With the outbreak of the Civil War on 12 April 1861 loyal citizens of the United States pursued armed conflict to preserve the Union. When former slaves and free blacks attempted to volunteer for military service, many northerners resolutely maintained that only white men could serve. Nevertheless, by war’s end, approximately 180,000 black men had enlisted in the Union Army to fight for their own freedom.
Prominent abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass encouraged black men to actively participate in a fight against slavery. While the army initially turned away blacks, fleeing slaves increasingly sought refuge behind Union lines and forced the issue of African American military service to the fore. The First and Second Confiscation Acts, passed on 6 August 1861 and 17 July 1862, respectively, both provided safe haven for “contrabands” and allowed limited numbers of blacks to be used in conjunction with the army for any purpose judged “best for the public welfare.” Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on 1 January 1863, allowed black men to serve in combat with the US military. Black soldiers suffered the indignities of a racist military, receiving lower pay than white soldiers and facing restrictions to fatigue duty and severe limits on promotions to the officer corps.
Under the command of Union general Lorenzo Thomas, recruitment of black Mississippians began in March 1863. As the Union forces moved through the Mississippi Valley, slaves fleeing plantations and farms joined up, initially serving in state-designated regiments. The 1st Mississippi (African Descent) participated in Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg, seeing action at Milliken’s Bend on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River on 7 June 1863. Although poorly trained, ill equipped, and outnumbered, black troops performed well in battle, routing Confederates under Gen. John George Walker. Military officials eventually reorganized most black soldiers into the US Colored Troops, which incorporated the Mississippi regiments. As part of Union general William Tecumseh Sherman’s campaign to destroy Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry in 1864, the 55th US Colored Troops under Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis engaged Forrest’s men at Brice’s Crossroads near Baldwyn on 10 June. Although the Confederates emerged victorious, Union officers praised the black soldiers’ performance under fire.
Approximately eighteen thousand black Mississippians served in the Civil War, fighting in all theaters of operation and making significant contributions to the Union war effort. The US victory enabled black veterans to cite their service to the nation’s cause in support of their claim to equal citizenship rights.
- Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861–1865 (1956)
- James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted during the War for the Union (1965)
- Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War (1953)
- Noah Andre Trudeau, Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862–1865 (1998)