Hand color tinted photo of two African-American soldiers at Dutch Gap, Virginia in 1864
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. By the end of the Civil War, the 175 regiments of the USCT constituted approximately one-tenth of the Union Army. The men of the USCT were the forerunners of the famous Buffalo Soldiers.
The U.S. Congress passed the Second 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. President Abraham Lincoln, however, was concerned with public opinion in the four border states that remained in the Union, as well as with northern Democrats who supported the war. Lincoln opposed early efforts to recruit black soldiers, even though he accepted their use as laborers. Union Army setbacks in battles over the summer of 1862 forced Lincoln into the more drastic response of emancipating all slaves in states at war with the Union. In September 1862 Lincoln issued his preliminary proclamation that all slaves in rebellious states would be free as of January 1. Recruitment of colored regiments began in full force following the Emancipation 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 of over 178,000 free blacks and freed slaves served during the last two years of the war, and bolstered the Union war effort at a critical time. By war’s end, the USCT were approximately a tenth of all Union troops. There were 2,751 USCT combat casualties during the war, and 68,178 losses from all causes.
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. Notable members of USCT regiments included Martin Robinson Delany, and the sons of Frederick Douglass.
Before the USCT was formed, there were several Volunteer regiments raised from freed southern blacks. Nearly all of them were converted into USCT units.
Detachment, Quartermaster’s Department .
Pioneer Corps, 1st Division, 16th Army Corps.
Pioneer Corps, Cavalry Division, 16th Army Corps.
There were four regiments that were considered Regular units rather than auxiliaries because they were formed from free northern blacks at the start of the war. They got the same pay and benefits as Regular Army or State Militia regiments. Their veteran status allowed them to get valuable government jobs, something usually closed to African-Americans. However, they received no recognition for honors and awards until the turn of the century.
5th Massachusetts (Colored) Volunteer Cavalry Regiment
54th Massachusetts (Colored) Volunteer Infantry Regiment
55th Massachusetts (Colored) Volunteer Infantry Regiment
29th Connecticut (Colored) Volunteer Infantry Regiment
The Corps d’Afrique was formed in New Orleans after it was taken by Union forces. It was formed around the Louisiana Native Guards. The Native Guards were Militia units formed from property-owning free blacks who were refused a chance to serve in the Confederate Army. Later units wre formed around freed blacks liberated from nearby plantations. They were treated and paid like auxiliaries although they served with distinction at the Battle of Port Hudson.
4 Regiments of Louisiana Native Guards (renamed the 1st-4th Corps de Afrique Infantry, later made into the 73rd-76th US (Colored) Infantry on April 4, 1864).
1st and 2nd Brigade Marching Bands, Corps d’Afrique (later made into Nos. 1 and 2 Bands, USCT).
1 Regiment of Cavalry (1st Corps d’Afrique Cavalry, later made into the 4th US (Colored) Cavalry).
22 Regiments of Infantry (1st-20th, 22nd, and 26th Corps d’Afrique Infantry, later converted into the 77th-79th, 80th-83rd, 84th-88th, and 89th-93rd US (Colored) Infantry on April 4, 1864).
5 Regiments of Engineers (1st-5th Corps d’Afrique Engineers, later converted into the 95th-99th US (Colored) Infantry regiments on April 4, 1864).
1 Regiment of Heavy Artillery (later converted into the 10th US (Colored Heavy) Artillery on May 21, 1864).
6 Regiments of Cavalry 1st-6th USC Cavalry
1 Regiment of Light Artillery 2nd USC (Light) Artillery
1 Independent USC (Heavy) Artillery Battery
13 Heavy Artillery Regiments 1st and 3rd-14th USC (Heavy) Artillery
1 unassigned Company of Infantry Company A, US Colored Infantry
1 Independent USC Company of Infantry Southard’s Company, Pennsylvania (Colored) Infantry
1 Independent USC Regiment of Infantry Powell’s Regiment, US Colored Infantry
135 Regiments of Infantry 1st-138th USC Infantry (The 94th, 105th, and 126th USC Infantry regiments were never fully formed)
Notes: 1.The 2nd USC (Light) Artillery Regiment (USCA) was made up of 9 separate batteries grouped into 3 nominal battalions of three batteries each. The batteries were usually detached.
I Battalion: A,B & C Batteries.
II Battalion: D, E & F Batteries.
III Battalion: G, H & I Batteries.
1.The second raising of the 11th USC Infantry (USCI) was created by converting the 7th USC (Heavy) Artillery into an infantry unit.
2.The second raising of the 79th USC Infantry (USCI) was formed from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry.
3.The second raising of the 83rd USC Infantry (USCI) was formed from the 2nd Kansas Colored Infantry.
4.The second raising of the 87th USCI was formed from merging the first raisings of the 87th and 96th USCI.
5.The second raising of the 113th USCI was formed by merging the first raisings of the 11th, 112th, and 113th USCI.
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, where regiments of USCT suffered heavy casualties attempting to break through Confederate lines. Other notable engagements include Fort Wagner and the Battle of Nashville. USCT soldiers often became victims of battlefield atrocities, most notably at Fort Pillow. The prisoner exchange cartel broke down over the Confederacy’s position on black prisoners of war. Confederate law stated that blacks captured in uniform be tried as slave insurrectionists in civil courts—a capital offense. Although this rarely, if ever, happened, it 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 present at the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. Following the war, USCT regiments served as 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.
Many African-American soldiers won the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award.
Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions with the 4th USCT in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm in Virginia. Fleetwood took up the regimental colors after 11 other USCT soldiers had been shot down while carrying them forward.
Sergeant William Harvey Carney of the 54th Massachusetts (Colored) Volunteer Infantry was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Fort Wagner. During the advance, Carney was wounded but still went on. When the color-bearer was shot, Carney grabbed the flagstaff and planted it in the parapet while the rest of his regiment stormed the fortification. When his regiment was forced to retreat, he was wounded two more times while he carried the colors back to Union lines. He did not relinquish it until he handed it to another soldier of the 54th.
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 2 regiments of black cavalry (the 9th and 10th (Colored) Cavalry) and four regiments of black infantry (the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st (Colored) Infantry), 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 2 regiments (the 24th and 25th (Colored) Infantry).
After the war many USCT veterans struggled for recognition and had difficulty obtaining the pensions rightful to them. Since the USCT was considered an auxiliary force, its members were not considered veterans by the Department of War’s standards. The Federal government did not address the inequality until 1890 and many of the veterans did not receive service and disability pensions until the early 1900s. The history of the USCT’s wartime contribution was kept alive within the black community by historians such as W. E. B. Du Bois and the subject has enjoyed a recent surge in literature.
Another problem was 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 recipients had to return them for lack of funds.
The motion picture Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick, depicted the African-American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. It shows 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 Volunteer regiment originally raised from free blacks in Boston, the film portrays the experiences and hardships that African-American troops went through during the Civil War.
A national celebration in commemoration of the service of the United States Colored Troops was held in September 1996. A national museum is located at 1200 U Street, NW, Washington, D.C. The African American Civil War Memorial, featuring Spirit of Freedom by sculptor Ed Hamilton, is located nearby, at the corner of Vermont Avenue and U Street, NW.