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1861The Civil War

The Battlefield of Freedom

Large three-sheet broadside promoting "Men of Color" to enlist in the Army; text printed in relief with carved wood type and cast letterpress/metal type. Text reads "MEN OF COLOR  To Arms! To Arms!"

"Men of Color" Recruitment Poster

Photograph of Susie King Taylor

Susie King Taylor, 1902

Photograph of Susie King Taylor

Susie King Taylor, 1902

Though the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, Black men were not able to officially enlist in the Union Army as part of the United States Colored Troops until September 1862, when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Nearly 250,000 Black men served in the USCT, winning battlefield acclaim including the Congressional Medal of Honor and Butler Medal. Black women also played a critical role in the war. Women like Susie King Taylor and Harriet Tubman served as battlefield nurses, teachers, scouts, spies, and camp laborers. Enslaved people also found ways to undermine the Confederate cause, by harboring Union soldiers, breaking machinery and equipment, assisting with raids in Confederate cities, and passing along information about the actions of the Confederates. Gen. Robert E. Lee noted that enslaved Black people were the chief sources of information to the enemy. Some Confederates forced enslaved African Americans to serve alongside them as body servants and laborers.

An Army of the James Medal, also known as The Butler Medal, consisting of an unpierced copper medal with no suspender or attached ribbon. The front of the medal contains an engraved wreath of what appears to be holly with a bow at the center and a single five-sided star flanking the lower left and right side of the wreath. Around the outside of the wreath are the words, "DISTINGUISHED FOR SERVICE." At the center of the wreath are the words, "CAMPAIGN BEFORE RICHMOND / 1864."The reverse side of the medal is engraved with a depiction of a group of African American soldiers storming a Confederate occupied military fort. Surrounding the engraving are Latin words within an unfurled banner "FERRO IIS LIBERTAS PERVENIET." Below the engraving are the words, "U.S. COLORED TROOPS."

Butler Medal, 1865

An Army of the James Medal, also known as The Butler Medal, consisting of an unpierced copper medal with no suspender or attached ribbon. The front of the medal contains an engraved wreath of what appears to be holly with a bow at the center and a single five-sided star flanking the lower left and right side of the wreath. Around the outside of the wreath are the words, "DISTINGUISHED FOR SERVICE." At the center of the wreath are the words, "CAMPAIGN BEFORE RICHMOND / 1864."The reverse side of the medal is engraved with a depiction of a group of African American soldiers storming a Confederate occupied military fort. Surrounding the engraving are Latin words within an unfurled banner "FERRO IIS LIBERTAS PERVENIET." Below the engraving are the words, "U.S. COLORED TROOPS."

Butler Medal, 1865

In addition to fighting Confederates, African American soldiers dealt with racism and discrimination within the Union Army. Members of the United States Colored Troops were paid less than white soldiers, and colored regiments were led by white officers. Unlike the army, the Union Navy was integrated, and Black and white sailors served side by side. Like generations before them who fought in the Mexican-American War, Seminole Wars, War of 1812, and the American Revolution, African Americans used military service during the Civil War to gain freedom for themselves.