What Types of Work Did African Americans Have When the Civil War Was Going On?

Many African Americans aided the Confederacy while hoping for a Union victory.
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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.

1 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.

2 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.

3 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.

4 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.

Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.