1861The Civil War
The Battlefield of Freedom
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.
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.