Abraham Lincoln's election led to secession and secession to war. When the Union soldiers entered the South, thousands of African Americans fled from their owners to Union camps. The Union officers did not immediately receive an official order on how to manage this addition to their numbers. Some sought to return the slaves to their owners, but others kept the blacks within their lines and dubbed them “contraband of war.” Many “contrabands” greatly aided the war effort with their labor.

After Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which was effective on January 1, 1863, black soldiers were officially allowed to participate in the war. The Library of Congress holds histories and pictures of most of the regiments of the United States Colored Troops as well as manuscript and published accounts by African American soldiers and their white officers, documenting their participation in the successful Union effort. Both blacks and whites were outspoken about questions of race, civil rights, and full equality for the newly-freed population during the Civil War era.

Emancipated blacks were forced to begin their trek to full equality without the aid of “forty acres and a mule,” which many believed had been promised to them. The Library's collection records the new steps towards freedom on the part of the African American community, especially in the areas of employment, education, and politics. There is also an abundance of books, photographs, diaries, and manuscripts about many aspects of slave life and culture, such as the development of the “Negro Spiritual” and the role played by the United States Colored Troops in the South and the West.

“Contrabands of War”

A Clergyman's Diary on the Eve of the Civil War

A.M.E. Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner, father of painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, was an important church leader in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In this diary he foresees with amazing accuracy some of the problems the nation would face in the upcoming Civil War. Its pages discuss the election of Abraham Lincoln, South Carolina's deliberations about secession, and the emerging war fervor.

Benjamin Tucker Tanner (A.M.E. bishop). Diary, 1860-1861. Holograph manuscript. Carter G. Woodson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (4–12)

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“Contraband of War”—African American Fugitives To Union Lines

As Union armies moved into the South, thousands of slaves fled to their camps. Although some Union officers sent them back to their masters, others allowed them to remain with their troops, using them as a work force and dubbing them “contraband of war.”

Of this sketch, Waud, who photographed the “contrabands” and then prepared the drawing for the newspaper, wrote:

There is something very touching in seeing these poor people coming into camp—giving up all the little ties that cluster about home, such as it is in slavery, and trustfully throwing themselves on the mercy of the Yankees, in the hope of getting permission to own themselves and keep their children from the auction-block. This party evidently comprises a whole family from some farm . . . .

Alfred R. Waud. Contrabands Coming into Camp. Drawing. Chinese white on brown paper. Published in Harper's Weekly, January 31, 1863. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6173/LC-USZ62-14189 (4–1)

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To Union Lines and Freedom

Photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, this is an image of African Americans seeking to gain freedom behind Union lines. It was taken in the main eastern theater of the war during the second battle of Bull Run in 1862.

Timothy O'Sullivan. Fugitive African Americans Fording the Rappahannock River. Rappahannock, Virginia, August 1862. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-B8171-518 (4–4)

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“Contrabands” at the Nation's Capitol

Black slaves who fled to Union lines, or “contrabands,” often proved themselves extremely useful, even before the government enlisted them into service. A group of “contrabands” appear on this calling card. Calling cards, or cartes de visite, with photographs were popular during this era partly because photography was relatively new and the cards provided a means of sharing likenesses with friends and relatives. This one includes images of white officers of the 2nd Rhode Island Camp at Camp Brightwood in the District of Columbia. On the left is Capt. B. S. Brown. In the center is Lt. John P. Shaw, killed in action at the Wilderness, Virginia, May 5, 1864, and on the right is Lt. T. Fry. The “contrabands” with them are not named.

Contrabands, Camp Brightwood. Washington, D.C., ca. 1863. Carte de visite. Gladstone Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6158 (4–9)

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The Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln's Proclamation

This print is based on David Gilmore Blythe's painting of Lincoln writing the Emancipation Proclamation. Blythe imagined the President in a cluttered study at work on the document near an open window draped with a flag. His left hand is placed on a Bible that rests on a copy of the Constitution in his lap. The scales of justice appear in the left corner, and a railsplitter's maul lies on the floor at Lincoln's feet.

After David G. Blythe. President Lincoln Writing the Proclamation of Freedom, January 1, 1863. Cincinnati: Ehrgott and Forbriger, 1864. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-1425 (4–22)

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Freedom's Eve—Watch Night Meeting

On New Year's Eve many African American churches hold prayer and worship services from the late evening until midnight when they welcome the new year with praise, thanksgiving, prayer, and confession. These services are called watch night meetings. December 31, 1862, was a very special evening for the African American community, because it was the night before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, freeing all the slaves in the Confederate states.

Heard and Moseley. Waiting for the hour [Emancipation], December 31, 1862. Carte de visite. Washington, 1863. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6160 (4–21a)

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Soldiers and Missionaries

29th Regiment from Connecticut

African American volunteers were in readiness to serve in the Civil War when the Union called them. President Lincoln and Union leaders vacillated greatly on the question of the abolition of slavery and the employment of black troops. The Emancipation Proclamation put an end to these questions. Effective January 1, 1863, the Proclamation emancipated Confederate slaves and authorized the use of black soldiers by Union troops. By the end of the war about 186,000 African American men had enlisted.

29th Regiment from Connecticut at Beaufort, S.C., 1864. Attributed to Sam A. Cooley. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-B82201-341 (4–5)

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Frederick Douglass—Recruiter Of Colored Troops

This letter, addressed to Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, states:

Sir, I am instructed by the Secretary of War to direct you to proceed to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and on your arrival there to report in person to Brig'r General L. Thomas, Adjutant General, U. S. Army, to assist in recruiting colored troops.

Douglass served as a recruiter in several regions of the country.

C. W. Foster, U.S. War Department, to Frederick Douglass, August 13, 1863. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (4–16)

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Douglass Recruits—His Sons Charles and Lewis

Among those Frederick Douglass recruited were his own sons, Charles and Lewis. Both enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts regiment. Charles, who wrote this letter from Camp Meigs in Readville, Massachusetts, relates an encounter with an Irishman while he was rejoicing over “the news that Meade had whipped the rebels [at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania].” Before a fight could begin between young Douglass and the heckler, a policeman led the Irishman away.

A letter from Charles Douglass (son) to Frederick Douglass, July 6, 1863. Frederick Douglass Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (4–17)

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Fighting for Freedom

His Truth Is Marching On

Julia Ward Howe, a white abolitionist, felt that there should be more positive lyrics to the tune of “John Brown's Body Lies A Moldering in the Grave,” so she wrote the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to be used with the same tune. Howe's hus band had entertained John Brown in their home. The Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments published this broadside with the lyrics.

Julia Ward Howe. “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Published by the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (4–20)

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An African American Medal of Honor Winner

These pages of Christian Fleetwood's diary detail his actions during a battle at Chaffin's farm near Richmond, Virginia, on September 29, 1864, which led to his receipt of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Fleetwood was one of fourteen African American men who received the medal for meritorious service during the war.

Fleetwood's regiment, the 4th U. S. Colored Infantry, saw action in Virginia. His diary also documents North Carolina campaigns and President Lincoln's visit to the front lines in June 1864.

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  • Christian A. Fleetwood. Diary, September 24, 1864. Holograph manuscript. Christian A. Fleetwood Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (4–14)

  • Christian A. Fleetwood in uniform. Albumen print, carte de visite, 1884. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (4–15)

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U.S. Colored Troops—Flags

In many of the stylized images of African Americans during the 1800s, freedom and justice are personified as a statuesque white woman in flowing robes. Behind the soldier in this image, liberated slaves are celebrating his accomplishments.

Regimental flags of the 6th U.S. Colored Troops. Carte de visite. Gladstone Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6156 (4–7)

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U.S. Colored Troops—Wounded in Action

Although the United States Colored Troops did not see as much action as many of them wanted to, they did participate in many skirmishes and major battles. After an unspecified battle in Virginia, probably in 1864, these wounded soldiers recuperated at Aikens Landing, a site used mainly for supplies. Taunted by many detractors, African American soldiers were eager to demonstrate that they could be courageous under fire. Despite problems getting paid, lower wages than white soldiers when they finally were paid, segregated units, and high ranks for whites only, the U.S. Colored Troops displayed a tenacious loyalty to the Union cause.

Wounded Colored Troops at Aikens Landing. Stereograph. Gladstone Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6157 (4–8)

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African Americans at Sea

This stereograph shows an African American, one of thousands of blacks who served at sea during the Civil War. The most famous of these was the Honorable Robert Smalls, later a Reconstruction congressman, who became the captain of a Confederate vessel that he commandeered and sailed into Union lines. Service records for over eighteen thousand African American Civil War seamen have now been identified by the Naval Historical Center at the Washington, D. C., Navy Yard.

Unidentified sailor. Carte de visite. Gladstone Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6159 (4–10)

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Emancipation Celebration

The District of Columbia Emancipation Act, passed on April 19, 1862, abolished slavery in the nation's capital and provided up to $300 compensation to owners for each freed slave. The African American population in the District regularly celebrated this Emancipation Day with bands, parades, sermons and speeches.

This illustration from Harper's Weekly depicts the fourth anniversary of the District's Emancipation Act. On April 19, 1866, African American citizens of Washington, D.C., staged a huge celebration. Approximately 5,000 people marched up Pennsylvania Avenue, past 10,000 cheering spectators, to Franklin Square for religious services and speeches by prominent politicians. Two of the many black regiments that had gained distinction in the Civil War led the procession.

F. Deilman. Celebration of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, by the colored people in Washington, April 19, 1866. Wood engraving. From Harper's Weekly, May 12, 1866. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-33937 (4–11)

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Forever Free

The Emancipation Proclamation declared that all slaves in the Confederate states were “forever free.” Free blacks, forming their own communities even during the slavery era, owned homes, businesses, and churches like this one. This group of African Americans is standing before a church on Broad Street in Richmond after the city was taken by Union soldiers in 1865.

First African Church, Broad Street. Richmond, Virginia, 1865. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-B8171-3368 (4–3)

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“Behold the Shackles Fall”

Sojourner Truth Ministers to the Colored Troops

Abolitionist and orator Sojourner Truth, who was illiterate, engaged her friend Euphemia Cockrane to write this letter to Mary R. Gale. Truth explains that she is communicating from Detroit, because she traveled there from Battle Creek to bring a donatio n of “good things” from the people of Michigan to the African American troops.

Truth states that when warmer weather comes she will go to visit the freedmen. She exults that “This is a great and glorious day!” and continues:

It is good to live in it & behold the shackles fall from the manacled limbs. Oh if I were ten years younger I would go down with these soldiers here & be the Mother of the Regiment!

Sojourner Truth (written by Cockrane) to Mary Gale, February 25, 1864. Letter concerning the emancipation of her children and her son's Civil War service. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (4–13)

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The Spirituals: Early Publication

The long journey of the African American spiritual begins in slavery. It first emerges into print during the Civil War, when “contrabands” sang their songs to Northern musicians who transcribed and harmonized the melodies. “Down in the Lonesome Valley” and “Go Down, Moses” were two of the spirituals actually published with music during the Civil War. The sheet music for “Down in the Lonesome Valley” published four verses of the song as sung by the freedmen of Port Royal, with some additions written by the compiler. Through publication, the spiritual had already begun its journey from being a purely African American genre to a musical form appreciated by a wide audience.

"Down in the Lonesome Valley: A Shout Song of the Freedmen of Port Royal." Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1864. Music Division, Library of Congress (4–18)

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U.S. Colored Troops—Band

This view of the defenses of the Washington, D. C., area shows a group of twenty African American soldiers with musical instruments. Blacks served in various capacities in the Union army. At first Union leaders allowed no black men to be commissioned officers, but eventually they served as noncommissioned officers, doctors, and chaplains. The first African American field officer was Major Martin Delany.

107th U.S. Colored Infantry Band at Fort Corcoran. Arlington, Virginia, November 1865. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-B8171-7861 (4–6)

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Civil War Map of Virginia's Lower Peninsula

Prepared by Confederate engineers under the direction of Capt. Albert H. Campbell, this 1864 field map provides detailed geographic information about Richmond, Virginia, and vicinity, including that portion of the Lower Peninsula as far east as Williamsburg. Although this map's primary purpose was documenting military reconnaissance (especially topography), the transportation network, and fortifications, it also provides detailed information about the cultural settlement patterns. The most obvious settlement features depicted are the numerous plantations and farms. Depictions of these plantations include notations indicating the location of “quarters” and “overseer.” But more remarkable are numerous references to free black settlements.

Albert H. Campbell. Map of the Vicinity of Richmond and Part of the Peninsula. Department of Northern Virginia, Topographical Department, 1864. Baltimore: T. Swell Ball, 1891. Photolithograph facsimile reproduction. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (4–19)

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United States Colored Troops

Not until after the Emancipation Proclamation was in force as of January 1, 1863, did Union officers actively recruit African American soldiers, although some black men were unofficially part of segregated units in a few states. By the end of the Civil War, one out of every eight Union soldiers was a black man. This image is symbolic because the soldiers stand in front of a location where black slaves were held for auction, stripped, examined, and bought and sold before interested purchasers.

William R. Pywell. Slave Pen in Alexandria, Va. [1862]. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-B8171-2296 (4–2)

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