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As America’s Civil War raged, with the enslavement of millions of people hanging in the balance, African Americans didn’t just sit on the sidelines. Whether enslaved, escaped or born free, many sought to actively affect the outcome.
From fighting on bloody battlefields to espionage behind enemy lines; from daring escapes to political maneuvering; from saving wounded soldiers to teaching them how to read, these six African Americans fought courageously to abolish slavery and discrimination. In their own way, each changed the course of American history.
Harriet Tubman, best known for her courage and acumen as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, led hundreds of enslaved men, women and children north to freedom through its carefully prescribed routes and network of safe houses. But once the Civil War started in 1861, Tubman used her skills as a spy and expedition leader for the Union Army.
In 1862, she traveled to a Union camp in South Carolina, to help formerly enslaved people who had taken refuge with Union troops, and to work as a cook and a nurse. But despite being unable to read herself, Tubman gathered intelligence for the Union army, organizing scouts to map territories and waterways and pinpoint the location of Confederate troops and ordnance.
In 1863, she became the first and only woman to lead a military expedition during the Civil War, to resounding success. Tubman led 150 soldiers on three federal gunboats up South Carolina’s Combahee River for a surprise attack on the plantations of prominent secessionists, using intelligence she gathered from enslaved people to bypass hidden confederate torpedoes. Along the route, they stopped at several spots to rescue more than 700 enslaved people. Between enabling such a massive escape and burning and pillaging plantations, Tubman’s expedition dealt a major military and psychological blow to the confederacy. About 100 of the Black men rescued that day joined the Union Army.
Tubman went on other expeditions and kept gathering intelligence. One Union general was reportedly reluctant to let Tubman leave South Carolina because “her services are too valuable to lose” as she was “able to get more intelligence than anybody else” from the newly free people.
With discrimination blocking his dreams of becoming a doctor in the United States, Alexander Augusta moved to Canada to earn his medical degree before returning to serve as the Union Army’s highest-ranking Black officer during the Civil War.
Born to free African American parents, Augusta worked as a barber in Baltimore while pursuing a medical education. Denied entry into the University of Pennsylvania, he studied privately with a faculty member until he married and moved to Toronto, Canada to obtain a degree from the University of Toronto in 1856. He then became head of the Toronto City Hospital.
A supporter of the American antislavery movement, he returned to Baltimore at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 and wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, offering his services as a surgeon. He received a major’s commission as head surgeon in the 7th U.S. Colored Infantry, the Army’s first African American physician out of eight in the Union Army—and its highest-ranking African American officer.
His rank did not shield him from racism. He was physically attacked in Baltimore for wearing his officer’s uniform. Complaints from white subordinates led Lincoln to transfer him to run the local Freedmen’s Hospital in 1863.
After the war, he practiced medicine and became the first Black medical professor and one of the original faculty members of the new Medical College at Howard University, where he stayed until 1877.
The American Medical Association denied him recognition as a physician, but he encouraged young Black medical students to persevere in their dreams as he did. When he died in 1890, he was the first Black officer to be buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.
Three years after escaping slavery in the cargo hold of a ship heading north, Abraham Galloway returned South to free more enslaved people, including a brazen incursion to free his mother. Fearless, fiery and tireless in his quest to better the lives of African Americans, it turned out Galloway was just the kind of master spy the Union forces needed.
Galloway posed as a slave to gather intelligence from confederate troops, set up a spy network in parts of the South and encouraged thousands of enslaved men who had sought protection behind Union lines to take up arms to gain their freedom. He helped raise three regiments of United States Colored Troops.
He never learned to read but used his powerful oratory and organizing skills to fight for Black people’s rights as citizens. Galloway was part of a delegation of five Southern Black leaders to the White House to demand that Lincoln support Black civil rights. He organized state and local chapters of the National Equal Rights League. And in September 1865, helped to lead a freed people’s convention.
In 1868, he became one of the first Black men elected to the North Carolina legislature, fighting violent voter suppression by the Ku Klux Klan in the process. Galloway, who faced numerous assassination threats, always had pistols at his waist and led an armed Black militia in Wilmington to counter the constant intimidation. He and two other Black men won election as state senators, while 18 Black men became representatives in the North Carolina General Assembly of 1868-1869. During his tenure, Galloway voted for the 14th and 15th amendments, granting citizenship and suffrage rights to Black men.
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By the time the Civil War began in 1861, Frederick Douglass was one of the most famous Black men in the United States—a prominent voice for freedom, human rights and social reform. An exceptional orator and writer whose autobiographies detailing his slavery and escape became bestsellers, Douglass was a national abolitionist leader who for some 20 years had the ear of the country’s leaders.
Early in the Civil War, Douglass clashed with President Abraham Lincoln for not allowing formerly enslaved people to enlist. Lincoln had been reluctant to arm Black men and allow them to serve in the Union military forces—in part due to racism and also for fear that outraged border states would join the secession, ensuring the Union’s loss. But as Union defeats mounted and manpower dwindled, Black men formed units of their own in the South in 1862. An official call to arms to Black men came in early 1863.
Douglass, with other prominent abolitionists, helped recruit Black soldiers for the Union. He traveled thousands of miles to recruitment meetings, lauding the benefits of service and ending many of his speeches by leading the audience in “John Brown’s Body,” a popular Union Army song. He published frequently on the topic in his newspaper Douglass Monthly, with articles and broadsides like “Men of Color to Arms!” and “Why Should a Colored Man Enlist?”
Two of his sons, Charles and Lewis, were among the first to enlist in the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the second African American battalion that saw extensive service in the war, commanded by white officers. A third son, Frederick Jr., was recruited for the regiment like his father.
For Douglass, wearing the uniform of a soldier carried great symbolism of a man’s worthiness for freedom and a full slate of civil rights. “An eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and his bullets in his pockets,” Douglass said, “there is no power on earth…which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”
WATCH The 54th Massachusetts on HISTORY Vault.
Robert Smalls’ daring escape from slavery into the hands of the Union Navy put him on a path to become the public face—and prominent recruiter—of Black sailors for the Union. He himself would parlay that into a successful political career.
Raised in slavery in South Carolina, the son of an unknown white man, Smalls gained experience as a rigger and sailor after his owners moved from Beaufort to the larger port city of Charleston, where he married Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel maid.
When his attempts to buy his wife and family out of slavery failed, he plotted an escape. As the Civil War broke out, he became a deckhand on the Confederate supply ship the Planter and learned how to navigate between ports. Before dawn on May 13, 1862, as white officers and the crew slept, he slipped the Planter out of Charleston Harbor with eight men, five women and three children on board, chugging quietly from slavery toward freedom.
Ready to blow up the ship if caught, Smalls gave the right signals to pass five checkpoints (including Fort Sumter) and, once in open waters, raised a white bed sheet in surrender to the Union Navy blockade. He handed over the craft’s guns and ammunition, as well as documents detailing Confederate shipping routes, departure schedules and mine locations.
The daring escape helped encourage President Lincoln to authorize free Blacks to serve in the military. Congress awarded $1,500 to Smalls, who went on a speaking tour, recruiting Black men to serve. He also conducted 17 missions on the Planter and the ironclad USS Keokuk in and around Charleston.
Once commissioned as a brigadier general in the South Carolina militia, he ran a variety of businesses before launching into politics—as a member of both South Carolina’s House of Representatives and its state Senate. His term in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1874 to 1879 was marred when he was convicted of taking a $5,000 bribe while in the state Senate. Sentenced to three years in prison, he was pardoned before serving any time.
READ MORE: 5 Formerly Enslaved People Turned Statesmen
Born into slavery in Georgia in 1848, Susan Baker King Taylor went to live with her free grandmother in Savannah where her secret education by teachers and tutors defied laws prohibiting formal education for African Americans.
After escaping slavery with her uncle and others, she joined hundreds of formerly enslaved refugees at Union-occupied St. Simons Island off Georgia’s southern coast. At just 14 years old, she became the first Black teacher to openly educate African Americans in Georgia.
She married Edward King, a Black officer in the 33rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment. When she wasn’t working as a nurse or laundress for them, she taught soldiers to read and write and “learned to handle a musket very well…and could shoot straight and often hit the target,” she wrote in her memoirs.
While working as a nurse at a hospital for African American soldiers in Beaumont, South Carolina, she met and worked with Clara Barton, the pioneering nurse and humanitarian who would establish the American Red Cross. After the war, Taylor and her husband moved to Savannah and opened a school for African American children in 1866. When he died and the school failed, she took a job as a domestic servant with a wealthy family, with whom she moved to Boston.
In 1902, Taylor became the first and only African American woman to write a memoir about her experiences in the Civil War, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers. She wrote of the persistent racism decades after the conflict but reflected on a glorious time of the fight for freedom.