“That the negroes did not revolt is one of the incomprehensible features of our Civil War. Every chance for success was theirs, nor were they ignorant of their opportunity for striking an effectual and crushing blow against their oppressors.  Why was it not done? Several potent causes combined to render any widespread insurrection at that time impossible. There was in the first place a genuine affection for the white race, implanted in hundreds of thousands of negroes by amalgamation, there was, in no less degree, a race love created by the foster parental relations which negro women sustained toward white children; there was also a genuine desire on the part of the negro men to discharge worthy the duties with which they were entrusted by their absent masters.  But the supreme and all-pervading influence which restrained them was rooted in their religious convictions; for the slave negro, unlike the modern freedman, was a being in whom religious fervor was intensely and overwhelmingly manifest.” William Hannibal Thomas, 5th United States Colored Troops. The American Negro, published 1901.

It is hard to imagine the black people described in the previous quote would ever be seen rushing to Union lines to escape oppression as the popular narrative claims; usually when they did follow the army it was in pursuit of food taken from their destroyed homes. Much less would they be lining up to join the Union Army to fight against white Southerners for whom they held “a genuine affection.” Yet over the past sixty years historians have devoted a lot of print toward promoting that fantasy. Theirs is a fashionable historiography that has more to do with promoting a positive USCT narrative for a politically infused civil rights movement than it does history. The fact that civil rights are a noble cause must, in their minds, excuse historical spin and embellishment. But history is not well served when truth is sacrificed on the alter of a self-serving academic sanctimony.

When you remove modern political agenda as a motive for research, the historical evidence for both Northern and Southern black enlistment in the USCT takes on a far less flattering character. Northern black recruitment and enlistment was much more negative than leading Civil War historians are willing to admit. They are also unwilling to admit, that while Northern military leaders were still debating whether blacks would be willing to fight, Southerners who grew up in a racially integrated social environment were already actively recruiting free men of color to serve and fight. On June 28, 1861 the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee passed, and the Governor signed into law, legislation allowing all “male free persons of color between the ages of fifteen and fifty” to “be received into the military service of the State” and serve in integrated units. There is no restriction on their use of arms or joining in on the firing line. Southerners held no doubts about blacks ability to fight. It wasn’t until February of 1863, over a year and a half later, that the first black soldiers were allowed to serve in segregated units in the North. And for some time they served only as rear echelon troops, still yet not trusted to fight. In rare honesty among historians, Joseph Glathaar in his “Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers,” points out the mistreatment of USCT troops by their white officers who stole their wages, used whipping and other tortuous punishments, causing black regiments to mutiny far more often than white regiments. John Smith in his book “Lincoln and the US Colored Troops,” though a bit too enamored with Lincoln, is another rare voice regarding impressment, discrimination, and atrocities regarding the USCT.

The earliest advocates to recruit Northern blacks to serve had anything but noble motives. According to the surprisingly objective study (at least for modern academia) titled “Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861 – 1867, Series II: The Black Military Experience, “Northern advocates for black soldiering had two primary motives: First, they claimed blacks had a strong resistance to subtropical diseases; Second, blacks made more preferable cannon fodder than whites. Even among abolitionists there was an immoral motive to enlist blacks. The majority of abolitionists were “antislavery” not because they loved the slave, but because they hated his master. In their minds using blacks against the South would be the ultimate insult. Additionally, when facing conscription quotas, Northern States sought to meet their quotas with blacks in order to avoid doing so with whites.

Early Northern Black enthusiasm to serve in the USCT quickly waned when black troops were paid three dollars less than their white counterparts, and were deducted an additional three dollars for uniforms. The August 15, 1863 edition of “The Christian Recorder” stated blacks were expressing shock that any blacks at all were enlisting “as if they were receiving full wages and all the rights of citizens.” The December 26, 1863 “Christian Recorder” called it preposterous “for sound able bodied men to go to work for about six or seven dollars a month.” Even black USCT soldiers were some of the loudest voices warning blacks not to enlist. They warned of injustices against both them and their families. In a February 20, 1864 edition of “The Christian Recorder,” a member of the 6th USCT complained that his “wife at home is almost starving.”  By 1864, black enthusiasm was over, and Northern recruiters were calling for the conscription of blacks “wherever they are to be found.” Northern recruiters promoted “an army that will put down the rebellion without further draft on the Northern whites.” As black volunteers dried up, recruiters turned to deceit, coercion, and intimidation to fill the USCT ranks. Some States and counties offered bounties to encourage volunteers. The January 1864 “Dayton Daily Empire” reported blacks were regularly swindled out of this money. Under a Colonel named Pardee, blacks were swindled out of money that was “divided between the Colonel and the recruiting officer.” In August 27, 1864 “The Christian Recorder” reported that enlistee William McConslin and all other blacks enlisted in Bloomington, Illinois, never received their money. Regarding black recruitment, the January 9th, 1864 edition of “The New York Herald” stated, the administration of drinks containing narcotic poison, has been for months, one of the ordinary methods of promoting enlistment… mere boys between fourteen and seventeen years of age were made drunk and then enlisted.” Kidnapping was also a recruiting method to enlist blacks. The January 9, 1864 edition of “The Weekly Vincennes Western Sun“ reported that a Colonel Fishback had engaged “in stealing negroes from all over the State to save Indianapolis from the draft.” A black man by the name of William Nelson wrote his own memoir titled “The History of William Webb” in which he told of his being incarcerated and pressured every day for two weeks to enlist. In February of 1865 it was reported to Lincoln that Lt. Colonel John Glenn was “forcing negroes into the military service…even tortured them… riding them on rails and the like – to extort their consent.” It is astonishing how far different the historical reality is regarding Northern USCT enlistment from the depiction in popular films such as “Glory.” While there may have been a limited early enthusiasm by Northern blacks to volunteer, that enthusiasm quickly disappeared, and recruiters then looked South to slave contrabands to fill the ranks; there recruiting gets even uglier.

I have only touched on the plethora of historical evidence that casts doubt on whether even a majority of Northern USCT willingly volunteered to serve. The evidence regarding Southern USCT willingness to serve is even less. Throughout the Southern slave States occupied by Union forces, shocking abuses were committed against the “contrabands” as recruiters scoured those areas for recruits. Fortunately, we have primary sources such as the “Gideonites,” a group of Northern abolitionists who came South because of a rare real concern for the slaves, who reported the atrocities committed against ex-slaves to impress them into the USCT. Gideonite records show Union officers as well as recruiters terrorized the freedmen to force them into service against their will. Other records, such as the “Official Records of the War of Rebellion” also provide evidence. The latter records that in the Spring of 1862, Union General David Hunter ordered “all able-bodied male Negroes between the ages of eighteen and forty five who were capable of bearing arms… to be sent to Hilton Head at once.” Hunter, knowing that the ex-slaves would not be unfaithful to their South, “enjoined the strictest secrecy until the morning of May 12, so that the Negroes could not take warning and run away.” A Treasury Department agent expressed his concern that the enlistment of slaves against their will would lead to “debilitating effects on the morale.” Hunter ignored this warning and ordered several companies of soldiers to recruit freedmen against their will. Lincoln was still resistant at this time regarding the arming the freedmen and Hunter eventually was forced to disband his black regiments. He had kidnapped hundreds of black men, trained them as soldiers for four months without pay, and then disbanded them. Later when the USCT was approved, and volunteers could not be found to fill the ranks, more brutal forms of impressment were used. In the Spring of 1863, General Hunter once again began impressment against the will of the freedmen. A Gideonite reported the immediate fear that pervaded the freedmen and “that it was a full week before hardly a man on the plantation under sixty years of age slept in his bed.” They fled “from the field into the woods like so many quail… to be forced, I do not say into military service, for very few will be caught, but forced to abandon their crops and skulk and hide… leading the life of hunted beasts during all this precious planting season.” This was a threat to their very survival. When two “officers from Illinois came to a plantation… not a man was to be seen… the men would not come back till the officers were gone – they were afraid of being taken.” The men abandoned their homes and “made camp somewhere and mean never to be caught.” 

Realizing recruiting was not going as planned, recruiters became more creative and brutal. Elizabeth Pearson’s book “Letters from Port Royal,” records an account when Union soldiers caught three slaves including a boy of fifteen. When a boy of seventeen attempted to escape they shot and “wounded him slightly in the head.” On another occasion two slaves ran away from recruiters into a marsh, where the soldiers hit one in the leg with a bullet and in the head with buckshot. Another Gideonite reported that fifty soldiers stealthily “had come by rowboats to the village creek… they took all the men they could find.” The soldiers had arrived just after a church meeting and “set guards all about the houses and shot at every man that tried to run away.” This raid so scared the freedmen that “they won’t dare go to work.” In late war a Gidionite wrote that the soldiers acted with “excessive severity, not to say horrible cruelty.” He reported that “three men were shot, one killed, one wounded fatally… the other disappeared over the boat’s side and has not been seen since.” A black man named John Banks tells of how ten armed soldiers took him from his work. He objected that he was “obliged to do the work for my family.” Banks begged an officer to let him go home. The officer responded that “he couldn’t release him because he ‘had orders’ to take all colored men and make them enlist.” Banks enlisted while in a guardhouse with other freedmen when a soldier told him  “if he didn’t enlist he would put the contents of his musket into them.” 

Northern whites saw an opportunity to purchase freedmen to serve as substitutes for their own service in the war. “Substitute brokers” exploited the poor freedmen because their “lowly economic position often made them easier and cheaper to purchase” and easier to “intimidate into enlisting.” Union General Gordon reported that this substitute “traffic of New England towns in the bodies of wretched negroes, bidding against each other for these miserable beings who are deluded, and if some of the affidavits I have in my office are true, tortured into service.” The substitute practice was so widespread that the War Department finally ruled that blacks could only substitute for blacks.

As manpower needs increased, free blacks were forced into service and “objected to being treated like slaves.” Literate free blacks in Baton Rouge wrote a letter of protest to the provost marshal in that city. In just three Southern States alone the Bureau of Colored Troops reported that in just a matter of months five thousand black men were enlisted into federal service by these unscrupulous recruiters. Some of these “press gangs,” consisted of black soldiers. It is reported that they coerced slaves into service in exchange for their freedom. A supervising agent in the Treasury Department stated that if, “negroes are to be impressed, as described in the enclosed papers, they have lost, not gained, by the proclamation of the President. They are, nominally free, but in reality, the most unprotected serfs.” 

Such examples of how the ranks of the USCT were filled are disturbingly abundant. That it all had to be addressed by the Department of Treasury, the War Department, and called to the attention of the Lincoln himself, is evidence that forced recruitment was the rule rather than the exception in filling the ranks. That black men who enlisted in the USCT were mistreated, and those unwilling to join were impressed by intimidation, imprisoned, and even murdered, is quite disturbing. That modern academia suppresses and ignores this evidence for political agenda is also quite disturbing!  A Masters dissertation (available online titled “Reluctant Freedom Fighters: Coercion and Negative Recruitment Experiences of African Americans in the United States Civil War”) is perhaps evidence there are a few brave souls in academia willing to challenge the PC gatekeepers who Dr. Ludwell Johnson warns, “decrees that some things should be accepted without question – otherwise the elaborate machinery of academic control and social hostility will exact their full measure of retribution on the dissenter… “

Rod O'Barr

Rod O’Barr is retired and lives in Tennessee with his wife of 45 years, Kathy. He has advanced degrees in Philosophy and Theology, and a lifelong interest in history. He is the webmaster of a WWII website and a member of both the Abbeville Institute and the SCV. When not enjoying time with his children he enjoys doing living history at local schools.


  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    There were approximately 250,000 free blacks in the Confederate States according to the last official US census prior to the War (1860). There were thousands of black owners of slaves.

    How is it 250,000 blacks were free in the Southern States? Why would anyone free a slave? Slaves were valuable. House servants were purchased from their owners in Washington, D.C. during the War (1862) for 300 US dollars each. Three hundred US dollars, not for a field hand who was creating money but for a house servant…300 dollars when surrounded by yankees? I am certain, they all took the money. Three hundred dollars was the monthly pay for a Union Brigadier General for comparison. To free a valuable asset (slave), one must make the decision to disinherit someone else. Everyone has SOMEONE they’d leave an asset. Surely NO ONE despises their ALL their friends and relations enough to impoverish them through disinheritance. Yet, somehow 250,000 free blacks exist in 1860 in the future Confederate States of America.

    Let me put it another way…White Christians freed tens of thousands of exorbitantly expensive humans. In wills and testaments, through pay-as-you-go schemes and out of (perhaps) a guilty conscience from time to time, ten Memphis, Tennessee’s (1860) worth of free blacks came into existence…NO ONE FORCED THIS CHARITY, there were no INCOME TAX LOOPHOLES rewarding these actions.


    “In order to defend and protect the women and children who were left on the plantations when the white males went to war, the slaves would have laid down their lives.” UP FROM SLAVERY, Booker T. Washington, page 8.

    There would have been no War for Southern Independence without the support of the enslaved. A half-dozen uprisings would have ended the War in a month. The reasons, of course, are myriad. The motivations are complex. The fact remains.

    Thank you for an excellent article.

  • C R McGhar says:

    Thank you for this very timely article as I’ve seen news of USCT memorials going up on Southern soil while Confederate ones are coming down.

  • AJ campagna says:

    Very good sir. Excellent article.

  • John Marquardt says:

    Excellent artic;e. Evidence of your reference to the USCT being used as “cannon fodder” can be clearly seen by the use of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment as the advance unit in the July 1863 attack on Fort Wagner at Charleston This was also the case a year latter at Petersburg when nine regiments of the USCT in Brigadier General Ferrero’s Division were employed to lead the fateful charge into the the Crater. On a more personal level, in a letter by an ancestor of mine, a Confederate surgeon, he wrote that in an 1864 engagement in North Carolina’s Dismal Swamp, he witnessed a number of black troops, which he called “smoked Yankees ” in the vanguard of an attacking Union force. He wrote that such troops . . . “were deliberately sent into action in front of the other Union units to face the torrent of our bullets.”

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