Famous African American soldiers during the Civil War

Famous African American soldiers and their units played pivotal roles in the Civil War, significantly influencing the course and outcome of the conflict. Their contributions, often overlooked in the early historiography of the war, underscore the complexity of their participation and the profound impact of their service.

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The story of African American soldiers during the Civil War is one of courage, resilience, and a steadfast commitment to liberty and equality.

In the article below, WHE American historians delve into the lives and legacies of these soldiers, exploring their motivations, experiences, and the broader implications of their involvement in the Civil War.

The Context of African American Participation

The Civil War (1861-1865) was fundamentally a conflict over slavery and state rights, with African American soldiers eventually becoming an integral part of the Union Army’s efforts to defeat the Confederacy.

Initially, African Americans were barred from enlisting in the Union Army, but as the war progressed and manpower shortages became acute, attitudes shifted. The passage of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, not only declared all slaves in Confederate-held territory to be free but also officially sanctioned the recruitment of African American soldiers into the Union forces.

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African American Soldiers and Their Units

Over 180,000 African American men, comprising free blacks and former slaves, enlisted in the Union Army, forming units such as the United States Colored Troops (USCT), which included infantry, cavalry, and artillery regiments.

Notably, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first African American units organized in the Northern states, gained fame for its valor during the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in 1863. The bravery of the 54th Massachusetts was immortalized in the film “Glory” and served as a testament to the courage and determination of African American soldiers.

Notable Figures

Several African American soldiers and officers emerged as prominent figures during the Civil War, their stories highlighting the diverse experiences and contributions of black soldiers.

Sergeant William H. Carney (1840-1908)

Sergeant William H. Carney of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment became the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military decoration, for his actions during the Battle of Fort Wagner. Despite being severely wounded, Carney rescued the American flag from a fallen bearer and ensured it did not touch the ground, symbolizing the resilience and bravery of African American soldiers.

Sergeant Carney was the first African American to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He received this honor for his bravery during the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, where he famously kept the Union flag aloft after the flag bearer was killed, ensuring it did not touch the ground. Image: William Harvey Carney (1840 to 1908)

Andre Cailloux (1825–1863)

Cailloux was one of the first African American officers in the Union Army to die in combat. He was a captain in the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, a regiment of African American soldiers. Cailloux died heroically leading his men in the attack on Port Hudson, Louisiana.

Robert Smalls (1839–1915)

Smalls was an enslaved African American who became a hero for the Union. He famously commandeered a Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor and surrendered it to Union forces, freeing himself, his crew, and their families. Later, he served as a pilot in the Union Navy and became a captain of the Planter.

Image: A picture of Robert Smalls during the 1870s.

Major Martin Delany (1812 – 1885)

Major Martin Delany was one of the highest-ranking African American officers in the Union Army. A staunch abolitionist and one of the first black men admitted to Harvard Medical School (although he did not attend due to opposition from white students), Delany was instrumental in recruiting African Americans to fight for the Union. His leadership and advocacy highlighted the critical role of African American soldiers in the war effort.

Image: A photo of Martin Delany circa 1885.

Lewis H. Douglass (1840–1908)

Lewis Douglass, born to Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass in 1840, served in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first black units in the U.S. armed forces.

Promoted to Sergeant Major in 1863, he fought under Colonel Robert Gould Shaw during the assault on Fort Wagner, where 281 of the 600 men were casualties. Despite their numerical disadvantage against over 1,650 Confederates, the 54th Massachusetts’ bravery in this battle and subsequent sieges across South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida cemented their legacy.

Lewis, who was wounded at Fort Wagner, lived until 1908, witnessing the enduring recognition of his and his comrades’ valor.

Lewis H. Douglass was the eldest son of Frederick Douglass and served as a sergeant major in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African American regiment organized in the northern states.

Harriet Tubman (c. 1822 – 1913)

While not a soldier, Harriet Tubman’s contributions to the Union war effort were invaluable. Known for her role in the Underground Railroad, Tubman also served as a scout, spy, and nurse for the Union Army. Her intelligence gathering and participation in raids were crucial to Union victories, particularly in South Carolina, where her efforts led to the liberation of hundreds of slaves.

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Christian Fleetwood (1840–1914)

Christian Fleetwood, born free in Baltimore in 1840, was a multifaceted individual: soldier, choir master, clerk, and abolitionist.

Endowed with a keen intellect from a young age, Fleetwood was educated and mentored by John Brune, a wealthy merchant. He explored the African colonization movement, even visiting Liberia, but ultimately chose to advocate for abolition in the U.S.

A founder of Maryland’s first black journal, Fleetwood was deeply engaged in promoting black rights and was active in the Episcopal church. In 1863, he enlisted in the 4th Regiment United States Colored Infantry, quickly rising to sergeant major.

Despite a largely uneventful military career, Fleetwood’s valor at the battle of New Market Heights, where he bravely carried the flag under fire, earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Post-war, he continued his work in the church until his death in 1914, leaving a legacy of dedication to equality and justice.

Christian Fleetwood was a sergeant major in the 4th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, where he seized the colors after two color bearers were shot down and bore them nobly through the fight.

Challenges and Discrimination

African American soldiers faced significant challenges and discrimination within the Union Army and from the broader society. They were often paid less than their white counterparts, faced harsher punishments, and were relegated to menial labor roles. Despite these obstacles, African American soldiers demonstrated exceptional courage and determination, earning respect on the battlefield.

The Confederacy, viewing African American soldiers as runaway slaves rather than legitimate enemy combatants, often subjected captured black soldiers to harsher treatment than white prisoners of war. The massacre of African American soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in 1864, where Confederate forces killed over 300 black soldiers after they had surrendered, stands as a stark testament to the brutal racism they faced.

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Legacy and Impact

The participation of African American soldiers in the Civil War was a turning point in the fight for equality and civil rights. Their service challenged prevailing notions of race and demonstrated their unwavering commitment to freedom and the Union cause. The bravery and sacrifices of these soldiers not only contributed to the Union victory but also laid the groundwork for the eventual recognition of African Americans as full citizens entitled to equal rights.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the contributions of African American soldiers were recognized through various memorials and commemorations. The establishment of the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., serves as a powerful reminder of the valor and legacy of the nearly 200,000 African American soldiers and sailors who fought for freedom and justice.

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