Most African American men and women saw the Civil War as an opportunity to fight oppression and end slavery nationally, and they were indispensable to the Union war effort. During the Civil War, nearly 180,000 African American men served in the U.S. Army and 30,000 in the Navy. Thousands of African American women fought in various ways as organizers, activists, nurses, cooks, camp workers and occasionally as spies or soldiers. And many more women were employed on the home front in industries that supported the war efforts.
Pennsylvania’s proximity to slave states contributed to mounting hostility leading to the Civil War. Though the passage of the gradual emancipation law in Pennsylvania in 1780 had little immediate impact on the abolition of slavery in the state–in fact, it did not free any slaves outright–it signified the movement away from slavery in the North and defined the Mason Dixon line as the metaphoric boundary between slave states in the South and non-slave states in the North.
Black and white abolitionists fighting to extend freedom to all people helped men and women escape slavery, but their actions also heightened aggression between the North and the South. On September 11, 1851, in Christiana, Pennsylvania, a group of free African Americans physically defended four men who escaped from slavery and killed the slave owner who tried to catch them. Such violence prefigured the immense suffering that occurred during the war.
When the Civil War began in 1861, African American men were not permitted to enlist in the U.S. Army, yet black leaders like Frederick Douglass and Pennsylvanian Martin Delany persistently sought to persuade President Lincoln to let blacks fight. Congress eventually authorized the enlistment of African Americans on July 17, 1862, but President Lincoln did not officially institute black regiments until January 1, 1863, through a clause in the Emancipation Proclamation. Many African Americans rejoiced on New Year’s Day for this small step toward equality set forth by the proclamation. Yet celebration was not unanimous among the black community as many felt that with the continued disenfranchisement and enslavement of African Americans it would be an insult and abandonment of self-respect to serve for a country that didn’t serve for them.
The first official regiment of African American soldiers from the North was the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, largely recruited by Delany. Nearly 300 of the 1,007 enlisted Black men were from Pennsylvania. In May of 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established, and African Americans enlisted in the federal service as U.S. Colored Troops (USCT).
With Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863, African American educator Octavius Catto formed a company in Philadelphia to help defend the state. However, as it marched toward Harrisburg, the soldiers were turned away on account of their race. Despite numerous military successes and bravery under fire, African Americans continued to face hostility and racism within the U.S. Army and were more frequently assigned to labor-intensive duties than white soldiers.
Camp William Penn, located north of Philadelphia, was a major training facility for black soldiers (and their white commissioned officers). Among the eleven regiments trained at Camp William Penn in 1863 was the 6th USCT, which saw combat in Virginia at Petersburg, Dutch Gap and New Market Heights. Thomas Hawkins and Kelly Alexander of the 6th USCT served courageously in Virginia, gallantly rescuing the regimental colors and rallying their men in a time of confusion and danger, earning them the highest military honor awarded by Congress, the Medal of Honor. Two other black Pennsylvanians also received this distinguished honor for their service during the Civil War, James H. Bronson of Indiana County and John Lawson, who served in the Navy.
Black Union soldiers and their families were often supported by organizations such as the Ladies Sanitary Association of St. Thomas’s African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and the Soldiers Relief Association. Women’s benevolent organizations, often connected to churches in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Harrisburg, raised money to provide supplies, clothing and medicine to the war’s victims. After 1865, these organizations supported the needs of the ex-slaves transitioning to freedom.