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.

Dates and Eras Civil War
Themes Military, African Americans, Soldiers, Confederate Army, Union Army, Civil War to Civil Rights
Grades 5–7
Standards VS.7 c, USI.9


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

Historical Context

During the American Civil War, African-Americans, both enslaved and free, contributed to both the United States and Confederate States Armies.

Even before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, many enslaved African-Americans sought freedom by following the U.S. Army or seeking refuge in U.S. controlled fortifications. There many found work. Some women and men provided labor but it wouldn’t be until after 1862 that the U.S. Army began organizing African-AmericanRegiments for military service known as the United States Colored Troops (USCTs). Both free and formerly enslaved people enlisted in the U.S. Army and Navy. African-American Regiments were composed of African-American enlisted men and non-commissioned officers serving under White commissioned officers. In these early regiments, African-American men were often used for garrison duty at fortifications or captured Southern towns, as prison guards, teamsters, and in other support roles, but some early black regiments, like the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers and 1st Louisiana Native Guard, did see combat. However, for multiple reasons the recruitment of black men to fight did not become common until after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January 1863. Then there was an explosion of recruitment for USCT regiments like the 54th Massachusetts.

African-Americans also performed a multitude of tasks for Confederate soldiers, though they did not serve in a direct combat role. White Confederate soldiers of means brought along enslaved people who cooked, cleaned, and performed 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. In the Confederate Army, enslaved African-Americans labored as ship workers, laborers, cooks, and camp workers. The Confederate government used both enslaved and free African-Americans to build fortifications around cities such as Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The Confederate 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.**

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 by researching other primary sources about what it 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.