African Americans in the Civil War: History & Facts

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  • 0:06 A Vested Interest
  • 1:12 Slaves
  • 3:15 Contraband
  • 5:08 Freedmen
  • 6:48 Soldiers
  • 10:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the experiences of African Americans during the Civil War. Some of them were slaves; others were free. Some were 'contraband' runaways; others were soldiers. Together, they contributed greatly to Civil War history.

A Vested Interest

Of all Americans, North and South, African Americans probably had the most vested interest in the outcome of the Civil War. After all, their very freedom and human rights were at stake. The Confederacy was fighting to preserve a way of life that included slavery based on race.

The Union was fighting to preserve the United States. Some Northerners wanted to end or at least contain slavery. Of these, a few were committed to making life better for African Americans. Others didn't care so much about that; they just wanted to punish the rebels and prevent the spread of the southern way of life into the West.

Only in the second year of the war did the moral question of slavery move to the Union forefront, and even then, most Northerners showed an overall disregard for the rights of African Americans. Racial prejudice ran deep.

African Americans had already been struggling for their freedom and human rights for years by the time the Civil War began, and they would continue to fight throughout the war as slaves, contraband, freedmen, and soldiers.


The 1860 federal census listed over 3.95 million slaves in the United States, making up 13% of the population. Most of these slaves lived in the southern states that would soon become the Confederacy.

Contrary to popular conceptions, most slaves did not run away immediately at the start of the war. Many waited, biding their time and serving their Confederate masters. They knew that open rebellion would be unsuccessful, but they had other strategies in mind.

Slave owners began to notice a change in their slaves. It was subtle, but it was there. Diarist Mary Chesnut noted, 'Dick, the butler here, reminds me that when we were children, I taught him to read as soon as I could read myself...But he won't look at me now. He looks over my head. He scents freedom in the air.'

Some slaves went to work to undermine the Confederate war effort from within. Those who traveled to war with their soldier masters sometimes passed intelligence to the Union army or even led Union soldiers to prime locations for surprise attacks. Slaves who remained on plantations slowed down their work. They understood the labor shortage that was occurring as more and more white men went off to war, and they knew they were essential to the Confederate war effort. If they resisted, even a little bit, just by doing a little less and taking a little longer to do it, by disobeying a few orders and taking a few extra off-plantation visits, the Confederate army would have less food to eat and the Confederate government would have less cotton to sell.

As the war progressed, the Confederacy impressed slaves to perform manual labor at military locations. They built fortifications, dug latrines, hauled supplies, and basically did the jobs no one else wanted to do. Others were sent to work at mines, factories, and railroad yards. Often mistreated and overworked, many of these slaves reached the proverbial end of their rope.


Many of these hardworking slaves joined others who decided not to wait until the end of the war to seize their freedom. They escaped to Union army camps, crossing battle lines and seeking protection from their masters.

The Union army didn't quite know what to do with these slaves who were arriving by the hundreds. Send them back? Put them to work? The need for labor won the day, and the army set up camps for the slaves, whom they labeled contraband (or seized property) of war.

Living in filthy, cramped, disease-ridden conditions, contraband men, women, and children performed menial labor for very low wages, if they were paid at all, and 'contraband rations,' which were half of a soldier's regular ration.

The Union needed a way to legalize and regulate its contraband 'employees,' so Congress and President Lincoln passed a series of acts designed to define and change the status of Confederate-owned slaves. The First Confiscation Act, passed in August 1861, officially adopted the label 'contraband' and decreed that any slave working for the Confederacy could be seized as a spoil of war. The Second Confiscation Act almost a year later added that contraband slaves were to be 'forever free,' and the president could use them as he saw fit to defeat the Confederacy.

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln took one final step with regard to the status of Confederate slaves. His Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in Confederate-controlled areas. The Proclamation was a direct shot at the southern economy and way of life, which were exactly what the Confederates were trying to protect.


At least on paper, over three million slaves were now free. These joined the nearly 500,000 free African Americans who had been living in the North and the South before the war. Many African Americans in Union border states were still enslaved.

Even with freedom in hand, African-American freedmen, as they were called, lacked equality with whites. They were not citizens. They couldn't vote. Even before the war, free African Americans were often denied education, faced limited employment opportunities, and worked for lower wages than white men. Now, during the war, their futures were uncertain and even bleak.

A few Northerners realized the need to help the new freedmen adjust to their freedom. In 1862, even before the Emancipation Proclamation, the New England Freedman's Aid Society began sending food, clothing, and other supplies to contraband camps and other former slaves. In 1863, the U.S. War Department created the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission to explore options for assisting freedmen.

This commission suggested the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, often called the Freedmen's Bureau. Established on March 3, 1865, the Bureau oversaw work to supply and educate freedmen. As the war ended, it helped them find work, a place to live, and justice in claims against their former masters.


During the war, many African Americans, both long-time freedmen and newly-freed contraband and slaves, wanted to do more than the menial labor they were usually assigned. They wanted to be Union soldiers.

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