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In this lesson, we will explore the experiences of African Americans during the Civil War. Some of them were slaves; others were free. Some were ‘contraband’ runaways; others were soldiers. Together, they contributed greatly to Civil War history.

A Vested Interest

Of all Americans, North and South, African Americans probably had the most vested interest in the outcome of the Civil War. After all, their very freedom and human rights were at stake. The Confederacy was fighting to preserve a way of life that included slavery based on race.The Union was fighting to preserve the United States. Some Northerners wanted to end or at least contain slavery. Of these, a few were committed to making life better for African Americans. Others didn’t care so much about that; they just wanted to punish the rebels and prevent the spread of the southern way of life into the West.

Only in the second year of the war did the moral question of slavery move to the Union forefront, and even then, most Northerners showed an overall disregard for the rights of African Americans. Racial prejudice ran deep.African Americans had already been struggling for their freedom and human rights for years by the time the Civil War began, and they would continue to fight throughout the war as slaves, contraband, freedmen, and soldiers.

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The 1860 federal census listed over 3.

95 million slaves in the United States, making up 13% of the population. Most of these slaves lived in the southern states that would soon become the Confederacy.Contrary to popular conceptions, most slaves did not run away immediately at the start of the war.

Many waited, biding their time and serving their Confederate masters. They knew that open rebellion would be unsuccessful, but they had other strategies in mind.Slave owners began to notice a change in their slaves.

It was subtle, but it was there. Diarist Mary Chesnut noted, ‘Dick, the butler here, reminds me that when we were children, I taught him to read as soon as I could read myself…But he won’t look at me now. He looks over my head. He scents freedom in the air.

‘Some slaves went to work to undermine the Confederate war effort from within. Those who traveled to war with their soldier masters sometimes passed intelligence to the Union army or even led Union soldiers to prime locations for surprise attacks. Slaves who remained on plantations slowed down their work.

They understood the labor shortage that was occurring as more and more white men went off to war, and they knew they were essential to the Confederate war effort. If they resisted, even a little bit, just by doing a little less and taking a little longer to do it, by disobeying a few orders and taking a few extra off-plantation visits, the Confederate army would have less food to eat and the Confederate government would have less cotton to sell.As the war progressed, the Confederacy impressed slaves to perform manual labor at military locations. They built fortifications, dug latrines, hauled supplies, and basically did the jobs no one else wanted to do. Others were sent to work at mines, factories, and railroad yards. Often mistreated and overworked, many of these slaves reached the proverbial end of their rope.


Many of these hardworking slaves joined others who decided not to wait until the end of the war to seize their freedom. They escaped to Union army camps, crossing battle lines and seeking protection from their masters.The Union army didn’t quite know what to do with these slaves who were arriving by the hundreds. Send them back? Put them to work? The need for labor won the day, and the army set up camps for the slaves, whom they labeled contraband (or seized property) of war.

Living in filthy, cramped, disease-ridden conditions, contraband men, women, and children performed menial labor for very low wages, if they were paid at all, and ‘contraband rations,’ which were half of a soldier’s regular ration.The Union needed a way to legalize and regulate its contraband ’employees,’ so Congress and President Lincoln passed a series of acts designed to define and change the status of Confederate-owned slaves. The First Confiscation Act, passed in August 1861, officially adopted the label ‘contraband’ and decreed that any slave working for the Confederacy could be seized as a spoil of war.

The Second Confiscation Act almost a year later added that contraband slaves were to be ‘forever free,’ and the president could use them as he saw fit to defeat the Confederacy.On January 1, 1863, Lincoln took one final step with regard to the status of Confederate slaves. His Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in Confederate-controlled areas. The Proclamation was a direct shot at the southern economy and way of life, which were exactly what the Confederates were trying to protect.


At least on paper, over three million slaves were now free. These joined the nearly 500,000 free African Americans who had been living in the North and the South before the war.

Many African Americans in Union border states were still enslaved.Even with freedom in hand, African-American freedmen, as they were called, lacked equality with whites. They were not citizens. They couldn’t vote. Even before the war, free African Americans were often denied education, faced limited employment opportunities, and worked for lower wages than white men.

Now, during the war, their futures were uncertain and even bleak.A few Northerners realized the need to help the new freedmen adjust to their freedom. In 1862, even before the Emancipation Proclamation, the New England Freedman’s Aid Society began sending food, clothing, and other supplies to contraband camps and other former slaves.

In 1863, the U.S. War Department created the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission to explore options for assisting freedmen.This commission suggested the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, often called the Freedmen’s Bureau. Established on March 3, 1865, the Bureau oversaw work to supply and educate freedmen. As the war ended, it helped them find work, a place to live, and justice in claims against their former masters.


During the war, many African Americans, both long-time freedmen and newly-freed contraband and slaves, wanted to do more than the menial labor they were usually assigned.

They wanted to be Union soldiers.Driven by a deep-seated racial prejudice that viewed African Americans as inferior, the U.S.

government refused to allow African Americans to become soldiers early in the war. As the war progressed, however, and the army’s ranks thinned out, the Union rethought its position.The Second Confiscation Act opened the door to African-American enlistment, and the Emancipation Proclamation officially welcomed freedmen into the U.S. military.

The first African-American regiment, the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, was formed shortly after the Proclamation, and by May 1863, the United States Colored Troops was filling its ranks and preparing to fight.Approximately 180,000 African Americans served in the Union army, and another 19,000 served in the Union navy. Many of these soldiers and sailors were newly-freed slaves who were anxious to fight their former masters.Even though they were now allowed into the military, African Americans still faced widespread prejudice and poor treatment. African-American units were typically assigned to non-combat positions and many of the same menial tasks they performed before joining the military. They continued to build fortifications, haul supplies, dig latrines, and clean the camp.

Officers knew that with African Americans handling these necessary jobs, more white soldiers were available to fight. They also knew that many white soldiers decidedly did not want to fight alongside their African-American comrades.When African-American soldiers were allowed in combat, however, they fought with a bravery and determination that surprised their officers and fellow soldiers. For instance, at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863, the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts courageously attacked the Confederate fort, slamming against its walls until the unit was all but decimated.

Even though they did not succeed in taking their objective, these African-American soldiers proved that they would die trying.In fact, most African Americans would rather have died in battle than be captured by the Confederates, who didn’t hesitate to execute African-American prisoners on sight. At Fort Pillow, Tennessee, on April 12, 1864, for example, Confederate soldiers overwhelmed Union troops manning the fort, about half of which were African-American soldiers.

Even though the Union surrendered, the Confederates massacred their prisoners without hesitation while their officer stood by and watched.Overall, about 40,000 African-American soldiers died during the Civil War. These men, along with the African-American soldiers who survived, fought bravely, worked hard, and reached out with ready hands to grasp their freedom and embrace their rights.

Lesson Summary

African Americans had a vested interest in the outcome of the Civil War, for they were fighting for their freedom and their human rights. As slaves, they worked to undermine the Confederate war effort even as they were forced to labor for the Confederacy.Many slaves escaped to the Union army and became contraband of war.

African-American men, women, and children lived in contraband camps and provided menial labor for the Union. The U.S. government, in order to legalize and manage their contraband ’employees,’ passed the First Confiscation Act in 1861, the Second Confiscation Act in 1862, and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.The newly-freed slaves, called freedmen, continued to work for the Union, which later assisted them through the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Many African-American men, however, longed to serve as Union soldiers. When finally invited to join the ranks of the army and navy, the new soldiers faced prejudice and unequal treatment. They were often relegated to performing the same menial tasks they had done as slaves and contraband, but when they were given the chance to enter combat, they fought valiantly for the Union cause, reaching out to grasp their freedom with both hands.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is done, you should be able to:

  • Understand the plight of African-Americans during the Civil War
  • Identify the work done by Lincoln and Congress to change the status of African Americans
  • Recall that slaves fought on both sides of the war
  • Describe the work of the Freedmen at this time
  • Summarize the treatment of African-American men in the Union military

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