The U.S. Civil War's African-American Fighters: LIFE Photos

Tomorrow will mark 150 years since the American Civil War began: Confederates fired on South Carolina's Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, shots that triggered a war lasting until 1865. As the conflict evolved, black soldiers joined the battle. Most fought for the Union -- and the heroism of units such as the 54th Massachusetts continues to receive attention in books and movies today -- although in an ironic turn, the first black officers fought for the South (Louisiana). Here, courtesy of LIFE magazine, are photos of African-Americans who fought as well as the children who had to struggle with the war's consequences.

See our recent gallery of Civil War-era portraits by photographer Mathew Brady here and more photos at LIFE.com.

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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