The American Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865, primarily over the issues of slavery and states' rights and in an effort to preserve the Union. During the war years, most African Americans in the South were enslaved, but those who had been born free or gained their freedom worked at a variety of jobs. A number of freed African Americans gave military support during the Civil War, serving as laborers, guides and soldiers.
Skilled but Enslaved
In 1861, enslaved African Americans made up more than one-third of the South's population. Aside from working the large cotton plantations, slaves also worked on farms raising tobacco, corn and livestock. In cities, slaves worked as laborers and craftsmen. Some slaves lived and worked part of the year on their owner's plantations and, when plantation work slowed, lived in town and worked for hire. They were allowed to keep part of the wages they earned from work-for-hire jobs, occasionally saving enough to buy their freedom. Many Southern African Americans were held in slavery even after the Emancipation Proclamation, as their owners believed Union laws didn't apply in the Confederacy.
Free but Fearful
The South also was home to a number of freed African Americans. These former slaves had gained their freedom by manumission. Most freed Southern African Americans lived in cities where men worked in mills and warehouses or as carpenters and masons. Women worked as seamstresses, and both women and children worked as domestic servants. Freed African Americans did not enjoy the rights of citizens. They were required to carry proof of their free status and those without employment risked being sold by the courts back into slavery.
Coerced Confederate Labor
African Americans were not permitted to serve in the Confederate Army as soldiers until 1865, but aided the Confederate cause in other ways. At the war's beginning, many slaves accompanied their masters into battle, serving as personal caretakers. Some reportedly took up the arms of their fallen masters on the front lines. Most, however, served the Confederate Army as relief and camp workers or as manual laborers. Freed African Americans in Virginia were impressed into labor for the Confederate Army beginning in 1862. They worked in salt and mineral mines and served as hospital nurses and cooks. Unlike slaves, they were compensated for their labor.
Freedom, But Few Opportunities
In the North, free African Americans faced stiff competition for jobs as European immigrants formed a large part of both the skilled and unskilled labor force. Free African Americans also faced discrimination in hiring practices. Many who had worked as skilled tradesmen in the South, where the immigrant population was smaller, often settled for jobs such as waiters and cooks in the North. African-American women, however, were regularly hired as domestics and often became valuable to Northern households. African Americans were allowed to enlist in the Union Army beginning in 1862. By the war's conclusion, nearly 180,000 had served in the Union Army while another 20,000 served in the Navy.
- Historynet.com: African Americans in The Civil War
- Encyclopedia Virginia: Free Blacks During The Civil War
- CivilWarHome.com: Slavery in The Civil War
- Library of Congress: National Expansion and Reform, 1815 to 1880
- CivilWarHome.com: Slavery in The Civil War Era
- New South Association: History of Springfield
- History.com: Confederacy Approves Black Soldiers
- The Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture: The African American Migration Experience: The Northern Migration
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images