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To Arms! African American Soldiers in the American Civil War

Updated: Sep 1, 2022


Detail from 29th Regiment from Connecticut. Beaufort, South Carolina. Library of Congress

The role of African Americans, particularly African American soldiers, in the American Civil War is often overlooked. Despite heroic service in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, Black men were denied that right at the beginning of the Civil War. As early as July 1861, an offer by Black New Yorkers to raise and equip three regiments of Black men was rejected by then Governor Edwin Morgan. Black leaders, especially Frederick Douglass, continually pressured the Lincoln administration to admit African Americans into the Union Army. Advocating for Black soldiers, Douglass wrote in his newspaper Douglass’ Monthly. “Can he not wield a sword, fire a gun, march and countermarch, and obey others like any other?”


In July 1862, Congress finally passed acts allowing African Americans to enlist in the Union Army, although official enrollment did not occur until that September, after President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. Encouraged by Black leaders, such as Frederick Douglass, more than 180,000 African American men (including two of Douglass's own sons), fought for their freedom. And fight (and die) they did. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war, including an appalling 30,000 from infection or disease. Black women also supported the war effort, including Harriet Tubman, who served as a nurse and, on one occasion, as a scout, helping to lead a raid against Confederate forces in South Carolina (see previous Blog about the Raid at Combahee Ferry).

Detail from Recruitment Broadside Men of Color Adapted from a Frederick Douglass Editorial. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Finally allowed to serve their country, Black soldiers continued to face obstacles. Initially offered equal pay, the government broke its promise, offering only half pay. Full pay was not finally authorized until late in 1864. In addition, Black soldiers in the field often had to overcome inferior equipment and medical treatment. In combat, Confederate soldiers treated Blacks harshly and, in some incidents, massacred defenseless soldiers. The Confederate government also required that captured Black troops be returned to slavery or suffer the death penalty for insurrection.


Reflecting the prejudices of the time, Black soldiers were not allowed to join White regiments. Instead, they formed their own separate units. Initially formed at the State level, these Regiments had State identification. One of the first and most famous Black Regiments, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, was raised in February 1863 (Frederick Douglass's sons were members of this Regiment). Other States eventually formed their own Regiments, including the 29th Connecticut Infantry Regiment (formed in January 1864 and addressed by Frederick Douglass before heading to the front line). The first all-Black (or “Colored” as they were called at that time) Regiment from New York, the 20th Infantry, US Colored Troops (USCT), was organized at Riker's Island on February 9, 1864.

Sergeant Henry F. Steward, 54th Massachusetts Regiment Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Because New York was slow to form Black units, many New Yorkers went to Connecticut to join the 29th Connecticut Regiment, including Charles Green (and perhaps his father, Henry) from Sag Harbor. Also joining the 29th Connecticut was Stephen Taukus “Talkhouse” Pharaoh of East Hampton. Shinnecock and Montauk men were forced to serve in Black units due to tribal intermarriage with African Americans, while other tribes, such as the Senecas, were allowed in White regiments. Fighting in South Carolina and Virginia, the 29th Connecticut lost 198 men including 44 men killed and 152 men dead from disease. Charles Green was one of those who died of disease, probably dysentery, near Richmond in December 1864. Charles’ father, Henry also died, although how and when is unclear, most likely also of disease.


Once New York began recruiting African Americans, volunteers quickly joined the Army. After a short period of training on Riker’s Island, the men of the 20th USCT left their camp on March 3, 1864, and marched through Manhattan, where anti-Black draft riots had raged the previous July. As they assembled at Union Square, they were cheered by a crowd estimated to be 100,000. The 20th USCT then departed to Louisiana where the Regiment lost a total of 285 men during its service there, nearly all of whom died of disease. Warren Cuffee, a member of the Eastville Band of the Sag Harbor Montauks who joined the 20th, was one of those who survived. Ultimately, New York raised three Regiments of Black men, totaling 4,125 men (compared to 404,805 White soldiers). Of these New York “Colored” Troopers, 847 died, over 80% from disease.

Warren Cuffee The East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection

Despite the successful recruitment, Black soldiers continued to suffer from discrimination. White military leadership believed that Black men lacked the ability to command men in battle. Although this myth was quickly disproven, Black Regiments were almost entirely officered by White men. One of the most prominent White officers was Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts (depicted in the movie “Glory”), who lost his life at the Battle of Fort Wagner. The majority of these White officers were strong abolitionists and demonstrated their beliefs by volunteering to join Black Regiments, where they too risked harsh treatment or execution if captured.

Storming Fort Wagner by Kurz & Allison Library of Congress

Other less well-known officers include George Roger Sherman of Sag Harbor. After originally joining the 81st New York Infantry in November 1861, he was wounded at Fair Oaks, Virginia in May 1862. In October 1863 he joined the newly formed 7th US Colored Troops as a Lieutenant. On September 29, 1864, the 7th USCT was part of a federal force attacking Fort Gilmer, part of the defensive works outside Richmond, Virginia. The Regiment was ordered to advance across an open field and suffered significant losses. George Sherman was wounded in the fighting and taken prisoner. Although Fort Gilmer was eventually taken, Richmond was not taken until April 1865. During its service, the 7th USCT lost nearly 400 men, including 85 men killed in action and approximately 300 men died from disease.

George R. Sherman, Captain, Company C, Seventh United States Colored Troops. Southampton History Museum Collection.

Time and again, Black men (and women) demonstrated courage fighting for their freedom, their country and against bigotry. As Frederick Douglass observed, ”Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship."

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