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Teacher's Resources: The Civil War and the Black Soldier

1. What government action allowed blacks to enter the Civil War on the Union side?

Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation encouraged blacks who were fit for the task to enlist in the military.

References: Newspapers
"Emancipation." The New York Times.

"Negroes." Charleston [SC] Mercury. Makes brief mention of Lincoln's proclamation as it related to black enlistment.

2. How did the Northern press react to the issue of blacks in the military? How did the Southern press react?

At the beginning, the Northern press approached the issue delicately, raising question about the effectiveness of black troops, and the effect black enlistment might have on the morale of white soldiers. When black enlistment became a reality, the Northern press descriptions of the activities of the "colored regiments" were positive and little different in tone from descriptions of white regimental activities, except for the press's sense of need to acknowledge the color of the men in question. The Southern press wrote some stinging, cynical editorials about the notion of blacks in the military. Gleeful accounts of black revolts "against their Yankee brethren" were trumpeted by the press. The Charleston (SC) Mercury speculated that the 54th Massachusetts "are doubtless brought to South Carolina to excite our slaves to insurrection." Interesting that they couldn't swallow the possibility that the colored regiment may have come to South Carolina in order to fight.

References: Newspapers

"Negro Soldiers -- The Question Settled and its Consequences." New York Times.

"Negroes." Charleston [SC] Mercury. [Confederate editorial on Union blacks in the military.] Richmond Sentinel.

"Negro Regiments." Wilmington [NC] Daily Journal. Charleston (SC) Mercury.

"Reported Revolt of Negro Regiments at Port Hudson and Baton Rouge." Wilmington [NC] Daily Journal.

"The Draft of the North." The Richmond Whig.

"Negro Troops." The Richmond Whig.

3. What was the Confederate position on allowing blacks to serve in the war on their side?

Jefferson Davis supported the idea of registering slaves to fight for the Confederacy; slaves would be granted freedom and some land as a reward. The Confederacy thought this might be good PR; if Europe, which abhorred slavery, were to see blacks fighting for the Confederate cause, they might change their mind about the condition of blacks in the South. [None of our resources state whether or not slaves actually joined the Confederate army. Some outside Web resources say that while some blacks fought for the Rebel cause, they did so only in an unofficial capacity. This would be an excellent topic to explore on one's own.]

References: Newspapers

[A proposal for enlisting black soldiers for the Confederate cause.] Wilmington [NC] Daily Journal.

"Jeff Davis' Call for Slaves." Wheeling (WV) Daily Intelligencer.

"Jeff Davis' Call." Wheeling (WV) Daily Intelligencer.

"Employment of Negroes in the Army." Richmond Whig.

4. What was the 54th Massachusetts?

The 54th Massachusetts was a "colored regiment" that received much attention for its effectiveness on the battlefield. This regiment's efforts were celebrated in the motion picture Glory, a popular film many students may already be familiar with.

References: Newspapers

"Massachusetts Colored Troops - Thomas Wentworth Higgisson Tells of Their First Enlistment." The New York Times.

"Negroes." Charleston [SC] Mercury.

5. What was the last, great fight of the 54th Massachusetts?

The 54th Massachusetts attempted to take over Ft. Wagner, in Charleston, South Carolina. Their attempt ultimately ended in failure, but the press sang high praises for their efforts. [Our primary resources don't say so, but it's worth noting that Sergeant William H. Carney became the first African-American to win the Medal of Honor (as a result of his role in the attempted assault).]

References: Newspapers

"Operations Against Charleston." The New York Times.

"The Siege of Charleston." The New York Times.

6. How were captured black troops treated compared to captured white troops?

Generally, it seems that they treated the same, although the Confederacy accepted notions of equal treatment only grudgingly. A revealing North Carolina Daily Journal article states that when one Union black regiment was captured there were plans "to administer the lynch law... but [the soldiers] were quietly given over to the military authority to be dealt with, as they claimed to be U.S. troops." A tricky legal issue concerned slaves who had fled from Confederate states to the Union, whereupon they took up arms against the Confederacy. A Charleston (SC) Mercury opinion piece suggests that such former slaves, if captured in the South, should face the possibility of execution for treason, based on the argument that they had turned traitorous against the South. Of course, it would be difficult to make a compelling argument that a slave who had fled from Georgia to join the Union was ever really a "citizen" of his state of origin. In an angry Charleston (SC) Mercury editorial, it is noted that "President Lincoln put forth a proclamation declaring that our slaves in the army of the United States are like all its other soldiers, and that if executed by us, he will retaliate by executing soldiers of the Confederate States taken prisoner." In other words, the South was provided a strong incentive by the North to provide equal treatment for black prisoners of war.

References: Newspapers
"Capture of Negro Troops." Wilmington (NC) Daily Journal.

"Negroes Taken in Arms." Charleston [SC] Mercury.

"Union Negro Soldiers Prisoners." New Orleans Bee.

"Negroes." Charleston [SC] Mercury.


1. Make a copy of the document on this page:  This is a recruiting poster for black soldiers during the Civil War. Click on “Teaching Activities” or to find questions to ask about this document. This page also gives ideas for creative writing activities for students.

2. The movie, “Glory” (in an edited version: Google edited movies, historical) could be shown to the class. This is the moving story of the 54th Massachusetts colored regiment. The website in #1 also has links to the regiment’s webpage.


conscription: The draft; a government act requiring men to enlist in the military.

proclamation: A formal announcement (from "proclaim").

demoralize: To weaken one's spirit.

menial: Tasks associated with drudgery; repetitive, dull labor.

The Civil War and the Black Soldier

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