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On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which included the following clause: “All persons held as slaves within any States…in rebellion against the United States,shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free. . . . [S]uch persons [that is, African-American men] of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States.” This allowed the use of African American soldiers in the United States Army. Prior to the Proclamation, African Americans contributed to the war cause in many ways, including as carpenters, cooks, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, and teamsters. However, with no end in sight to the war, the Union Army badly needed soldiers. Furthermore, white volunteers were dwindling in number, and African-Americans were more eager to fight than ever. The Emancipation Proclamation allowed African Americans admission into the Union Army for the first time, officially, as soldiers.

Even though African Americans had earned their right to defend the union, racial discrimination was prevalent even in the North, and discriminatory practices were seen throughout the American military. This was especially true early on. African American soldiers were initially paid $10 per month from which $3 was automatically deducted for clothing, so that these soldiers netted only $7, while white soldiers received $13 per month, and no clothing allowance was drawn. Furthermore, African American soldiers were excluded from becoming officers. In June 1864, Congress granted equal pay to the United States Colored Troops. Black soldiers received the same rations and supplies. In addition, they received comparable medical care, and they earned the respect of white soldiers after African American troops proved themselves in combat to be just as willing and able to die for their country as were white soldiers.


Black troops, however, faced greater danger than white troops when captured by the Confederate Army. The Confederate Congress threatened to severely punish - even execute - the white officers of black troops and to enslave black soldiers. As a result, President Lincoln issued General Order 233, threatening reprisal against Confederate prisoners of war (POWs) for any mistreatment of black troops. While the threat may have resulted in some restraint on the part of the Confederates, black captives were typically treated more harshly than white captives, and massacres of African Americans troops, like that at Fort Pillow, certainly took place.


Despite the difference in how they were treated, large numbers of African Americans volunteered to fight. By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 African American men (approximately 10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. African Americans soldiers believed that by fighting in the war they would better their chances of receiving equal rights because such service would be a clear demonstration of their patriotism. This sentiment was best expressed by Frederick Douglass, an ardent supporter of African American soldiers, who stated that "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship."

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