On July 17, 1862, Congress passed two acts allowing the enlistment of African Americans, but official enrollment occurred only after the September 1862 issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. However, state and local militia units had already begun enlisting blacks, including the Black Brigade of Cincinnati, raised in September to help provide manpower to thwart a feared Confederate raid on Cincinnati.
In general, white soldiers and officers believed that black men lacked the ability to fight and fight well. In October 1862, African American soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers silenced their critics by repulsing attacking Confederates at the Battle of Island Mound. Missouri. By August, 1863, 14 Negro Regiments were in the field and ready for service. At the Battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana, May 27, 1863. the African American soldiers bravely advanced over open ground in the face of deadly artillery fire. Although the attack failed, the black soldiers proved their capability to withstand the heat of battle.
On July 17, 1863, at Honey Springs, Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, the 1st Kansas Colored fought with courage again. Union troops under General James G. Blunt ran into a strong Confederate force under General Douglas H. Cooper. After a two-hour bloody engagement, Cooper's soldiers retreated. The 1st Kansas, which had held the center of the Union line, advanced to within fifty paces of the Confederate line and exchanged fire for some twenty minutes until the Confederates broke and ran. General Blunt wrote after the battle, "I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro regiment....The question that negroes will fight is settled; besides they make better solders in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command."
The most widely known battle fought by African Americans was the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry on July 18, 1863. The 54th volunteered to lead the assault on the strongly-fortified Confederate positions. The soldiers of the 54th scaled the fort's parapet, and were only driven back after brutal hand-to-hand combat. Despite the defeat, the unit was hailed for its valor which spurred further African-American recruitment, giving the Union a numerical military advantage from a population the Confederacy did not dare exploit in that fashion until the closing days of the war.
Although black soldiers proved themselves as reputable soldiers, discrimination in pay and other areas remained widespread. According to the Militia Act of 1862, soldiers of African descent were to receive $10.00 a month, plus a clothing allowance of $3.50. Many regiments struggled for equal pay, some refusing any money until June 15, 1864, when Congress granted equal pay for all black soldiers.
African American soldiers participated in every major campaign of 1864–65 except Sherman's Atlanta Campaign in Georgia. The year 1864 was especially eventful for African American troops. On April 12, 1864, at Battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest led his 2,500 men against the Union-held fortification, occupied by 292 black and 285 white soldiers. After driving in the Union pickets and giving the garrison an opportunity to surrender, Forrest's men swarmed into the fort with little difficulty and drove the Federals down the river's bluff into a deadly crossfire. Casualties were high and only sixty-two of the U.S. Colored Troops survived the fight. Many accused the Confederates of perpetrating a massacre of black troops, and the controversy continues today. The battle cry for the Negro soldier east of the Mississippi River became "Remember Fort Pillow!"
The propaganda which sprang from the allegations of a "massacre" at Fort Pillow was useful in convincing United States Colored Troops to become suicide forces which entered battle shouting "No quarter! No quarter!", never surrendered and who themselves perpetrated murders of surrendered Confederate forces in Florida and at Fort Blakley, Alabama, on April 9, 1865, at which battle they also shot two white Union officers who tried to stop them, killing one.
An 1864 investigation of Fort Pillow engaged in wholesale fabrication of "evidence" and included assertions that Black women and children had been murdered by Forrest's forces when there were no women or children present at Fort Pillow. A later 1871 Congressional investigation conducted during Reconstruction by Radical Republicans concluded that there was no evidence of a "massacre" and stated that there were "isolated incidents along the riverbank" which Forrest stopped immediately upon his arrival.
The barracks Forrest's men were accused of burning were actually burned under orders by a Union officer. Lieutenant Daniel Van Horn, Sixth U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, whose report is contained in the Federal Official Records, documented that Lieutenant John D. Hill, U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, set fire to the barracks under orders of the Union commanding officer.
Lieutenant Van Horn also wrote that, "There never was a surrender of the fort, both officers and men declaring they never would surrender or ask for quarter."
Forrest took 39 United States Colored Troops (USCT) as POWs and sent them up the chain of command. Forrest even transferred the 14 most seriously wounded USCT to the U.S. Steamer Silver Cloud where they could get better care than that which he could provide.
Allegations of a "massacre" continue to be controversial because historians remain either willfully or blissfully unaware of the Federal Official Records and the 1871 Congressional investigation conclusion.