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African Americans in the Civil War

African Americans played a prominent role in the Union Army during the Civil War. Over 200,000 African Americans, equaling 10% of the entire military force, served in the Union military. 37,000 died fighting for the Union. Most were escaped slaves who served in segregated units under white officers. African American soldiers were not given the same rights as their white counterparts. Whereas white soldiers earned $13.00 a month with an additional $3.00 clothing allowance, African American soldiers earned $10.00 a month and had $3.00 deducted from their earnings for clothing. African American soldiers were granted equal pay, however, on June 15, 1864.

Initially, African Americans were only allowed to perform heavy labor tasks and burial duties, but eventually, more and more were put on the front lines in combat. At first, most white soldiers and officers believed that African Americans lacked the courage to be effective soldiers. In 1862, however, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers repeatedly repulsed attacking Confederates at the Battle of Island Mound, Missouri. On July 17, 1863, at Honey Springs, Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, the the same Volunteers under General James Blunt held their ground against Confederate forces while the rest of his units retreated. They would go on to hold the center of the Union line, exchanging fire for over twenty minutes with the Confederates until the Confederates broke and ran. After the battle, General Blunt praised the Volunteers and admitted they had fought better than any other soldiers under his command.

At the the Battle of New Market Heights, Virginia in 1864 (as part of the Siege at Petersburg), African-Americans soldiers pinned down by Confederate artillery fire, charged the earthworks and rushed up the hillside to engage the Confederates in an hour long battle, suffering tremendous casualties. Fourteen African American soldiers received the Medal of Honor following the battle for their bravery. By 1864 African Americans were serving in some capacity in the Union Army in virtually all engagements (except for Sherman’s Georgia campaign).

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