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African American laborers on a railroad

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-10400.

African American laborers work on a railroad in northern Virginia as part of the Union army’s military operations sometime between 1862 and 1863. Both armies quickly recognized that such work would be crucial to win the war and sought the labor of soldiers and civilians to build and repair roads, bridges, railroad tracks, and fortifications. Seen as dishonorable by the white soldiers who joined the army to fulfill the manly duty of fighting, this type of noncombatant labor had to be supplied by African Americans. A year into the Civil War, the Northern government approved the Militia Act of 1862, which allowed the use of black labor by Union forces to bolster the war effort. Before the Confederacy surrendered, hundreds of thousands of African Americans, including some 200,000 former slaves, joined the Union ranks and performed valuable physical labor.