Black Virginians in Blue

The Costs of War: Wounds, Disease, and Death among Black Union Soldiers


Virginia State Standards Fulfilled by this Lesson:

USI.9 f)/VUS.7 c) describing the effects of war from the perspectives of Union and Confederate soldiers (including African American soldiers), women, and enslaved African Americans.

Lesson Learning Objectives:

  1. Students will understand the range of dangers facing Black Union soldiers and sailors in the Civil War, both on and off of the battlefield.
  2. Students will recognize that the wounds, disease, and death experienced by Black Union soldiers and sailors affected the servicemen and their families for years after the war ended
  3. Students will learn how Black Union soldiers and sailors and their families struggled to be recognized for their service to the country and underwent rigorous examinations for pensions when disabled or elderly.
  4. Students will interpret and analyze primary sources, recognizing how historians come to know more about the past through documents written for practical purposes. 

Approximate Length of Time: 50-120 minutes in class [option for reading & assignment outside of class]


  1. Jim Downs, “Dying for Freedom,” Disunion Blog, New York Times.
  2. Sarah Anderson, “‘Quite Unhealthy’: Deadly Diseases Among Albemarle-born Black Soldiers, Black Virginians in Blue.
  3. Matthew H. Wallace, “No Quarter Expected, No Quarter Given: The Brutal Experience of Black Virginians in Blue at the Battle of the Crater,” Black Virginians in Blue.
  4. Pension Application and Testimony of Frances W. Evans, Mother of William Evans, Black Virginians in Blue.
  5. Henry Armstrong Wound Testimony vs. Medical Diagnosis, Black Virginians in Blue.
  6. Alexander Caine Pension, Naval Medical Log, Black Virginians in Blue.
  7. Testimony of William Holly, Black Virginians in Blue.
  8. Testimony of James Coleman on Behalf of Reuben Hammett, Black Virginians in Blue.
  9. Testimony of John Battles on behalf of James T. Battles, Black Virginians in Blue.
  10. Testimony of Louisa Walker, Black Virginians in Blue.

Activity Procedure: (50-70 minutes)

  1. Distribute the three secondary sources (articles by Downs, Anderson & Wallace) and have students read each [this may be done the day before as homework].
  2. As they read have students respond to the following questions (either in writing or small groups):
    • What types of dangers did Black Union soldiers & sailors and their families face during the Civil War?
    • How did these experience differ from those of white Union and Confederate soldiers & sailors?
    • How did Black Union soldiers & sailors and their families respond to these dangers and what does this tell us about the experience of emancipation?
  3. Divide the students into small groups and assign each group a primary source. Have each group consider the following questions:
    • Who is the author of this source and what was the original purpose of the document?
    • What details about the life/lives of a Black Union soldier/sailor and their family do we learn from this source? What details remain absent/what questions are left unanswered?
    • How does this document alter their (the student’s) perspective on the Civil War and its aftermath? What is most surprising? What remains unclear?
  4. Bring the students back together as a class and have one member of each group present their answers.

Assignment/Assessment: (homework or 50 minutes)

Have each student to draft a short reflection (~250 words) describing how Black Union soldiers and their families coped with battle wounds, disease, and death during and after the Civil War. Ask students to weigh in on how these experiences may have shaped African American memory of the Civil War. Students should incorporate quotations from the primary sources as evidence in their essays. This can be done during class time or as homework. If time, have students exchange essays to allow for discussion & peer review.

Lesson plan created by: Ian Iverson

Image: "Virginia, City Point. Park of Army Wagons" (Library of Congress)