African Americans in the War

Slavery was vitally important to the economy and society of the trans-Mississippi region in the decades preceding the Civil War. Slaves worked the great sugar and rice plantations of southern Louisiana and the cotton plantations of northern Louisiana, Texas, and eastern Arkansas, while farmers in Missouri and northwest Arkansas used their few slaves to practice diversified agriculture. Slavery was even a factor in pre-statehood Kansas and in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), where recently removed southeastern tribes owned nearly 18,000 black slaves.

Slavery in the region rapidly disintegrated during the years of the Civil War, however. Missouri slaves had their first glimpse of freedom as early as August 1861 when General John C. Frémont, the commander of the Western Department, issued an emancipation proclamation. Even though Abraham Lincoln quickly rescinded the order in an effort to appease border state Unionists, slaves made their own decisions to flee as federal troops swept through central and western Missouri during the summer and fall of 1861. Similarly, thousands of Louisiana and Arkansas slaves ran away in the wake of Union invasion early in 1862, fleeing into the region’s swamps or seeking the protection of Union troops, such as those led by abolitionist General John Phelps of Vermont.

By midway through the war, Union forces had conquered and occupied both the lower Mississippi River valley and large parts of Missouri, where they struggled to contain a virulent guerilla insurgency. Bondpeople capitalized on the presence of Union forces and the political divisions among the white population and left their owners by the thousands during the first years of the war. Initially, many slaveholders could not accept that their slaves left of their own accord and instead accused federal soldiers of encouraging their “loyal” servants’ defection. While soldiers, such as Kansas Jayhawkers, did “steal” some slaves, most often slaves recognized the presence of soldiers as an opportunity to seek their freedom.

There was tremendous confusion within Union ranks regarding fugitive slaves, who were oftentimes referred to as “contrabands” because it was assumed that they had been owned by the enemy and, therefore, were considered spoils of war. At first, concerns about maintaining the loyalty of Unionists resulted in the return of fugitive slaves to their owners, but enforcement was sporadic and often indiscriminate. Some officers returned runaways to their owners, but others granted protection to those who had been used in the Confederate war effort as was stipulated by Congress’ Confiscation Act of August 1861. Many put fugitives to work within their camps rather than return them to “traitors.” The Second Confiscation Act of July 1862 specified that the military could seize the property—including the slaves—of those disloyal to the Union.

As time progressed, slaveholders—no matter their loyalty—were less likely to reclaim their slaves. Few soldiers questioned fugitives’ veracity when they declared that their owners were disloyal, and, indeed, many were inclined to believe that all slaveholders were on the wrong side of the war. In fact, some officers issued freedom papers to the slaves of secessionist slaveholders who came within military lines. During the final years of the conflict, the military no longer debated whether slaves should be liberated but rather what to do with the many who already were free.

As more slaves fled, slaveholders became extremely anxious about protecting and maintaining slavery. Lincoln vowed to protect slavery in the border states and areas of the Confederacy under Union military control and specifically excluded those regions from his January 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. The situation on the ground had deteriorated to such a degree that it was increasingly difficult for the military to implement his policy, however. Unionist slaveholders were increasingly disillusioned that the aims of the war had shifted from preserving the Union to emancipating slaves despite Lincoln’s many promises.

From the beginning of the war, slaveholders from Missouri, Arkansas, and the lower Mississippi valley “refugeed” their slaves deep into Confederate Territory in a desperate bid to secure their property, transporting as many as 50,000 to Texas alone. Believing that emancipation was imminent, others cut their losses and sold their slaves in Texas or Kentucky where they commanded higher prices. Union military officials calculated that as many as a thousand Missouri slaves were sold in Lexington, Kentucky, in the autumn of 1862, for example.

Other slaveholders frantically tried to maintain slavery through a campaign of intimidation, violence, and murder. They increased the presence of slave patrols in order to maintain labor discipline and control the mobility of the local slave population. Patrollers had always brutalized slaves, but on the eve of emancipation owners had little to lose if their bondpeople were maimed or killed. In fact, many Civil War–era “patrollers” were actually secessionist guerrillas, who, with the support of pro-southern slaveholders, harassed local slaves, threatened whites who hired former bondmen and women for pay, and intimidated slave men to keep them from enlisting in the Union army. Guerrillas also kidnapped and transported slaves south for sale and terrorized slave women through violence and brutal sexual assaults. Secessionist slaveholders also were concerned that their slaves would report their activities in support of the Confederate cause to Union military officials. In a reversal of decades of southern law that did not allow for the testimony of blacks against whites, Union provost marshals routinely used the testimony of slaves as they built cases against white secessionists accused of disloyalty.

In the summer of 1862, the Union army began to enlist African American men and ultimately 179,000 served in the army and another 18,000 in the navy. During the early years of the war, politicians and military leaders at the national level on both sides refused to arm black men, but both actively exploited the manual labor of slave men and women in the war effort. As emancipation progressed in areas occupied by federal forces, many began to argue that the Union should use African American men for military service. General John Phelps was reprimanded by his superiors when he attempted to organize a force of free black men and fugitive slaves in Louisiana in the summer of 1862, while at the same time Senator James Lane, working outside of official military channels, successfully organized the First Kansas Colored Infantry, which was primarily made up of former Missouri, Arkansas, and Indian Territory slaves who had escaped into Kansas. The First Kansas engaged in the first armed military action between African American troops and Confederate forces during the Civil War at Island Mound, just over the border in Bates County, Missouri, in late October 1862.

The need for additional manpower, as well as the recognition of emancipation as an essential war objective, led Lincoln and the War Department to sanction the recruitment of African American troops in some northern states early in 1863. It remained illegal to recruit in loyal slave states or in Confederate areas under Union control and, therefore, slaves in much of the trans-Mississippi region were forced to flee to free states in order to enlist. Missouri slave men flocked into the Union army after recruitment officially began in the state late in 1863.

Slave men clamored to enlist believing that military service would result in their immediate freedom, would allow them to assert their manhood and rights to citizenship, and potentially might lead to the liberation of their families. Many slave men literally risked their lives as they journeyed to recruitment stations since slaveholders and guerrillas patrolled the roads in an effort to apprehend them. Field officers routinely argued that the military should actively protect those attempting to enlist, recognizing that continued violence against potential recruits would dampen enlistment prospects.

While calculating the risks of enlistment, slave men also considered the consequences for their families. Some slave women and children followed their husbands and fathers to army posts where they worked as cooks, laundresses, and nurses, but many more initially remained with their owners. Masters and mistresses often treated soldiers’ family members cruelly in retaliation for their defection. Some slaveholders verbally and physically abused enslaved women and children, as well as expected them to assume the entire work burden of their farms and plantations. Others now considered them a financial liability and forced them off their property. Many soldiers agonized over the fate of their loved ones, pleading with Union military officials to intercede on their behalf. Some, such as Spotswood Rice, argued that their military service guaranteed the freedom and protection of their family members. In a September 1864 letter written from Benton Barracks in St. Louis, Rice threatened his daughter’s mistress: "[N]ow you call my children your pro[per]ty not so with me my Children is my own and I expect to get them." Indeed, some soldiers returned home to liberate their family members, occasionally with the assistance of their white brothers in arms.

Ultimately, 24,052 men from Louisiana, 5,526 from Arkansas, and 8,344 from Missouri served in the United States Colored Troops, while still others enlisted in nearby free states. USCT regiments from throughout the trans-Mississippi West played an important role in Union efforts to solidify dominance of the West and in the final campaigns of the war in the East. While their service was crucial to Union victory, African American soldiers were never treated as equals within the ranks of the military. Initially they received less pay and were barred from combat, and throughout the war white officers commanded USCT regiments. Many African American soldiers were assigned to garrison duty where they spent much of their time engaged in manual labor. The disease prone western posts, many located near Mississippi River swamps, resulted in appalling high mortality rates among African American soldiers. In addition, the Confederacy refused to recognize black men as soldiers and threatened to kill or sell back into slavery those who were captured on the battlefield. Eventually commanders put some USCT troops into battle service where they proved their honor and bravery in engagements, such as at Milliken’s Bend and Port Hudson.

Slaves continued to leave by the thousands for military encampments and nearby free states during the final years of the war. Many who hazarded running away faced an uncertain future in freedom, however. Women and children often remained near military encampments because they feared guerrilla violence or capture by their former owners if they moved back into the countryside. There were some private philanthropic efforts to aid refugees, such as the St. Louis Ladies’ Contraband Relief Society, but the task rested primarily with the army. Officers did not always know what to do with the overwhelming number of refugees who often suffered from disease, exposure, and hunger. They could not employ all of them in camp, nor did they have adequate resources to feed, clothe, and shelter them.

Military officers cast around, looking for solutions to the growing refugee problem. Some commanders requested material aid for the freedpeople living among them, whereas others asked if they could ship “contraband” slaves elsewhere. The Union commander in Independence, Missouri, sought permission to put the nearly three hundred “old men, women, and children,” who made his garrison their home, to work on nearby “deserted farms” and the Union army systematically organized and managed large-scale wage labor operations on the sugar plantations of southern Louisiana. In fact, by the summer of 1864 military recruiters found it difficult to locate men willing to enroll because many were gainfully employed by local farmers and planters, who were offering wages or share-cropping arrangements.

Slaves were officially emancipated at different times throughout the trans-Mississippi region. Early in 1864, Unionists gained the reigns of the Arkansas state government and emancipated slaves under the auspices of Lincoln’s lenient Reconstruction plan and later that fall Louisiana Unionists ratified a new state constitution that included an emancipation ordinance. On January 11, 1865, Missouri slaves were emancipated by a resolution of the now Republican-controlled Missouri State Constitutional Convention. Texas slaves finally were freed after June 19, 1865 when Union forces at last arrived in Galveston.

Return to gallery »