On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation: “All persons held as slaves within any States…in rebellion against the United States,” it declared, “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” (The more than 1 million enslaved people in the loyal border states and in the Union-occupied parts of Louisiana and Virginia were not affected by this proclamation.) It also declared that “such persons [African American] of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States.” For the first time, Black soldiers could fight for the U.S. Army.

A 'White Man’s War'?

Black soldiers had fought in the Revolutionary War and—unofficially—in the War of 1812, but state militias had excluded African Americans since 1792. The U.S. Army had never accepted Black soldiers. The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, was more progressive: There, African Americans had been serving as shipboard firemen, stewards, coal heavers and even boat pilots since 1861.

Did you know? Sixteen Black soldiers won the Congressional Medal of Honor for their brave service in the Civil War.

After the Civil War broke out, abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass argued that the enlistment of Black soldiers would help the North win the war and would be a huge step in the fight for equal rights: “Once let the Black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket,” Douglass said, “and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” However, this is just what President Lincoln was afraid of: He worried that arming African Americans, particularly former or escaped slaves, would push the loyal border states to secede. This, in turn, would make it almost impossible for the Union to win the war.

The Second Confiscation and Militia Act (1862)

However, after two grueling years of war, President Lincoln began to reconsider his position on Black soldiers. The war did not appear to be anywhere near an end, and the Union Army badly needed soldiers. White volunteers were dwindling in number, and African-Americans were more eager to fight than ever.

The Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July 17, 1862, was the first step toward the enlistment of African Americans in the Union Army. It did not explicitly invite Black people to join the fight, but it did authorize the president “to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion…in such manner as he may judge best for the public welfare.”

Some Black people took this as their cue to begin forming infantry units of their own. African Americans from New Orleans formed three National Guard units: the First, Second and Third Louisiana Native Guard. (These became the 73rd, 74th and 75th United States Colored Infantry.) The First Kansas Colored Infantry (later the 79th United States Colored Infantry) fought in the October 1862 skirmish at Island Mound, Missouri. And the First South Carolina Infantry, African Descent (later the 33rd United States Colored Infantry) went on its first expedition in November 1862. These unofficial regiments were officially mustered into service in January 1863.

The 54th Massachusetts

Early in February 1863, the abolitionist Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts issued the Civil War’s first official call for Black soldiers. More than 1,000 men responded. They formed the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first Black regiment to be raised in the North. Many of the 54th soldiers did not even come from Massachusetts: one-quarter came from slave states, and some came from as far away as Canada and the Caribbean. To lead the 54th Massachusetts, Governor Andrew chose a young white officer named Robert Gould Shaw.

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts stormed Fort Wagner, which guarded the Port of Charleston, in South Carolina. It was the first time in the Civil War that Black troops led an infantry attack. Unfortunately, the 600 men of the 54th were outgunned and outnumbered: 1,700 Confederate soldiers waited inside the fort, ready for battle. Almost half of the charging Union soldiers, including Colonel Shaw, were killed.

Confederate Threats

In general, the Union army was reluctant to use African American troops in combat. This was partly due to racism: There were many Union officers who believed that Black soldiers were not as skilled or as brave as white soldiers were. By this logic, they thought that African Americans were better suited for jobs as carpenters, cooks, guards, scouts and teamsters.

Black soldiers and their officers were also in grave danger if they were captured in battle. Confederate President Jefferson Davis called the Emancipation Proclamation “the most execrable measure in the history of guilty man” and promised that Black prisoners of war would be enslaved or executed on the spot. (Their white commanders would likewise be punished—even executed—for what the Confederates called “inciting servile insurrection.”) Threats of Union reprisal against Confederate prisoners forced Southern officials to treat Black soldiers who had been free before the war somewhat better than they treated Black soldiers who were formerly enslaved—but in neither case was the treatment particularly good. Union officials tried to keep their troops out of harm’s way as much as possible by keeping most Black soldiers away from the front lines.

The Fight for Equal Pay

Even as they fought to end slavery in the Confederacy, African American Union soldiers were fighting against another injustice as well. The U.S. Army paid Black soldiers $10 a month (minus a clothing allowance, in some cases), while white soldiers got $3 more (plus a clothing allowance, in some cases). Congress passed a bill authorizing equal pay for Black and white soldiers in 1864.

By the time the war ended in 1865, about 180,000 Black men had served as soldiers in the U.S. Army. This was about 10 percent of the total Union fighting force. Most—about 90,000—were former (or “contraband”) enslaved people from the Confederate states. About half of the rest were from the loyal border states, and the rest were free Black people from the North. Forty thousand Black soldiers died in the war: 10,000 in battle and 30,000 from illness or infection.