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The United States Colored Troops (USCT) were regiments of the United States Army during the American Civil War that were composed of African-American ("colored") soldiers. First recruited in 1863, by the end of the Civil War, the men of the 175 regiments of the USCT constituted approximately one-tenth of the Union Army.
African Americans in the United States Army in the decades after the war became known in the West as the Buffalo Soldiers. They fought in the Indian Wars later in the nineteenth century and received their nickname from Native Americans who compared their hair to the fur of bison.
The U.S. Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act in July 1862. It freed slaves of owners in rebellion against the United States, and a militia act empowered the President to use freed slaves in any capacity in the army. President Abraham Lincoln was concerned with public opinion in the four border states that remained in the Union, as they had numerous slaveholders, as well as with northern Democrats who supported the war but were less supportive of abolition than many northern Republicans. Lincoln opposed early efforts to recruit black soldiers, although he accepted the Army's using them as paid workers.
Union Army setbacks in battles over the summer of 1862 led Lincoln to emancipate all slaves in states at war with the Union. In September 1862 Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, announcing that all slaves in rebellious states would be free as of January 1. Recruitment of colored regiments began in full force following the Proclamation of January 1863.
The United States War Department issued General Order Number 143 on May 22, 1863, establishing a "Bureau of Colored Troops" to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers to fight for the Union Army. Regiments, including infantry, cavalry, engineers, light artillery, and heavy artillery units, were recruited from all states of the Union and became known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT).
Approximately 175 regiments composed of more than 178,000 free blacks and freedmen served during the last two years of the war. Their service bolstered the Union war effort at a critical time. By war's end, the men of the USCT composed nearly one tenth of all Union troops. The USCT suffered 2,751 combat casualties during the war, and 68,178 losses from all causes. Disease caused the most fatalities for all troops, black and white.
USCT regiments were led by white officers, and rank advancement was limited for black soldiers. The Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments in Philadelphia opened a Free Military Academy for Applicants for the Command of Colored Troops at the end of 1863. For a time, black soldiers received less pay than their white counterparts, but they (and their supporters) lobbied and gained equal pay. Notable members of USCT regiments included Martin Robinson Delany, and the sons of Frederick Douglass.
The courage displayed by colored troops during the Civil War played an important role in African-Americans gaining new rights. As the abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote, "Once let the 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."
The historian Steven Hahn proposes that the self-organized involvement of slaves in the Union Army, including some regiments of the USCT, during the American Civil War composed a slave rebellion that dwarfed all others.
Before the USCT was formed, several Volunteer regiments were raised from free black men, including freedmen in the South. In 1863 the former slave William Henry Singleton helped recruit 1,000 blacks from escaped slaves in New Bern, North Carolina for the First North Carolina Colored Volunteers. He became a sergeant in the 35th USCT. Freedmen from the Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony, established in 1863 on the island, also formed part of the FNCCV and the 35th. In 1922 Singleton published his memoir of going from slavery to being a Union soldier. Years later, he marched in a Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) reunion in 1938 at the age of 95. Nearly all of the Volunteer regiments were converted into USCT units.
Four regiments were considered Regular units, rather than auxiliaries. Their veteran status allowed them to get valuable federal government jobs after the war, from which African Americans had usually been excluded in earlier years. However, the men received no formal recognition for combat honors and awards until the turn of the 20th century. The units were:
The Corps d'Afrique was formed in New Orleans after it was taken and occupied by Union forces. It was formed from the Louisiana Native Guards. The Native Guards were militia units raised in New Orleans. They were property-owning free people of color (gens du couleur libres). Free mixed-race people had developed as a third class in New Orleans since the colonial years. Although they had wanted to prove their bravery and loyalty to the Confederacy like other Southern property owners, the Confederates did not allow these men to serve and confiscated their arms. The Confederates said that enlisting black soldiers would hurt agriculture. Since the units were composed of freeborn creoles and black freemen, it was clear that the underlying objection was to having black men serve at all.
For later units of the Corps d'Afrique, the Union recruited freedmen from the refugee camps. Liberated from nearby plantations, they and their families had no means to earn a living and no place to go. Local commanders, starved for replacements, started equipping volunteer units with cast-off uniforms and obsolete or captured firearms. The men were treated and paid as auxiliaries, performing guard or picket duties to free up white soldiers for maneuver units. In exchange, their families were fed, clothed and housed for free at the Army camps; often schools were set up for them and their children.
Despite class differences between freeborn and freedmen, the Corps served with distinction at the Battle of Port Hudson. Its troops served throughout the South.
USCT regiments fought in all theaters of the war, but mainly served as garrison troops in rear areas. The most famous USCT action took place at the Battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg. Regiments of USCT suffered heavy casualties attempting to break through Confederate lines. Other notable engagements include Fort Wagner, one of their first major tests, and the Battle of Nashville.
USCT soldiers suffered extra violence at the hands of Confederate soldiers. They were victims of battlefield massacres and atrocities, most notably at Fort Pillow in Tennessee. They were at risk for murder by Confederate soldiers, rather than being held as prisoners of war.
The prisoner exchange protocol broke down over the Confederacy's position on black prisoners of war. The Confederacy had passed a law stating that blacks captured in uniform would be tried as slave insurrectionists in civil courts—a capital offense with automatic sentence of death. USCT soldiers were often murdered by Confederate troops without being taken to court. The law became a stumbling block for prisoner exchange.
USCT soldiers were among the first Union forces to enter Richmond, Virginia, after its fall in April 1865. The 41st USCT regiment was among those present at the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. Following the war, USCT regiments served among the occupation troops in former Confederate states.
Soldiers who fought in the Army of the James were eligible for the Butler Medal, commissioned by that army's commander, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler. In 1861 at Fort Monroe in Virginia, Butler was the first to declare refugee slaves as contraband and refused to return them to slaveholders. This became a policy throughout the Union Army. It started when a few slaves escaped to Butler's lines in 1861 - their owner, a Confederate colonel, came to Butler under a flag of truce and demanded that they be returned to him under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 - Butler informed him that since Virginia claimed to have left the Union, the Fugitive Slave Law no longer applied, and later Butler kept them, declaring the slaves contraband of war.
The USCT was disbanded in the fall of 1865. In 1867 the Regular Army was set at 10 regiments of cavalry and 45 regiments of infantry. The Army was authorized to raise two regiments of black cavalry (the 9th and 10th (Colored) Cavalry) and four regiments of black infantry (the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st (Colored) Infantry), who were mostly drawn from USCT veterans. In 1869 the Regular Army was kept at 10 regiments of cavalry but cut to 25 regiments of Infantry, reducing the black complement to two regiments (the 24th and 25th (Colored) Infantry).
The history of the USCT's wartime contribution was kept alive within the black community by historians such as W. E. B. Du Bois. Since the 1970s and the expansion of historical coverage of minorities, the units and their contributions have been the subject of more books and movies.
During the war years, the men had difficulty gaining deserved official recognition for achievement and valor. Often recommendations for decorations were filed away and ignored. Another problem was that the government would mail the award certificate and medal to the recipient, who had to pay the postage due (whether he was white or black). Most former USCT recipients had to return the medals for lack of funds to redeem them.
The motion picture Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick, portrayed the African-American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. It showed their training and participation in several battles, including the second assault on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. Although the 54th was not a USCT regiment, but a state volunteer regiment originally raised from free blacks in Boston, similar to the 1st and 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry, the film portrays the experiences and hardships of African-American troops during the Civil War.
|District of Columbia||3,269||Georgia||3,486|
|Michigan||1,387||Total from the South||93,796|
|New Hampshire||125||Not accounted for||5,083|
|Total from the North||79,283|