Civil War Band of Brothers: The United States Colored Troops

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Heightened interest in African-American genealogical research, combined with the upcoming 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, highlights the importance of the records of the United States Colored Troops (USCT).

Federal laws, dating from 1792, barred blacks from bearing arms for the United States Army. Just a few years earlier, many blacks had served during the American Revolution. One of the first individuals to die in that conflict, was Crispus Attucks, during the Boston Massacre in 1770. Attucks, a fugitive slave, had escaped from his master many years earlier and had served as a merchant seaman for twenty years. Despite federal law, Andrew Jackson authorized black regiments and acknowledged their services during the War of 1812. Because of this history of service, when Fort Sumter was shelled in 1861, freedmen rushed to enlist in the United States military. They were turned away. In Boston, disappointed would-be volunteers met and passed a resolution requesting the government to modify its laws to permit their enlistment. With national opinion focused on preserving the union, they were told that the conflict was “a white man’s war.”

With secession, the issue of Colored service became far more complicated than it had been during the years of the Revolution and the War of 1812. Lincoln, while he opposed the idea of black service, was concerned that their recruitment would prompt the border states of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky to secede and join the Confederacy. Despite the War Department’s official policy, there were isolated cases of black enlistment. Union Generals John C. Fremont in Missouri, and David Hunter in South Carolina, issued proclamations that emancipated slaves in their military regions and permitted their enlistment. Needless to say, their superiors in the War Department were upset and revoked the orders. By late 1862, an exception was allowed when men were needed in remote outposts under Union control, but the almost total ban on black enlistment and service would continue until well into the third year of the war.

Four circumstances prompted a change in policy, however.

  • The high casualty rates experienced in the military engagements of 1861 and 1862 dramatized the need to recruit more men.
  • An increasing number of slaves, representing a significant labor force for the Union military, were fleeing southern plantations.
  • Congress passed a confiscation act in July 1862 that “freed slaves of owners in rebellion against the United States,” and a militia act that “empowered the President to use freed slaves in any capacity in the army.”
  • The Emancipation Proclamation, issued in September 1862, declared the freedom of all slaves in any Confederate state that did not return to the Union by 1 January 1863.

On 1 March 1863, the Adjutant General’s Office (Special Order #97), established a board to examine and report on a system of tactics for colored troops and the Adjutant General was sent to the Mississippi Valley to organize recruitment. Two months later, on 22 May, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established in the Adjutant General’s Office (Order #143) “for the record of all matters relating to the organization of colored troops.” Prior to the Bureau’s establishment, colored regiments had already been raised in Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kansas, the Department of the Gulf (Corps d’Afrique), and the Valley of Mississippi (under the AGO). The Bureau, therefore, turned its attention to recruitment in the middle and eastern states.

The Bureau’s actions were applauded by abolitionists, one of the most persistent of whom was Frederick Douglas. He appealed to “Men of Color, to Arms” and argued that “liberty won only by white men would lose half of its luster…” “Let a black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”  By the end of the war, 120 infantry regiments, twelve heavy artillery regiments, ten heavy artillery batteries, and seven cavalry regiments comprised of African Americans had been mustered into service. The number of troops commissioned or enlisted totaled approximately 186,097, with losses of 68,178 from all causes (approximately 37%). Of these, only about 38,000 were raised from northern free states; 42,000 came from the Union border states of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky. The majority came from the slave states of the Confederacy. These numbers do not include the approximately 100,000-200,000 civilians who served as scouts, cooks, corpsmen and nurses, steamboat pilots, guards, teamsters, etc. The states with the highest recruitment rates were Louisiana (24,502), Kentucky (23,703), Tennessee (20,133) and Mississippi (17,869). Black soldiers participated in 449 engagements, thirty-nine of which were major battles. Twenty-five black soldiers and sailors received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Their lives as black soldiers were not easy ones. While they shared the day-to-day hardships of their white counterparts, they were paid less until an Act of Congress in June 1864 and often had inferior uniforms and equipment, or were denied them entirely. They were discriminated against with regard to promotion, and were barred from service as commissioned officers except as doctors or chaplains until the very end of the war. Even more significantly, they faced either enslavement or summary execution if captured. The Confederate government was adamant in refusing to grant them POW status and the issue became so divisive that it derailed the entire prisoner exchange program.

A primary source for USCT research is Record Group 94, the Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served During the Civil War. Although National Archives Microfilm Publication M589 provides an index to the consolidated military service records for the USCT, the actual records themselves are textual (i.e., not microfilmed). You might want, therefore, to start your research from your home or local library using Footnote’s collection of Union Soldier Service Records which provides digitized images of these textual records. From a genealogical perspective, these records may include descriptive information about age, residence/occupation at the time of enlistment, and physical descriptions, etc. (Remember: these units almost always had white officers. If you are unable find a white civil war officer, he may have served with the USCT and you will need to search for him in those records.) These descriptive elements are very important as only free blacks (as opposed to slaves) were identified individually in the federal census until the enumeration of 1870). Descriptive information example:  Julius Caesar, age 19, 5’6 ¼ ”, black complexion, black eyes, black hair, born in Alexandria, Va., baker, enlisted 25 June 1863 at Masons Island, Va. for three years in Co. G, 1st Regiment, United States Colored Infantry.

But what about using the National Park Service’s “Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS),” you might ask. While this source may be helpful in searching for a soldier’s unit, my search provided twelve Julius Caesar entries from which to choose the appropriate individual. Because CWSS does not provide enough detail to assist in such a choice, I instead used its list of possible Julius Caesars  in consulting Footnote and was able to locate the correct individual. You will also want to read carefully any personal papers that might be found in records of hospitalization or death while in service. These papers may include information about residence, family or business, heirs, or perhaps deeds of manumission. You will also want to check Record Group 15 for Indexes to Pensions Including Civil War and Later Service (NARA microfilm publication T288) to determine if your individual or his widow/dependents received a pension, and then search for that pension either on Footnote or in the textual records at the National Archives. My search for a pension for Julius Caesar on Footnote was not successful as the appropriate records have not been digitized.

For its part, the Library of Congress has developed the online African American Odyssey exhibit. One segment of this exhibit concerns the Civil War and includes digital images of such things as the diary of Christian Fleetwood, African American Medal of Honor winner, in which he described his meritorious actions during the battle at Chaffin’s Farm near Richmond, Virginia, in September 1864, and a picture of the 107th U.S. Colored Infantry Band at Fort Corcoran, Arlington, Virginia in November 1865. Other helpful websites include “Soldiers of Glory: U. S. Colored Troops in the Civil War,” the “Civil War Archive,” the United States Army’s For Love of Liberty: The Story of America’s Black Patriots,” and the website of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum. Many other online sites are available for specific regiments, states or organizations, including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, New Jersey’s description and box list for USCT service files, and the United States Colored Troops Living History Association.

Print sources for research include Kenneth W. Munden and Henry Putney Beers’ The Union: a Guide to Federal Archives Relating to the Civil War (NARA, 1986); Dudley Taylor Cornish’s The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (1956, University Press of Kansas, 1987); Edwin S. Redkey’s  A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (Cambridge University Press, 1992); and Ira Berlin’s (et al) Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

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