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Fighting for the Union: 20 African American soldiers from the Civil War

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Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform at Benton Barracks, Saint Louis, Missouri
“Let us never forget the debt we owe” (1897)

Let us never forget the debt we owe to the colored soldiers. Let us always be willing to give them whatever credit is their due.

We called upon them in the day of our trial, when volunteering had ceased, when the draft was a partial failure, and the bounty system a senseless extravagance. They were ineligible for promotion, they were not to be treated as prisoners of war. Nothing was definite except that they could be shot and hanged as soldiers.

Fortunate indeed is it for us, as well as for them, that they were equal to the crisis; that the grand historic moment which comes to a race only once in many centuries came to them, and that they recognized it. They saw that the day of their redemption had arrived.

They escaped through the rebel lines of the South; they came from all over the North; and, when the war closed, the names of one hundred and eighty-six thousand men of African descent were on the rolls.”

– From “The Negro as a Soldier in the War of the Rebellion,” by Norwood P Hallowell, published in 1897

The story behind these Civil War military portraits

From Mark Sanchez, the 2013 Liljenquist Family Fellow at the Library of Congress:

“The onset of war coincided with a boom in photography in the United States. By the start of the Civil War, photographs were much less expensive and much easier to produce than ever before. New technologies brought the price of the new ambrotype (glass-backed) and tintype (metal-backed) emulsion plates down to between 25 cents to $2.50 in the Union states. The average Civil War soldier, who might make between $11-16 per month, could finally afford his own personal photograph.

“The portraits of most soldiers were small — 2.75 by 3.25 inches was the most common size — and could be carried in a friend’s jacket pocket, mailed home to family, or held in the hand of a loved one. The photos were often kept safe in ornate frames and decorated cases, some made of leather or molded from hardened shellac compounds.

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform and Company B, 103rd Regiment forage cap with bayonet and scabbard

“For many of these soldiers, a wartime portrait was a major occasion, and might be the only photograph ever taken of them. In the props, pose, and clothing that each chose, a viewer today can search for clues about the subject’s personality through the way he presented himself for his moment before the camera.

“History has recorded little about most of the soldiers in these portraits. In fact, for the majority, we don’t even know their names. But their photographs have traveled on without them, passed from hand to hand over the decades until coming together in this collection.

“Today, these portraits, which might have been intended for a few friends and sweethearts, can be seen and studied by people around the world. Although we may not know their names or their stories, we can look into their faces and ask ourselves what they experienced and how they felt as they played their part in a war that changed a nation.”

Below, meet twenty of the African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War, presented via their antique portraits. While many of their names have been lost over time, the sacrifices they made for our country have not been forgotten.


An unknown African American soldier in Union uniform at Benton Barracks, Saint Louis, Missouri

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform at Benton Barracks, Saint Louis, Missouri


Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with bayoneted musket, cap box and cartridge box

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with bayoneted musket, cap box, and cartridge box


An unknown African American soldier in Union corporal’s uniform

Unidentified African American soldier in Union corporal's uniform


Unidentified African American soldier in Union sergeant uniform holding a rifle

Unidentified African American soldier in Union sergeant uniform holding a rifle

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African American soldier in Union uniform and Company B, 103rd Regiment forage cap with bayonet and scabbard

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform and Company B, 103rd Regiment forage cap with bayonet and scabbard


Unknown African American soldier in Union uniform with bayonet

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with bayonet


Unidentified African American soldier wearing the uniform of the Union Army

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform

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An unidentified African American soldier portrait in a Union uniform

Unidentified African American soldier portrait in Union uniform


Unidentified African American soldier seated, wearing the Union uniform

Unidentified African American soldier seated, in Union uniform


An uknown young African American soldier in Union uniform with American flag

Unidentified young African American soldier in Union uniform with American flag


Unidentified young African American soldier in Union uniform with forage cap

Unidentified young African American soldier in Union uniform with forage cap

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An unidentified young African American soldier in Union uniform

Unidentified young African American soldier in Union uniform


Black soldier seated with pistol in hand, watch chain in pocket

Black soldier seated with pistol in hand, watch chain in pocket


Corporal Kager Mays of Kentucky, who enlisted in 1864 in the 108th United States Colored Infantry and died of fever in 1865

Corporal Kager Mays of Kentucky, who enlisted in 1864 in the 108th United States Colored Infantry and died of fever in 1865


Mounted cavalry soldier seated on horse

Mounted cavalry soldier seated on horse

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Seated black soldier, frock coat, gloves and kepi

Seated black soldier, frock coat, gloves, kepi


Sergeant Tom Strawn of Company B, 3rd U.S. Colored Troops Heavy Artillery Regiment

Sergeant Tom Strawn of Company B, 3rd U.S. Colored Troops Heavy Artillery Regiment


An unidentified African American sailor in a Union uniform, sitting with arm resting on table

Unidentified African American sailor in Union uniform sitting with arm resting on table


An unknown African American soldier in Union cavalry uniform with a cavalry saber

Unidentified African American soldier in Union cavalry uniform with cavalry saber

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Unidentified African American soldier in Union cavalry uniform, with a sword

Unidentified African American soldier in Union cavalry uniform with sword

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