, notwithstanding the fact that the former were not enrolled until some eighteen months after the fighting began.”

— Herbert Aptheker American Civil War military unit / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


The 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Colored) was a Union Army regiment during the American Civil War, formed by General Rufus Saxton. It was composed of escaped slaves from South Carolina and Florida. It was one of the first Black regiments in the Union Army.
Members of the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment 1863 
Public Domain

Once let the Black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”

Frederick Douglass  

A range of emotions from uncertainty to truculence plays on the faces of these Philadelphia recruits in early 1864. Their regiment, the 25th U.S. Colored Infantry, sailed soon afterward for the Gulf of Mexico, where it formed part of the garrison of New Orleans, and later of Pensacola. (Army)

The issues of emancipation and military service were intertwined from the onset of the Civil War. News from Fort Sumter set off a rush by free Black men to enlist in U.S. military units. They were turned away, however, because a Federal law dating from 1792 barred Negroes from bearing arms for the U.S. army (although they had served in the American Revolution and the War of 1812). In Boston disappointed would-be volunteers met and passed a resolution requesting that the Government modify its laws to permit their enlistment.

The Lincoln administration wrestled with the idea of authorizing the recruitment of Black troops, concerned that such a move would prompt the border states to secede. When Gen. John C. Frémont (photo citation: 111-B-3756) in Missouri and Gen. David Hunter (photo citation: 111-B-3580) in South Carolina issued proclamations that emancipated slaves in their military regions and permitted them to enlist, their superiors sternly revoked their orders. By mid-1862, however, the escalating number of former Slaves (contrabands), the declining number of white volunteers, and the increasingly pressing personnel needs of the Union Army pushed the Government into reconsidering the ban.

As a result, on July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, freeing slaves who had masters in the Confederate Army. Two days later, slavery was abolished in the territories of the United States, and on July 22 President Lincoln (photo citation: 111-B-2323) presented the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet. After the Union Army turned back Lee’s first invasion of the North at Antietam, MD, and the Emancipation Proclamation was subsequently announced, Black recruitment was pursued in earnest. Volunteers from South Carolina, Tennessee, and Massachusetts filled the first authorized Black regiments. Recruitment was slow until black leaders such as Frederick Douglass (photo citation: 200-FL-22) encouraged Black men to become soldiers to ensure eventual full citizenship. (Two of Douglass’s sons contributed to the war effort.) Volunteers began to respond, and in May 1863 the Government established the Bureau of Colored Troops to manage the burgeoning numbers of Black soldiers.

By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 Black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 Black soldiers died throughout the war—30,000 of infection or disease. Black soldiers served in artillery and infantry and performed all noncombat support functions that sustain an army, as well. Black carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons, and teamsters also contributed to the war cause. There were nearly 80 Black commissioned officers. Black women, who could not formally join the Army, nonetheless served as nurses, spies, and scouts, the most famous being Harriet Tubman (photo citation: 200-HN-PIO-1), who scouted for the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.

Because of prejudice against them, Black units were not used in combat as extensively as they might have been. Nevertheless, the soldiers served with distinction in several battles. Black infantrymen fought gallantly at Milliken’s Bend, LA; Port Hudson, LA; Petersburg, VA; and Nashville, TN. The July 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, SC, in which the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers lost two-thirds of their officers and half of their troops, was memorably dramatized in the film Glory. By the war’s end, 16 Black soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor.


Buffalo Soldiers.

Those members of the 9th and 10th Calvary

remembered for their fierce fighting ability.


In addition to the perils of war faced by all Civil War soldiers, Black soldiers faced additional problems stemming from racial prejudice. Racial discrimination was prevalent even in the North, and discriminatory practices permeated the U.S. military. Segregated units were formed with Black enlisted men and typically commanded by White officers and black noncommissioned officers. The 54th Massachusetts was commanded by Robert Shaw and the 1st South Carolina by Thomas Wentworth Higginson—both White. Black soldiers were initially paid $10 per month from which $3 was automatically deducted for clothing, resulting in a net pay of $7. In contrast, white soldiers received $13 per month from which no clothing allowance was drawn. In June 1864 Congress granted equal pay to the U.S. Colored Troops and made the action retroactive. Black soldiers received the same rations and supplies. In addition, they received comparable medical care.

The black troops, however, faced greater peril than White troops when captured by the Confederate Army. In 1863 the Confederate Congress threatened to punish severely officers of Black troops and to enslave Black soldiers. As a result, President Lincoln issued General Order 233, threatening reprisal on Confederate prisoners of war (POWs) for any mistreatment of Black troops. Although the threat generally restrained the Confederates, Black captives were typically treated more harshly than white captives. In perhaps the most heinous known example of abuse, Confederate soldiers shot to death Black Union soldiers captured at the Fort Pillow, TN, engagement of 1864. Confederate General Nathan B. Forrest witnessed the massacre and did nothing to stop it.

The document featured in this article is a recruiting poster directed at Black men during the Civil War. It refers to efforts by the Lincoln administration to provide equal pay for Black soldiers and equal protection for black POWs. The original poster is located in the Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, the 1780s–1917, Record Group 94.

Article Citation

Freeman, Elsie, Wynell Burroughs Schamel, and Jean West. “The Fight for Equal Rights: A Recruiting Poster for Black Soldiers in the Civil War.” Social Education 56, 2 (February 1992): 118-120. [Revised and updated in 1999 by Budge Weidman.]