Origins and Recruitment
When the Civil War began, recruiters for the Union army refused to accept African American volunteers. Union officials, including President Abraham Lincoln, feared that the presence of blacks in the army might alienate conservative white Northerners as well as the citizens of the Border States of Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware, where slavery was still legal. Indeed, many Union soldiers and civilians doubted that black men possessed the courage or skill needed to fight.
The actions of African Americans as well as a growing need for manpower prompted Union generals and politicians gradually to adopt more inclusive policies. The first step toward black military service came in the second month of the war at Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula. Late in May 1861, three enslaved men from near Hampton fled to the Union-occupied fortress after their owner, a Confederate officer, had ordered them to work on an artillery battery at Sewell's Point. Union general Benjamin F. Butler declared the fugitives "contraband of war" and employed them as laborers. Congress ratified Butler's decision by passing the First Confiscation Act, and the Department of War and the Department of the Navy both authorized the employment of confiscated slaves as wage laborers.
As Hunter, Lane, and Butler built their regiments in the field, Congress moved toward providing permission from Washington. On July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act and the Militia Act, both of which authorized the president to employ African Americans as workers or soldiers. Lincoln remained noncommittal, but in August his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, ordered Union general Rufus Saxton to organize a regiment of black soldiers in the South Carolina Sea Islands on an experimental basis. By the end of the year, Saxton had successfully raised the 1st South Carolina Colored Volunteers, and the regiment had participated in raids on the Atlantic coast. Farther west, James Lane's regiments also fought in some skirmishes during the autumn of 1862.
Organization and Treatment
The Bureau for Colored Troops brought efficiency to the USCT regiments, but not always equitable treatment. Despite objections from black leaders, the Bureau insisted on assigning only white men to commissioned officer positions. Although a small number of black soldiers received commissions by the end of the war—including the Virginia-born Martin R. Delany—and many served as noncommissioned officers, the USCT remained primarily an organization led by whites. Officials in the army and in the government also initially assumed that black regiments would rarely, if ever, be used in combat. As a result, black soldiers endured a disproportionate share of labor duty.
Stanton insisted he opposed unequal pay, but he did nothing to challenge Congress's inequitable legislation. Black soldiers themselves, however, demanded equal treatment. In the Sea Islands, some members of the 1st South Carolina (33rd USCT) stacked their arms and refused to serve until they received equal pay. Their protest led to the court-martial and execution of at least one soldier. The men of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments refused to accept any pay until they received equal pay. They even rejected a proposed compromise in which the Massachusetts state government would have made up the difference in salary. The black soldiers' protest succeeded. In June 1864, Congress passed a bill equalizing pay retroactive to January 1, 1864, for all men who had been free at the start of the war. The Enrollment Act of March 3, 1865, finally granted full and equal back pay for all black soldiers.
Black troops in Virginia also demanded equal treatment. In 1864, at the L'Ouverture Hospital, a facility for both USCT and freedmen in Alexandria, soldiers protested because the Superintendent of Contrabands ordered deceased soldiers to be buried in the nearby Contraband and Freedmen's Cemetery, rather than in the Soldiers' Cemetery (now the Alexandria National Cemetery). Burial in the Freedmen's Cemetery also effectively denied the USCT military honors. More than 400 hundred USCT patients at the hospital signed a protest petition demanding to be accorded full status and respect as soldiers, and then began to buried in the Soldiers' Cemetery.
Virginia USCT Regiments
The USCT units raised in Virginia include the following:
The 36th and 37th USCT are traditionally listed as being from, respectively, Portsmouth and Norfolk. These two regiments had previously mustered in to service as the 1st and 2nd North Carolina Infantry, however, and just happened to be in Tidewater Virginia when their designations were changed.
The Virginia USCT regiments served primarily in Virginia and elsewhere in the Eastern Theater. The 2nd U.S. Colored Cavalry fought mainly on the Petersburg front, as did Battery B of the 2nd U.S. Colored Artillery, the 10th U.S. Colored Infantry, the 23rd U.S. Colored Infantry, and the 38th U.S. Colored Infantry. Most notably, these regiments were involved in the fighting at Wilson's Wharf, the Crater, and New Market Heights. The 2nd U.S. Colored Infantry served in Florida. Several of these units were also deployed to Texas following the surrender of the Confederacy amid rising tensions with France over its intervention in Mexico.
- 2nd United States Colored Cavalry (mustered at Fort Monroe)
- 2nd United States Colored Artillery, Battery B (mustered at Fort Monroe)
- 2nd United States Colored Infantry (mustered at Arlington)
- 10th United States Colored Infantry (mustered in Virginia)
- 23rd United States Colored Infantry (mustered at Camp Casey, Alexandria)
- 38th United States Colored Infantry (mustered in Virginia)
Although the army initially intended to use black troops in support roles only, the men of the USCT quickly made their mark on the battlefield. Early in 1863 Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the abolitionist and white colonel of the 1st South Carolina (33rd USCT) took his regiment on raids in Florida, resulting in the capture and brief occupation of Jacksonville. On May 27, 1863, the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards participated in a failed Union assault on Port Hudson, Louisiana. Captain André Cailloux, a black officer in the 1st who was killed while leading the assaults, became one of the first African American heroes of the war. Black Louisiana troops won a victory at Milliken's Bend on June 7, and in July, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers also won at the Battles of Cabin Creek and Honey Springs.
USCT regiments played increasingly important roles during the nearly ten-month siege of Petersburg. They participated in the fighting at the Battle of the Crater and were subject to a massacre in its wake. Late in September 1864, an all-black division of the Eighteenth Corps fared better when it captured a Confederate fortification at New Market Heights. In a related action, General William Birney's all-black brigade, a member of the Tenth Corps, reached the parapets of the imposing Fort Gilmer before being driven back.
USCT regiments were also present in the final campaigns of the war. In December 1864, the Union army organized the all-black Twenty-fifth Corps under General Godfrey Weitzel, which took part in the amphibious assault on Fort Fisher off Wilmington, North Carolina, one of the last ports to be seized by Union troops. In the West, black soldiers fought at the Battle of Nashville in December 1864 and assisted in the capture of Mobile, Alabama, in 1865. The 21st USCT and elements of the 54th Massachusetts were among the first soldiers to enter Charleston, South Carolina, early in 1865, and, after the evacuation of Richmond in April 1865, the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry and Weitzel's Twenty-fifth Corps joined lead elements in taking possession of Richmond.
In the meantime, atrocities occurred on the battlefield. On April 12, 1864, Confederate cavalry under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest overran an interracial Union garrison at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, on the Mississippi River. Many Union troops, mostly black soldiers, were shot down as they attempted to surrender. Similar incidents occurred at the Battle of Poison Springs, Arkansas, in April 1864, and at the Battle of the Crater, in Virginia. At the town of Saltville, Virginia, Confederate soldiers executed scores of black prisoners of war after a battle in the vicinity on October 2, 1864, in what is often regarded as the second-most-deadly massacre of black troops by Confederates after Fort Pillow. The victims included sick and wounded men who had fallen into Confederate hands.
After the War
The black soldiers who were mustered out of the Union armies faced a future filled with both promise and prejudice. Although racism and discrimination resulted in ongoing oppression for African Americans in the United States, many individual members of the USCT found that their military service had earned them trust and respect, at least within the black community. Many black veterans staked out careers in politics during the Reconstruction years. At least forty black delegates to southern state constitutional conventions had served in the USCT, and many more African American veterans won election to state legislatures and to Congress.
Service also qualified some black soldiers and their families for military pensions after the war. In the immediate postwar years, disabled veterans could apply for government money to support themselves and their families. After 1890, Congress authorized more general support for veterans and their widows. More than two dozen members of the USCT were awarded the Medal of Honor for their Civil War service.
Recognition and acceptance never came easily for African Americans in the army. During the postwar years, black troops continued to face skepticism and discrimination. The army remained segregated until after the World War II (1939–1945). Still, by the end of the Civil War, the black soldiers of the USCT had earned a permanent place in America's military establishment.
May 27, 1861 - Union general Benjamin F. Butler, the commander at Fort Monroe, announces that he will not return fugitive slaves to bondage. Fort Monroe becomes known as "Freedom's Fortress," and a steady stream of "contraband" offered wages, food, and shelter, begins work for the Union army.
August 6, 1861 - With the First Confiscation Act, the U.S. Congress sustains Fort Monroe commander Benjamin F. Butler's "contraband of war" decision. It declares that any slave used for military purposes against the United States can be confiscated.
May–August 1862 - Union general David Hunter attempts to arm a regiment of former slaves in the South Carolina Sea Islands but fails to gain the approval of the Lincoln administration.
July 17, 1862 - With the Second Confiscation Act, the U.S. Congress recognizes that all slaves working for Confederate masters aid the Confederate war effort, regardless of their specific tasks. The act authorizes the slaves' confiscation, declaring them "forever free of their servitude."
August 1862 - Senator James Lane of Kansas begins recruiting and enrolling black soldiers in his home state, despite opposition from the War Department.
August 22, 1862 - In New Orleans, Union general Benjamin F. Butler authorizes the enrollment of several regiments of the Louisiana Native Guard, a free black militia organization.
August 25, 1862 - Secretary of War Edwin Stanton orders Union general Rufus Saxton to organize and enroll a regiment of African Americans in the South Carolina Sea Islands on an experimental basis, resulting in the formation of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers.
January 1, 1863 - Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring free all slaves in Confederate-controlled regions and authorizing the enlistment of black men in the Union army.
May 22, 1863 - The War Department establishes the Bureau for Colored Troops under the leadership of Major Charles W. Foster. Its responsibility is to issue guidelines for black regiments, staff the units with officers, and oversee recruiting and enrollment.
May 27, 1863 - The 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard regiments participate in an assault on Port Hudson, Louisiana.
June 7, 1863 - USCT regiments fight at the Battle of Milliken's Bend, Louisiana.
July 1–2, 1863 - The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers fight at the Battle of Cabin Creek, Oklahoma.
July 17, 1863 - The 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers fight at the Battle of Honey Springs, Oklahoma.
July 18, 1863 - The 54th Massachusetts leads an assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina.
February 20, 1864 - The 54th Massachusetts and the 35th USCT (formerly the 1st North Carolina) fight at the Battle of Olustee, Florida.
April 12, 1864 - Surrendering U.S. Colored Troops are gunned down in the Fort Pillow Massacre in Tennessee.
July 30, 1864 - U.S. Colored Troops regiments fight at the Battle of the Crater in Virginia. Many are killed by Confederate troops as they try to surrender.
September 29, 1864 - USCT regiments aid in capturing New Market Heights and assaulting Fort Gilmer in Virginia.
October 3, 1864 - At Emory and Henry College, the "Saltville Massacre" takes place. According to some accounts, Confederate soldiers kill from five to seven wounded prisoners who are members of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry, along with a white lieutenant.
October 27–28, 1864 - USCT regiments join in fighting along the Boydton Plank Road (Hatcher's Run), and at the Darbytown Road and Fair Oaks in Virginia.
December 1864–January 1865 - Black troops in the Twenty-fifth Corps of the Army of the James participate in the Fort Fisher, North Carolina, campaign.
March 3, 1865 - The U.S. Congress passes the Enrollment Act, authorizing equal back pay for all black soldiers.
April 3, 1865 - Union troops, including the black soldiers of the Twenty-fifth Corps of the Army of the James, enter the fallen Confederate capital of Richmond.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Fleche, A., & Luebke, P. C. The United States Colored Troops. (2020, June 15). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/United_States_Colored_Troops_The.
- MLA Citation:
Fleche, Andre and Peter C. Luebke. "The United States Colored Troops." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 15 Jun. 2020. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 20, 2013 | Last modified: June 15, 2020
Contributed by Andre Fleche and Peter C. Luebke. Andre Fleche is a professor of United States and Latin American history at Castleton State College. Peter C. Luebke is a doctoral student in the department of history at the University of Virginia.