Emancipation and the Meaning of Freedom

The United States Colored Troops

Despite its limitations, the Emancipation Proclamation opened the way for black men (both free and enslaved) to enlist as soldiers in the Union army. Free African Americans in the North had clamored for this opportunity from the beginning of the conflict (and in rare cases, had managed to get into local white regiments). Likewise, Union soldiers reported that the enslaved men they encountered in the South were deeply disappointed to be told that they could not enlist. The response from black men was overwhelming when the army finally allowed them to enlist.

By the end of the war, some 176,000 African American men (most of them former slaves) had enlisted into segregated army regiments that eventually came to be known as the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.), and in the Union navy. The colorful recruitment poster Come and Join Us Brothers is a call to African American men from those already enlisted to join the well-outfitted Union forces.

<em>Come and Join Us Brothers</em>

Come and Join Us Brothers

The consequences of enlistment for African Americans were enormous, both in terms of morale and life experience. The dramatic transformation of an enslaved man into a soldier was captured poignantly by a Harper’s Weekly engraving of T. B. Bishop's photograph The Escaped Slave. Here, the “before and after” photographs of one recruit presented the newly minted African American soldier as a dignified, upstanding citizen. Soldiers like this one fought in hundreds of battles during the last two years of the Civil War, providing new fighting strength to the Union army during a period of high casualties.

<em>The Escaped Slave</em>

The Escaped Slave