“Men of Color: To Arms! To Arms!”

by Elizabeth Berlin Taylor


Approximately 200,000 African American men served as soldiers during the Civil War. This lesson seeks to teach fifth grade students not only the skill of analyzing a primary source but also the methods that were utilized to entice free blacks to serve in the Union Army during the war. Students will read and then rewrite a recruitment broadside and then will create a visual that contains four reasons why African Americans should fight in the Civil War.


On March 21, 1863, Frederick Douglass asserted that “A war undertaken and brazenly carried on for the perpetual enslavement of colored men, calls logically and loudly for colored men to help suppress it.” This was but one of the many appeals by Douglass to recruit African American men to join the Union forces. Douglass argued that if black men helped defeat the Confederacy, they would not only end slavery but would be treated equally by whites after the war. His view about equal treatment was overly optimistic but black soldiers' participation did advance the cause of equality. This has been reconfirmed by many modern historians, including Eric Foner, who in a 2001 essay, wrote that “the enlistment of two hundred thousand black men in the Union armed forces during the second half of the war . . . had placed black citizenship on the postwar agenda.” During the latter years of the Civil War, several appeals for the enlistment of free African Americans living in the North were disseminated, including the broadside “Men of Color: To Arms! To Arms!” which is featured in this lesson.


Essential Question

Why did Frederick Douglass and others want free black men to fight on the side of the Union during the Civil War?


  • Students will be able to read and analyze a primary source document.
  • Students will be able to define difficult vocabulary words and understand their usage in a historical document.
  • Students will be able to create a visual that describes and illustrates reasons why African Americans should have fought for the Union during the Civil War.


Ask students to answer the following prompt on a sticky note: “Should African Americans have fought in the Civil War? Explain.” Once students have written their answers, ask them to affix their answers to a continuum drawn on the board that says on one end “strongly disagree” and on the other “strongly agree.” Students should place their sticky notes on the place that best describes their opinions.
Discuss different answers.

Lesson Activities

Put students in groups of four. Pass out two-sided copies of the broadside. One side should show the broadside in its original form. The other should contain the typed transcript, which is easier for students to read.

Assign each group a different section of the broadside. Ask group members to read through their section and underline all of the words they do not understand. Groups will then define each word in their notebooks.

The student groups will rewrite their section in no more than three simple sentences.

Each group will choose a representative to present their rewrite to the class. As the students present, the teacher will either type the answer and project it onto a screen or interactive white board, or will write it on a projected overhead transparency, according to the available technology in the classroom. The teacher will leave the projected and rewritten broadside up as the students begin their other tasks.

Pass out the Picture Window Handout. Students will be charged to come up with four reasons why African Americans should have fought in the Civil War, according to the broadside. Students will write one reason in each frame of the window and will illustrate each.


Ask students, “would this broadside have convinced you to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War? Why or why not?” The class should discuss the answers that are suggested by students.


Students can research other recruitment appeals for free African American soldiers and create a PowerPoint presentation that showcases them.

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