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African Americans, Race and Ethnicity in Illinois and the North During the Civil War

By Drew E. VandeCreek, Ph.D.

A significant number of African Americans fled Illinois in the years leading up to the Civil War due to the state’s zealous enforcement of the fugitive slave law. Illinois had never been a hospitable environment for African-Americans. The French had brought slavery to the Illinois Country, and the first Illinois legislature had obliged all African Americans settling in the state to produce a certificate of freedom. Blacks found without proper papers were advertised in newspapers and hired out as laborers. African Americans could not testify against whites in court. But the fugitive slave law, approved in 1850, obliged northerners to help southern slaveholders return their runaway property to bondage. The law also provided many slave catchers with an opportunity to seize black residents of Illinois on the street and sell them into slavery. Only the most wary and astute African American could produce his freedom papers on demand at all times and rebuff the slave catchers. These conditions helped to produce a small population of black Illinoisians, which at the start of the Civil War numbered only 7,628, less than one half of one percent of the state’s population. 1

But the outbreak of the Civil War soon changed this pattern of black out-migration. By 1862 southern slaves, freed by Union troops and now regarded as contraband of war, made their way north to Illinois. Cairo became the focal point of this immigration. While Illinois state law still prohibited black migration into the state, martial law governed Cairo, and a large federal camp devoted to contrabands grew there. 2

Every day the Illinois Central Railroad carried several carloads of African-Americans north to Chicago, Rock Island and other urban centers. But the white population of Illinois rose up in outrage, and demanded that political leaders put a stop to the black migration. In February of 1863 local officials convicted six African Americans of living in Carthage, in western Illinois, in violation of the state’s black laws, and sold them to the highest bidders. These actions quickly ended the influx of black immigrants to Illinois. 3

Some of the African American men remaining in Illinois proved eager to volunteer for the Union army, but Illinois militia made no provision for black enlistment. Many abolitionists supported blacks’ cause, but not even the Prairie State’s initial burst of patriotism was enough to find a place for African American soldiers. Most white northerners believed that blacks were unintelligent and prone to cowardice, and hence would make poor soldiers. Others believed that the war would wrap up quickly, making blacks unnecessary participants.

Changes in federal policy began to clear the way for black participation in the struggle. President Lincoln, intent upon a war for Union alone, had originally instructed officers to return slaves to their owners. But the Confiscation Act of March, 1862 prohibited these returns. As freed slaves began to enter Union lines as “contraband,” northern officers and politicians began to discuss their ability to work in support of Union forces, digging trenches, driving horses, and cooking meals. By July of 1862 Congress had authorized the president “to receive into the service of the United States, for the purpose of constructing intrenchments, or performing camp duty, or any other labor…. Persons of African descent.” 4 The law provided that African American laborers be paid ten dollars a month, three dollars of which might pay for clothing, as compared to a white private’s monthly wage of thirteen dollars, plus a clothing allowance of three dollars and fifty cents.

As the war developed from a struggle to preserve the Union into a larger conflict to destroy slavery, federal officials came to accept the use of black troops. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, first announced in the fall of 1862 and enacted on January 1, 1863, finally enabled black soldiers to form their own military regiments. White social customs dictated that these units be segregated. Indeed, Lincoln himself continued to press the colonization of freed slaves in Africa as a solution to the question of their future disposition in the United States. Nevertheless, African Americans saw their chance to serve.

Many whites feared that arming black soldiers threatened the nation’s system of white supremacy. While army labor did not diverge significantly from blacks’ usual roles as laborers and servants, military service elevated blacks in two important ways. First, many whites simply feared that armed African Americans might turn upon the whites that had treated them so poorly. This anxiety remained a fixture in the slaveholding South, particularly in regions in which slave populations greatly outnumbered white. But northern whites also flinched at the prospect of arming black men. 5

As significantly, military service elevated African Americans to a visible equality with whites. Just as the war marked a rite of passage for white men, an opportunity to prove their courage, it also provided blacks with an opportunity to disprove popular white stereotypes. The Chicago Tribune, a Republican standard, appealed to these motives when it urged black men to set right “the slanders that have annulled their race and to prove in their own persons, as their brethren have elsewhere done, that beneath black skin rest great qualifications now needed by the Republic to defend itself…” Joseph Stanley, a black man from Chicago, read the Tribune’s recruiting message, but wrote that the state had no right to ask for African Americans’ military service as long as its black codes remained on the books. 6

Federal policy stipulated that black troops be raised in federal, not state units. Despite their federal organization, black recruits counted toward states’ enlistment quotas, which meant that black enlistment could help to stave off the draft of white men in states like Illinois. As one soldier recalled “Just in proportion as the certainty of a draft increased, did the prejudice against Negro soldiers decrease. It was discovered that Negroes were not only loyal persons and good mule drivers, but exceedingly competent to bear arms.” 7

Freed slaves in lowcountry South Carolina manned the first black regiment in the Union Army, the Thirty-third U.S. Colored Infantry, mustered into service in January of 1863. Free and slave blacks, led by a officer corps of whites and blacks, formed the First Louisiana Native Guards, later renamed the Seventy-third U.S. Colored Infantry in September 1862. In the spring of 1863 the federal government began a major effort to recruit black soldiers in the Mississippi Valley. 8

Galesburg, an abolitionist hotbed, raised a significant number of African American troops. Many black Illinoisians joined eastern units, but the low pay and negligible enlistment bounties offered black soldiers slowed recruitment. Those who did enlist were usually laborers faced with few future prospects. An army enlistment promised regular pay and shelter. One author has concluded that “It does not appear that patriotism, a desire to serve Illinois, or a wish to help other blacks gain freedom were important considerations.” 9

The Twenty-ninth U.S. Colored Infantry made up the first unit of Illinois African Americans to take the field. Recruited from across the state, with a number of Missourians and others mixed in, the unit departed Chicago in April of 1863, bound for Baltimore. One observer’s account reveals the state of racial attitudes in Illinois at the time. The “gallant regiment of black and Blue boys” was accompanied “by a vast throng of especial admirers, including a large number of females of African descent of all shades presenting a practical result of the theory and practice of miscegination.” 10

The Twenty-ninth joined General Grant’s Army of the Potomac just as the general took up his protracted and bloody assault on the Confederate homeland. Where his predecessors had invariably withdrawn after a battle marked by heavy losses, Grant pressed forward. In early May of 1864 the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania had cost Grant thirty thousand casualties and made him eager for replacements. Thus Illinois’ inexperienced black troops took the field in the middle of the war’s deadliest chapter.

Many of the white troops they met had never seen black soldiers before. One white soldier reported his reaction: “As I looked at them, my soul was troubled and I would gladly have seen them marched back to Washington. Can we not fight our own battles, without calling on these humble hewers of wood and drawers of water, to be bayonetted by the unsparing Southerners? We do not trust them in battle…. They have been put to guard the trains and have repulsed one or two little cavalry attacks in a creditable manner; but God help them if the gray-backed infantry attack them!” 11 While this account reveals the depth of white racism prevalent in the ranks at this time, it also provides a telling, if unintentional account, of the great respect, and even fear, this soldier accorded his Confederate opponents.

Most white soldiers initially rejected African Americans as brothers in arms. But many came to accept them with some reluctance as the war ground on. One of General Grant’s aides reported “The display of soldierly qualities [shown by the blacks] won a frank acknowledgment from both troops and commanders, not all of whom had been willing to look upon negroes as comrades.” 12

The Twenty-ninth settled into duty in the lines before Petersburg, Virginia as General Grant prepared his siege of Richmond’s principal rail link to the rest of the Confederacy. One white soldier offered an interesting point of view on his black comrades’ utility in battle: “One thing the rebels is afraid of [is] nigers; they may be fighting all da y with they White soldiers but quick as the Collard soldiers come up they fell back.” 13

Black troops saw heavy action in the ill-fated Battle of the Crater, and the U.S. Twenty-ninth played a large part. In an elaborate operation, Union officers sent units comprised of miners to tunnel beneath the Confederate lines and place a cache of explosives. Once detonated, this bomb promised to open a huge hole in the rebel lines, allowing Union troops to pour through and occupy Petersburg. The Twenty-ninth, along with other black units, were to follow the first, white troops into the breach and secure a position behind Confederate lines.

But Union troops made their attack in a disorganized fashion, partly on account of its early morning hour and the general confusion that reigned in the darkness, but largely due to bungling officers. As a result, the Twenty-ninth and other black units did not see action until late in the attack, when the Confederates had already regrouped. One Confederate officer noted that "To the credit of the blacks be it said that they advanced in better order and pushed forward farther than the whites." Nevertheless, another reported that the African Americans were “mowed down like grass.” A large number of the rebel troops “seemed infuriated at the idea of having to fight negroes,” and killed black troops rather than take them prisoner. By nine A.M. a Confederate counterattack had turned back the northern initiative. Many black troops mixed with whites in an unceremonious retreat. The Twenty-ninth U.S. Colored Infantry lost thirty-eight men killed in action or died or wounds and thirty-two prisoners, of which eighteen died in Confederate camps. 14

The failure at the Crater led to widespread attempts to fix blame for the fiasco. While several Union generals were shown to have been cowering behind the lines in bombproof shelters instead of directing their troops, some white soldiers singled out black troops for criticism. One described how the blacks “broke and ran like a flock of sheep, and black at that…. This war must be fought out by white men.” He added, in another letter, “the entire failure of the undertaking is laid upon their [the blacks’] shoulders.” Another observer concluded that “the blacks seemed to have done as well as whites – which is faint praise.” 15

After the battle’s losses, the Twenty-ninth set about refreshing its ranks with new troops. After a prolonged recruitment effort and limited action in smaller engagements, it reached the front lines just in time to hear of Robert E. Lee’s surrender and the fall of the Confederacy.

In Illinois African Americans organized to fight the state’s discriminatory black laws. One Chicago group known as the "Repeal Association" circulated petitions calling for the end of the statutes. 16 Some white organizations took steps to recognize black Illinoisians and their efforts for the Union. The Chicago Ladies Loyal League admitted black women by 1864, and black students entered several of the state’s private colleges. By 1865 Radical Republicans in the state legislature had succeeded in overturning the laws, clearing the way for freedmen to immigrate to Illinois once again. Many settled with the help of the Northwestern Freedmen’s Aid Committee, which had been organized in 1863. A significant number of African Americans remained in Cairo, but the vast majority of the new arrivals set out for Chicago’s urban environs or noted abolitionist centers such as Quincy, Galesburg and Jacksonville. 17

Despite the Union victory in the Civil War, Illinois was slow to provide African Americans with new benefits. Despite the passage of a state civil rights act in 1866, discrimination remained widespread. Like freed slaves living in many southern states, Illinois blacks did not receive the right to vote until the passage of the fifteenth amendment in 1870.


1. Arthur Charles Cole, Centennial History of Illinois: The Era of the Civil War, 1848-1870 (Springfield, IL: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1919) 225; Edward A. Miller, Jr., The Black Civil War Soldiers of Illinois (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998) 12.

2. Cole 331.

3. Cole 335.

4. Miller 2.

5. Victor Hicken, Illinois in the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966) 133.

6. Miller 22.

7. Miller 5.

8. Miller 3; Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War (Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1953) 194.

9. Cole 282; Miller 9; Robert P. Howard, Illinois: A History of the Prairie State (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1972) 318.

10. Hicken 137; Miller 40.

11. Miller 50.

12. Miller 50.

13. Miller 52.

14. Miller 70, 72; James M. McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 759-60.

15. Miller 102.

16. Miller 8.

17. Cole 336.


©2002 Illinois During the Civil War Digitization Project.