Abolitionist Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts issued the first official call for black soldiers early in February 1863. It was already a couple of years into the war, and Lincoln was eager for extra hands. If they could pull a trigger, the could fight for the Union. African Americans served in the infantry, artillery, and filled many non-combat roles.

The first black infantry regiment

The 54th Massachusetts was the first official black infantry regiment. More than 1,000 men responded to the call. One-quarter of them came from slave states. Some came from as far as Canada and the Caribbean.

They were led by Robert Gould Shaw, a young white officer. Over half of the 54th Massachusetts died on July 18, 1863 while storming Fort Wagner in the Port of Charleston in South Carolina. It was the first time black troops led an attack.

Surgeons, cooks, and everything in-between

Not all African Americans faced the horrors of combat on the front lines. Many played supporting roles as carpenters, cooks, nurses, laborers, surgeons, and steamboat pilots. A total of 179,000 African Americans fought during the war, making up 10% of the Union Army.

Eighty of them were commissioned officers. Although black women couldn’t officially serve, many acted as spies, cooks, nurses, and scouts. Harriet Tubman, who orchestrated the Underground Railroad, was one of the most famous.

Mistreated but not defeated

As if war wasn’t brutal enough, African American soldiers were subject to various forms of racial prejudice. Discrimination permeated the US military. Black soldiers served in segregated units.

White soldiers were paid $13 a month. Black soldiers were paid $10 — sort of. They had $3 a month deducted for “clothing.” When it all shook out, they made roughly half of what their white-skinned comrades did. Forty thousand African American soldiers died serving their country, 30,000 of them from infection and disease.