Black soldiers participated in the war at great threat to their lives. The Confederate government threatened to summarily execute or sell into slavery any captured black Union soldiers--and did sometimes carry out those threats. Lincoln responded by threatening to retaliate against Confederate prisoners whenever black soldiers were killed or enslaved.
In July 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first black regiment raised in the North, led an assault against Fort Wagner, which guarded Charleston, South Carolina's harbor. Two of Frederick Douglass's sons were members of the regiment. Over forty percent of the regiment's members were killed or wounded in the unsuccessful attack, including Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a member of a prominent antislavery family, who was shot dead in the charge.
This soldier's letter reveals the grim realities of the war as Union forces attempted to conquer Charleston.
It is with pleasure that I send a few lines to let you know that I am in the land of the living and in the midst of death in every form and shape, some by fever some by dysentry which goes hard here and some by rebels balls for we have drove the rebels off Amorros Island and have taken Port Wagner. Greg and Sumter they surrendered this week monday and now the channel is clear to the harbor and city....
Our folks found a horrible sight when they went into the forts they found legs and arms and pools of blood and pieces of flesh all over the forts and by kicking up the sand they would find the dead just out of sight and the smell was to much to bear so they don't occupy the forts.... They say our men are gaining on Charleston every day but slow for it is a hard road to face a fortified enemy to his den but it will be done.... well I don't suppose you care much how the war goes if I only get home safe well that is the way with a good many here if they was out of the way they would give up their claims on government and go home peneless and say good by trouble now I am a good deal of their opinion.... I am out of money entirely for it cost me two months pay on the gun and equipage that was turned in when I went to hospital for I didn't get no receipt of it from the quartermaster....<