Freedom's Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War
When nearly 200,000 black men, most of them former slaves, entered the Union army and navy, they transformed the Civil War into a struggle for liberty and changed the course of American history. Freedom's Soldiers tells the story of those men in their own words and the words of other eyewitnesses.
Available in paperback and suitable for classroom use, Freedom's Soldiers includes an interpretive essay, a portfolio of photographs and other images, and some fifty documents selected from among those previously published in Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation. These moving letters, affidavits, and memorials reveal the variety and complexity of the black military experience during the era of emancipation. The volume concludes with suggestions for further reading.
192 pp. Table of contents (pdf)
Copies of Freedom's Soldiers may be ordered from Cambridge University Press online, by telephone (800-872-7423), or by fax (914-937-4712).
Selected Documents from the Volume
- Governor of Iowa to the General-in-Chief of the Army, August 5, 1862
Advocating employment of black men by the Union army on entirely pragmatic grounds, Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood argued that a black man could drive an army team or stop a bullet as well as a white man.
- General-in-Chief of the Army to the Commander of the Department of the Tennessee, March 31, 1863
General Henry W. Halleck privately advised General Ulysses S. Grant about the changing purposes of the war and the military benefits of emancipation.
- Black Former Officers in a Louisiana Black Regiment to the Commander of the Department of the Gulf, April 7, 1863
By late 1862, Union troops in southern Louisiana included “Native Guard” regiments, composed of free black men under officers who were also men of color. General Benjamin F. Butler had permitted the black officers to continue to serve, but his successor, General Nathaniel P. Banks, forced all but a handful to resign. A group of ousted officers urged Banks to reconsider his position.
- Officer in a Louisiana Black Regiment to the Commander of a Black Brigade, May 29, 1863
Writing to the chief recruiter of black troops in southern Louisiana, a Union officer praised the bravery of black soldiers in the battle of Port Hudson, many of whom had until recently been slaves.
- Commander of the District of Northeastern Louisiana to the Headquarters of the Department of the Tennessee, June 12, 1863
A Union general described to his superiors the bloody battle of Milliken's Bend, Louisiana, the first test of combat for a brigade of newly enlisted black soldiers.
- Mother of a Northern Black Soldier to the President, July 31, 1863
Shortly after the battle of Fort Wagner, Hannah Johnson, the mother of a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, urged President Lincoln to guarantee the proper treatment of captured black soldiers. In measured but heartfelt words she defined the president's responsibilities to the soldiers and their families and demanded that he fulfill them.
First page of manuscript (image, 473K)
- Commander of a North Carolina Black Regiment to the Commander of a Black Brigade, September 13, 1863
Colonel James C. Beecher, commander of a regiment of former slaves from North Carolina, protested when his men were treated more like uniformed laborers than soldiers.
- Massachusetts Black Corporal to the President, September 28, 1863
On behalf of the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, Corporal James Henry Gooding protested the injustice of the Union's paying its black soldiers – in this case, Northern free men – less than their white comrades.
- Marriage Certificate of a Black Soldier and His Wife, December 3, 1863 (image, 471K)
The marriage of two former slaves, Private Rufus Wright and Elisabeth Turner, was presided over by a black army chaplain, the Reverend Henry M. Turner.
- Missouri Slave Woman to Her Soldier Husband, December 30, 1863
Martha Glover of Missouri, who remained enslaved after her
husband enlisted in the Union army, described to him the burdens
she and their children had borne since his departure.
- Officer in a Missouri Black Regiment to the Superintendent of the Organization of Missouri Black Troops, February 1, 1864
Lieutenant William P. Deming relayed to General William A. Pile his men's complaints that slaveowners were punishing their wives and children by assigning them heavy work normally done by the men.
- Black New Yorker to the Secretary of War, April 18, 1864
Theodore Hodgkins of New York warned that failure to retaliate for the massacre at Fort Pillow, Tennessee – in which Confederate troops killed scores of Union soldiers, most of them black, after they had surrendered – would alienate black Americans from the Union cause.
- Black Soldier in Virginia to His Wife, April 22 and May 25, 1864
In letters to his wife, Private Rufus Wright not only described a battle in which his regiment participated but also passed along more mundane news.
- Black Acting Chaplain to the Secretary of State, May 18, 1864
Unwilling to appoint black men to military positions that entailed authority over white men, until early 1865 the U.S. War Department refused to commission black men as line officers, no matter what their qualifications. Applications for commissions as chaplains and surgeons – positions that did not involve battlefield command – were received with somewhat more favor.
- Soldiers of a Massachusetts Black Regiment to the President, July 16, 1864
Since July 1863, black soldiers in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry had refused to accept unequal compensation with white soldiers – a stand that came at considerable cost, including the impoverishment of many of their families. A year after opening their protest, convinced that the government had still not acted to correct the injustice, members of the 55th Massachusetts petitioned President Lincoln for immediate discharge and settlement of accounts.
- Maryland Black Soldier to the Mother of a Dead Comrade, August 19, 1864
A black soldier from Maryland consoled the mother of a friend who had died in combat.
- New York Black Soldier to the President, [August] 1864
Writing anonymously, a Northern black soldier stationed in Louisiana described the toll that hard labor and short rations were taking on the men of his regiment.
- Commander of a Black Brigade to the Commander of the District of
Eastern Virginia, September 1, 1864
When a group of ex-slave men working as Union military laborers returned home to liberate families and friends, they were accompanied by a detachment of black soldiers, whose brigade commander reported the outcome of the expedition.
- Missouri Black Soldier to His Enslaved Daughters, and to the Owner of One of His Daughters, September 3, 1864
Private Spotswood Rice promised his daughters – and warned the woman who owned one of them – that their liberation was at hand.
- Superintendent of the Organization of Kentucky Black Troops to the Adjutant General of the Army, October 20, 1864
General James S. Brisbin described to his superiors how the “jeers and taunts” that white Union soldiers had directed toward newly enlisted black soldiers were silenced by the latter's bravery under fire.
- Mother of a Pennsylvania Black Soldier to the President, November 21, 1864
Apprehensive about her son's safety and her own welfare, the elderly mother of a black soldier petitioned President Lincoln for his release from further service, on the grounds that he was her sole support.
- Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier, November 26, 1864
Threatened by their owner, the wife and children of Joseph Miller had accompanied him when he enlisted in the Union army. Miller described the ordeal that followed the expulsion of his family from the camp in which they took refuge.
- Louisiana Black Sergeant to the Commander of a Louisiana Black Brigade, December 27, 1864
Recounting his regiment's battlefield success, a black sergeant stationed in Florida felt confident that the general who had supervised recruitment in his home state would grant him a “Small favor.”
- Black Residents of Nashville to the Union Convention, January 9, 1865
In a petition to a convention of white unionists that was considering reorganization of the state government and the abolition of slavery, black Tennesseans argued that black men were fit to exercise all the privileges of citizenship.
- Chaplain of an Arkansas Black Regiment to the Adjutant General of the Army, February 28, 1865
The chaplain of a black regiment in Arkansas noted the importance of marriage to the freedpeople, who regarded their wartime emancipation as a step toward “an honorable Citizenship.”
- Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier's Widow, March 25, 1865
After her husband enlisted in the Union army in late 1864, Patsy Leach endured abuse at the hands of their enraged owner, a Confederate sympathizer in Kentucky. Fearing for her life, she fled with her youngest child, leaving four other children behind.
North Carolina Black Soldiers to the Freedmen's Bureau
Commissioner, May or June 1865
At the end of the war, black soldiers stationed near Petersburg, Virginia, wrote to the commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau to protest the suffering of their wives, children, and parents at a settlement on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.
Michigan Black Sergeant to the Commander of the Department of South Carolina, August 7, 1865
A black sergeant stationed in South Carolina after the war complained to the state's military commander when a post commander failed to render justice to a freedman who had applied to him for assistance.
- Order by the Commander of a Kentucky Black Regiment, October 5, 1865
When former slaves in a Mississippi town sought to establish a school, they enlisted the aid of two noncommissioned officers in a black regiment stationed nearby.
- Kentucky Black Sergeant to the Tennessee Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, October 8, 1865
In a letter to an official of the Freedmen's Bureau, Sergeant John Sweeny of Kentucky emphasized the importance of education to his people.
First page of manuscript (image, 2.2 MB)
- Mississippi Black Soldier to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, December 16, 1865
Outraged by Mississippi's newly enacted black code and by outbreaks of violence against freedpeople, Private Calvin Holly wrote the Freedmen's Bureau commissioner to describe conditions and propose a solution.
- South Carolina Black Soldier to the Commander of the Department of South Carolina, January 13, 1866
With Union victory won and emancipation secure, the spokesman for soldiers in a black regiment asked their departmental commander to allow them to leave the service and rejoin families who were suffering in their absence.
Kentucky Black Soldiers to the President, July 3, 1866
More than a year after the war ended, soldiers serving along the Mexican border compared their service to the Union with the shoddy treatment they and their families had endured and challenged their commander-in-chief to make good the nation's promises to them.
- Affidavit of the Wife of a Discharged Georgia Black Soldier, September 25, 1866
The wife of a discharged soldier paid a high price for his association with the Union army.