Civil War to Civil Rights: Military

Explore the various ways African American people–enslaved and free, forced or by choice–contributed to the war effort. Using images and letters, delve into the lives of real people who were part of the Civil War.

Historic print of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Troops charging a Confederate troop into battle

Historical Context

During the Civil War, African-Americans, both enslaved and free, contributed to both the Union and Confederate armies. In 1863, the Union Army began organizing African American regiments for military service. A regiment is a military unit that is made up of smaller companies. All African American regiments were composed of African American enlisted men and non-commissioned officers. A commissioned officer is someone who receives payment for the tasks. The commissioned officers were always white. The African American men in these regiments were often used for garrison duty of fortifications, captured Southern towns, prison guards, and combat troops. Examples of African American regiments include state volunteer regiments, such as the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment, as well as United States Colored Troops. Many enslaved African Americans sought freedom by following the Union Army, where many found work. Some women and men provided labor, and some men fought for the Union Army. Some free African Americans joined the Union Army and Union Navy.

African Americans also performed a multitude of tasks for Confederate soldiers, even though they did not serve in a direct combat role. Many white Confederate soldiers brought along an enslaved person to cook, clean, and perform other duties for the mess (a mess is a group of about 5-10 soldiers). These enslaved people often were tasked with returning home to take mail and retrieve packages. Other times, these enslaved people would bring the dead body of their young master home to rest. In the Confederate Army, enslaved African Americans labored as ship workers, laborers, cooks, and camp workers. The Confederate government used African American soldiers to build fortifications around important cities such as Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The Confederate government paid the slave owner for the use of their slave, not the slave themself. The Confederacy relied on enslaved African Americans to raise crops and provide labor for the army.

**A Note on Language: In some of the provided sources, students might come across words that are offensive to many people today. It’s important to acknowledge the words (since the students will notice) with a reminder that language evolves over time–the term “African American” was not in common usage 150 years ago. These words can be used to hurt people today, so we remind students to leave them in the historical source.**

Resource Info

Dates and Eras1861–1865
ThemesMilitary, African Americans, Soldiers, Civil War to Civil Rights
StandardsVS.7 c, USI.9

Suggested Questions

1. Describe the letter from EW Smith. What does he say about his experiences in the war? How does he describe the United States Colored Troops?

2. Explain the types of jobs African Americans did for the Confederate Army. What can the pictures tell us about their experiences?

3. Compare and contrast the experiences of African Americans serving in the Confederate Army versus the United States Army.

Suggested Activities

1. Write an essay from the African American Army cook’s point of view. The students should use the background of the picture to reflect on life at the camp for this individual. Students could develop this project further researching other primary sources about what is was like to be a civilian traveling with the army.

2. Have the students watch this video about the Massachusetts 54th regiment. Allow the students to work in groups for about 20-30 minutes in order to compare and contrast the experience of African Americans in the Union Army and the Confederate Army. After completing this activity, the students could also compare and contrast the experience of white soldiers in the army versus black soldiers in the army during the Civil War.