Role of African Americans in Civil War

Identification and Evaluation of Sources

This investigation will explore the question, “To what extent did African Americans play a service role during the American Civil War?” It will focus the perspective of African Americans during the American Civil War, 1861 through 1865. Many know how greatly the American Civil War affected African Americans, but how African Americans affected the outcome of the war is often overlooked. To further understand their contribution, this investigation covers the work of African Americans in the Civil War, ranging from fighting, to farming, to stealing and spying.

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The first source to be evaluated in depth is a page containing multiple interviews from African American Military Laborers and Soldiers in the Civil War. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) had interviewed 2,300 formerly enslaved African Americans. This page contains only a few interviews, but specifically those who are American Civil War Veterans. The interviews allow the reader to experience a different perspective of those who partook in the Civil War. This is a value because it creates and inside view of people who not only lived during the American Civil War time but that they also were apart of it. A first-hand perspective can drastically differ from others. Although this source was very helpful in the investigation, because it was all interviews, there was an abundance of bias. Being able to sort through the information and use it without inserting bias is complicated and makes it a limitation. This may also be considered a limitation because the interviews were taken almost 70 years after the Civil War.

The purpose of this source is to allows to reader to understand that even though these people were encountering the same events, that each experience was still very unique. It discusses the different roles that African Americans played in the American Civil War and how each role still made a great impact. This source also displays the importance of receiving information through interview and how different perspectives can create a deeper understanding.

Another source to be analyzed is a site called, “The Root.” It seems as though it is a reliable site about African American culture and history. The source was written in 2015 which allowed for the author, John Stauffer, for gain from his advantage of hindsight. Being that is a recent source, Stauffer knows and understands the post war successes and issues making the ideas more valid. Stauffer is a professor at Harvard University and has written multiple books. His scholarliness has proved him to be a just writer with verifiable information. This source may be a limitation because Stauffer shares extreme bias through his words and ideas. He often uses sarcasm to further argue his points. Stauffer also never shared any of the same experience as they took place in the 1800’s. Besides that, the article is designed to properly and fairly answer specific common questions that the reader may have.

The purpose of this source is to help eliminate confusion and inform readers. Stauffer ideas are solid and easily understood. His article is very organized and has accurate information that can be fed to many people who want to understand this topic.


The American Civil war resolved two fundamental questions left unresolved by the revolution: whether the United States was to be a dissolvable confederation of sovereign states or an indivisible nation with a sovereign national government; and whether this nation, born of a declaration that all men were created with an equal right to liberty, would continue to exist as the largest slaveholding country in the world. The American Civil War and it’s result still affects the United States today. The outcome of this war was impacted even more by the service role of African Americans and their efforts. Both sides, the Union and the Confederacy, had support from African American. Whether it was by force or choice, the outcome may had been altered if it weren’t for the support of African Americans. During the war, African American soldiers on the Confederate side were simply called, “Black Confederates.” While on the side of the Union, African Americans were referred to as “Afro-Yankees.” While some still question why African Americans participated in this war, they made a great impact on the outcome. From battles to farming, African Americans played a large service role in the Civil War.

African American soldiers, specifically on the Confederate side, did a lot of what could be called the “dirty work” (Stauffer). This consisted of stealing any usable objects from those who passed, killing those who are suffering, and burying many of the dead bodies. Dirty work can also be labor work, such as supporting the Confederacy as servants and teamsters to build roads, batteries and fortifications. “You see, they required all of the slave owners to send so many of us to the army to work digging the trenches and throwing up de breastworks and repairing the railroads of what the Yankees done destroyed,” said Tines Kendricks, a slave who happened to be one of the people his master sent over to war. Blacks who shouldered arms for the Confederacy numbered a rough estimate of 6,000, among the hundreds of thousands of whites who served (Stauffer). African Americans washed uniforms, shined boots, mended clothes and tents, cooked, farmed, and generally did much of the drudgery for the armed forces (Nelson).

In contrast, far more Union army soldiers were tied down in such tasks, since the Union did not have many free black labor to do these non-combat duties. It was very common for African Americans to contribute to the war by cooking and or farming. A war of any sort requires enormous amounts of food which was powered by laborers, which in this case were the African Americans. and in 1862 the Confederate Congress enacted a law authorizing four black cooks per company. Some of the troops raised money to hire black cooks, they were paid fifteen dollars a month if they were free, if not, they had to have permission from their master to be able to work. African Americans also grew the crops that fed the Confederacy, as Frederick Douglass noted, blacks were “the stomach of the rebellion” (Stauffer). Black laborers numbered from 20,000 to 50,000. Many of escaped slaves followed almost every major Union army at one point or another.

Legally, African Americans were not allowed to serve in the war as combat soldiers. As soon as news of the Civil War set off, a rush of free black men wanted to enlist in U.S. military. They were rejected because of a Federal law from 1792 barred African Americans from bearing arms for the U.S. army. The decision of authorizing black troops into the war sparked concern that it may prompt the border states to secede, however, the Lincoln administration still wrestled with the idea (Freeman). Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, freeing slaves who had masters in the Confederate Army. Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass encouraged black men to become soldiers to ensure eventual full citizenship. By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men served as soldiers in the U.S. Army, that is ten percent of the Union Army (Freeman). African American women were not permitted to be in the army by law, however many joined as nurses, spies, and scouts. One of the most infamous scouts in the American Civil War was Harriet Tubman. She scouted for the 2d South Carolina Volunteers.

Many wonder why African Americans would even bother to participate in the war, specifically the Confederate side. There are multiple reasons to why African Americans would want to play such a role in the American Civil War. One of the first reasons being that some African Americans were forced to by their masters. “When the war started, my master sent me to work for the Confederate army. I worked most of the time for three years, hauling cannons, driving mules, hauling ammunition and provisions. When the Union army came close enough I ran away and joined the Union army,” said Bill Simms a slave who escaped but later returned to his master’s home after the war, “My master owned about four hundred acres of good land and he hired me to work for him.” Others joined the war because they were optimistic and had high hopes of the outcome.

These people finally had a cause that they wanted to fight for. Often times many African Americans took advantage of the fog of war and used it as an opportunity to escape to the Union as seen in Simms case. Another man, like Simms, made a run for safety, “You know Abraham Lincoln declared freedom in ’63, first day of January. In October ’63, I ran away and went to Pine Bluff, Arkansas to get to the Yankees,” said Boston Blackwell, “When we gets to the Yankee camp all our troubles was over. We got all the contraband [food taken by the troops] we could eat.” He escaped with a young boy, and traveled for two days to reach safety.

The contribution of African Americans to the American Civil War significantly altered the result. The service role of African Americans during this time period was substantial to the outcome. It is to a great extent that African Americans had played a service role in the American Civil War.


The biggest challenge facing historians is uncertainty. The process of this investigation has allowed me to use a variety of research methods and experience some of the challenges that historians face. Firstly, through my use of primary sources, I came to see the difficulty of gaining accurate historical knowledge. Although primary sources are useful for bringing us closer to the past, we can’t rely just on the information being presented, for the bias may create inaccuracy. This challenge was made explicit to me through the examination of my primary resources, such as the interviews I read on the National Humanities Center website. Historians struggle with bias everyday, converting opinions into something objective is what makes their job very difficult. It is also very hard when attempting to use a story that has come from other sources for it is like a game of telephone, each time it is used, it is altered just a bit.

Being a historian also requires the ability to decide what pieces of information to keep and which to leave out. They may also struggle with making all of the information, they have specifically chosen, entertaining and compelling. I found that in my research I struggled with the decision of what is important enough to be in my investigation and what is not. For example, when reviewing two similar sources that say slightly different things, could change the whole rest of my article. Many times there is very little information to go off of, like in ancient or medieval times, while other times there is too much information on. Choosing certain pieces or missing certain pieces can greatly affect the final product. Historians also have to include other effectors during that time period that could affect their research. Ideas such as culture, government, wars, gender, religion and race.

Having the right background information on a topic can greatly change the concepts and the reasons behind them. Historians have to be able to understand people, for feelings can extreme the bias of a source and can justify the actions of history. There is no way to tell what is right or wrong, leading each of the historians’ ideas to differ.

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Role Of African Americans In Civil War. (2019, May 18). Retrieved November 26, 2022 , from

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