From the beginning of the Civil War, slaves ran away from their owners and sought refuge with Union armies camped nearby. Meanwhile, Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists urged President Abraham Lincoln to let African Americans enlist in the fight against the slave-holding South. Lincoln resisted both ideas at first, insisting that his goal was simply the preservation of the Union, with or without the abolition of slavery. He considered his native state of Kentucky and the other three “border” states—which allowed slavery but had not seceded from the Union—to be critical to the war effort, and he feared that any federal interference with slavery would drive those states into the Confederacy. So he ordered fugitive slaves to be returned to their masters and made no move to integrate the Union forces.
By the summer of 1862, though, it had become obvious that the war would be much longer—and would require much more manpower and materiel—than most people had predicted at the outset. With the number of volunteers dwindling, Congress and the president were considering the nation’s first military draft. Lincoln was also coming to believe that the abolition of slavery must be one of the goals of the war. In July, Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, which authorized the Union army to “make use of” freed slaves in the war effort. Soon many of the refugees were working as paid guides; cooks; drivers; and especially manual laborers, constructing fortifications and digging graves. Encouraged by this change in policy, groups of African Americans began forming militias and drilling, hoping to be mustered into the army itself.
Lincoln fulfilled those hopes with the Emancipation Proclamation, which not only declared slaves in rebel-held territories to be free, but also announced that able-bodied black men would be received into the U.S. armed services. Within weeks of the proclamation’s effective date of January 1, 1863, recruiters in Union territories were actively seeking out black volunteers. In the border states and the South, more and more slaves ran away from their masters and made their way to Union recruiting stations. Because they could not leave their wives and children in slavery, these men brought their families with them, creating one of the largest internal refugee crises in American history.
Even after being inducted into the army, African-American soldiers battled racism and discrimination. They were paid less than white soldiers, and many commanders relegated them to the same sorts of manual labor that “contraband” slaves performed. If they were captured by Confederate forces, they were likely to be forced back into slavery or summarily executed rather than being treated as prisoners of war.
Gradually, though, African-American units began to prove themselves in battle. The racial difference in pay was eliminated in June of 1864. By the end of the war, more than 179,000 black men had served in the Union forces, and African Americans made up about 10 percent of the Union Army.