Black volunteers


Some prejudiced Northerners believed that black volunteers could do heavy labor and small tasks in the army, but they were not sure these volunteers would fight. When given the chance, though, black fighting men proved their bravery in combat. Many posed for photographs like this one, demonstrating that they had combat training and fighting skills.


Black regiments were called U.S. Colored Troops, or U.S.C.T. for short. When they were presented with flags to carry off to war, there was often a large ceremony. Here, the men of the 20th U.S.C.T. are given flags in front of a cheering New York City crowd in 1864. These were proud patriotic moments. When regiments returned from the war, their flags were displayed in places of honor by the state and federal governments.


Attitudes about race were not the same all over the South. In lower Louisiana, for instance, there had been a tradition of black military service already. Free black volunteers had fought to defend the citv of New Orleans during the * War of 1812. When the Civil War broke out, free New Orleans blacks raised the Louisiana Native Guards regiment and volunteered to defend their city once again. Some, like this regiment member, even had their photographs taken in uniform. But the government of the Confederacy could not overcome its racial prejudice. It would not allow the Native Guards into its army.

Of Burlington Co.


The Board of FrMWders of Burtineton Co.



Many Northern communities wanted to raise units of black volunteers, but not all of them had large black populations. Posters were displayed throughout whole counties in hopes of raising a full hundred-man company.

The government took a census the year before the Civil War. It showed there were fewer than 500,000 "free Negroes" in the United States. But there were almost 4 million blacks held in slavery. After the war started, the U.S. Congress did not allow free blacks or escaped slaves to join the Union army. Then President Lincoln issued his final Emancipation Proclamation in January, 1863. The decree stated that all slaves living in Confederate states were to be considered free. This document encouraged Congress to pass a law allowing black men to volunteer for Union military service. Soon there were close to 200,000 blacks serving in the Northern army and navy. These men were paid less than white soldiers and were often given worn uniforms and poor equipment. They could not become officers. If they were captured, they were shot or enslaved. However, these risks did not stop black men from taking part in combat. Several black soldiers won the Union's highest award for bravery, the Medal of Honor.

Robert Smalls The Slave


Robert Smalls was a slave who worked around Confederate Navy vessels in Charleston, South Carolina. One day he hijacked a ship loaded with new Confederate cannons. Also onboard were Smalls's wife and children, as well as several slave friends and their families. Smalls turned the Southern ship and its cargo of guns over to the Union navy and was rewarded. He, his family, and the others were also freed from slavery. Smalls's act of daring made him famous in the North. Following the war, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. This photograph is from the postwar years.

Canvas four-man tent

Black Union Troops

Mattross, a wood piece used to move a carriage tail


Canvas four-man tent

Mattross, a wood piece used to move a carriage tail


Not long before posing with their cannon, these black artillerymen were slaves. They were among thousands of escaped slaves who were organized into army regiments late in the war. Many of them could neither read nor write. Because of this, they were trained by white troopers or officers, who read aloud to them from military manuals and then drilled them repeatedly. In this way, these blacks were able to memorize great amounts of material, and many of them became crack soldiers.


Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw


Early in 1863, Massachusetts governor John Andrew authorized the recruitment of an all-black regiment from his state. He also selected Robert Gould Shaw, the son of a prominent white family of abolitionists, to lead it. In July, 1863, the regiment, named the ^4th Massachusetts, was asked to charge heavily armed Confederates dug in at Fort Wagner, outside Charleston, South Carolina. Colonel Shaw, with sword and pistol in hand, led the regiment's attack and was the first to reach the top of the fort's walls. He was killed there as he shouted, "Onward, Fifty-fourth!" The attack failed and cost the regiment 272 troopers in addition to Shaw. Intending to insult the memory of the white colonel, Confederates buried him in a mass grave along with his dead black soldiers. Shaw and the 54th are memorialized with a sculpture in Boston's Public Gardens.

Slave Soldier


This photograph of a young black Union army drummer named Jackson was circulated all across the North, together with a photograph of the same young man dressed in the rags he had been wearing when he showed up behind Union lines as an escaped slave. Some white Northerners doubted that former slaves could be turned into disciplined soldiers. The pair of photographs were shown to convince those doubters that slaves could be trained to fight for the freedom of others in bondage.

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