Soil microorganisms determine the fate of soil organic matter (SOM), and their activities compose a major component of the global carbon (C) cycle. We employed a multisubstrate, DNA-stable isotope probing experiment to track bacterial assimilation of C derived from distinct sources that varied in bioavailability. This approach allowed us to measure microbial contributions to SOM processing by measuring the C assimilation dynamics of diverse microorganisms as they interacted within soil. We identified and tracked 1,286 bacterial taxa that assimilated 13C in an agricultural soil over a period of 48 d. Overall 13C-assimilation dynamics of bacterial taxa, defined by the source and timing of the 13C they assimilated, exhibited low phylogenetic conservation. We identified bacterial guilds composed of taxa that had similar 13C assimilation dynamics. We show that C-source bioavailability explained significant variation in both C mineralization dynamics and guild structure, and that the growth dynamics of bacterial guilds differed significantly in response to C addition. We also demonstrate that the guild structure explains significant variation in the biogeographical distribution of bacteria at continental and global scales. These results suggest that an understanding of in situ growth dynamics is essential for understanding microbial contributions to soil C cycling. We interpret these findings in the context of bacterial life history strategies and their relationship to terrestrial C cycling.