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United States Colored Troops

Sgt. William Harvey Carney, Medal of Honor recipient.
African-American soldiers at an abandoned farmhouse in Dutch Gap, Virginia, 1864.

The United States Colored Troops (USCT) were regiments in the United States Army composed of African-American (colored) soldiers; they were first recruited during the American Civil War, and by the end of that war in April, 1865, the 175 USCT regiments constituted about one-tenth the manpower of the Union Army.

In the decades that followed the USCT soldiers fought in the Indian Wars in the American West, where they became known as the Buffalo Soldiers; they received the nickname from Native Americans who compared their hair to the fur of bison.


Confiscation Act

The U.S. Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act[1] in July 1862. It freed slaves whose owners were 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.[2]

The United States War Department issued General Order Number 143 on May 22, 1863, establishing the Bureau of Colored Troops to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers to fight for the Union Army.[3] 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.[4]

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 the Free Military Academy for Applicants for the Command of Colored Troops at the end of 1863.[5] For a time, black soldiers received less pay than their white counterparts, but they (and their supporters) lobbied and gained equal pay.[6] 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.[7]

The historian Steven Hahn proposes that when slaves organized themselves and worked with the Union Army during the American Civil War, including as some regiments of the USCT, their actions comprised a slave rebellion that dwarfed all others.[8]

Volunteer regiments

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.[9] Nearly all of the volunteer regiments were converted into USCT units.

In 1922 Singleton published his memoir, a slave narrative, of his journey in going from slavery to freedom and being a Union soldier. Glad to participate in reunions, years later at the age of 95, he marched in a Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) event in 1938.

State volunteers

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. But, the men received no formal recognition for combat honors and awards until the turn of the 20th century. The units were:

Corps d'Afrique

The Corps d'Afrique, one of many Louisiana Union Civil War units, was formed in New Orleans after the city was taken and occupied by Union forces. It was formed in part from the Louisiana Native Guards. The Native Guards were former militia units raised in New Orleans. They were property-owning free people of color (gens du couleur libres).[10]

Free mixed-race people had developed as a third class in New Orleans since the colonial years. Although the men 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 troops of the Corps d'Afrique served with distinction, including at the Battle of Port Hudson and throughout the South. Its units included:

  • 4 Regiments of Louisiana Native Guards (renamed the 1st-4th Corps d'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).

Right Wing, XVI Corps (1864)

Colored troops served as laborers in the 16th Army Corps' Quartermaster's Department and Pioneer Corps.

USCT Regiments

File:Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters.jpg
Union soldier in uniform with family-recently identified as Sgt Samuel Smith of the 119th USCT and family[11]
  • 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 Independent 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)
  1. The 2nd USC (Light) Artillery Regiment (2nd 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.

Notable actions

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.[12]

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.[12]

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.[13] 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 Act of 1850. Butler informed him that since Virginia claimed to have left the Union, the Fugitive Slave Law no longer applied; later Butler held them, declaring the slaves to be contraband of war.

Eighteen African-American soldiers won the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award, for service in the war:

  • 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 in July 1863. 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. Carney did not receive his medal until 37 years later.
  • Corporal Andrew Jackson Smith of the 55th Massachusetts (Colored) Volunteer Infantry was recommended for the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Honey Hill in November 1864. Smith prevented the regimental colors from falling into enemy hands after the color sergeant was killed. Due to a lack of official records, was not awarded the medal until 2001.


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).


File:4th United States Colored Infantry.jpg
Company E, 4th US Colored Troops at Fort Lincoln, November 17th, 1865. Library of Congress link at [14]

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 were 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.[15] 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.


  • In September 1996, a national celebration in commemoration of the service of the United States Colored Troops was held.
  • The African American Civil War Memorial (1997), featuring Spirit of Freedom by sculptor Ed Hamilton, was erected at the corner of Vermont Avenue and U Street NW in the capital, Washington, D.C. It is administered by the National Park Service.
  • In 1999 the African American Civil War Museum opened nearby.
  • In July 2011, the Museum celebrated a grand opening of its new facility at 1925 Vermont Avenue, just across the street from the Memorial. Four years of related events were planned for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement, to commemorate African-American contributions under the theme "From the Civil War to Civil Rights."

Numbers of U.S. Colored Troops by state, North and South

The soldiers are classified by the state where they were enrolled; Northern states often sent agents to enroll ex-slaves from the South. Note that many soldiers from Delaware, D.C., Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia were ex-slaves as well.

North[16] Number South[16] Number
Connecticut 1,764     Alabama 4,969  
Colorado Territory 95     Arkansas 5,526  
Delaware 954     Florida 1,044  
District of Columbia 3,269     Georgia 3,486  
Illinois 1,811     Louisiana 24,502  
Indiana 1,597     Mississippi 17,869  
Iowa 440     North Carolina 5,035  
Kansas 2,080     South Carolina 5,462  
Kentucky 23,703     Tennessee 20,133  
Maine 104     Texas 47  
Maryland 8,718     Virginia 5,723  
Massachusetts 3,966  
Michigan 1,387   Total from the South 93,796 
Minnesota 104  
Missouri 8,344   At large 733  
New Hampshire 125   Not accounted for 5,083  
New Jersey 1,185  
New York 4,125  
Ohio 5,092  
Pennsylvania 8,612  
Rhode Island 1,837  
Vermont 120  
West Virginia 196  
Wisconsin 155  
Total from the North 79,283  
Total 178,895  

See also

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  1. ^ Rodriguez, Junius P. Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, 2007, vol. 2, pg 241
  2. ^ Cornish, The Sable Arm, pp. 29-111.
  3. ^ Cornish, The Sable Arm, p. 130.
  4. ^ Cornish, The Sable Arm, p. 288; McPherson, The Negro's Civil War, p. 237.
  5. ^ Cornish, The Sable Arm, p. 218.
  6. ^ McPherson, The Negro's Civil War, Chapter XIV, "The Struggle for Equal Pay," pp. 193-203.
  7. ^ Cited by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration on their website, "The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War".
  8. ^ Hahn, Steven (2004). "The Greatest Slave Rebellion in Modern History: Southern Slaves in the American Civil War". Retrieved August 22, 2010. 
  9. ^ "The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony" Carolina Country Magazine, date?, accessed 10 November 2010
  10. ^ This group of mixed-race people were descended generally from male native-born Spanish and French colonists (called Criolla or Créole) and African slaves, and African-American women. After the United States made the Louisiana Purchase (1803), many Americans moved to Louisiana. They ignored the status of the free people of color, grouping them with the mass of blacks, then mostly slaves. (Today the people of color descended from this group are generally referred to as Louisiana Creoles.)
  11. ^ "Colored (African American) Soldier and Family in Civil War Era Photo Identified". Jubilo! The Emancipation Century. 
  12. ^ a b Cornish, The Sable Arm, pp. 173-180.
  13. ^ Williams, George W., History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880: Negros as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens, vol. II, New York: G.P. Putnam Son's, 1883, pp. 351-352.
  14. ^ "District of Columbia. Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln". 
  15. ^ See the film review by the historian James M. McPherson, "The 'Glory' Story," The New Republic, January 8 & 15, 1990, pp. 22-27.
  16. ^ a b Gladstone, William A., United States Colored Troops, p. 120


  • Cornish, Dudley Taylor. The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865. New York: W.W. Norton, 1965.
  • Dobak, William A. Freedom by the Sword: The US Colored Troops, 1862-1867. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 2011.
  • Gladstone, William A. United States Colored Troops, 1863-1867. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1996.
  • Johnson, Jesse J. Black Armed Forces Officers 1736-1971. Hampton Publications, 1971.
  • Matthews, Harry Bradshaw, African American Freedom Journey in New York and Related Sites, 1823-1870: Freedom Knows No Color, Cherry Hill, NJ: Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers, 2008.
  • McPherson, James M., The Negro's Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted During the War for the Union. New York: Pantheon Books, 1965.
  • Smith, John David, Lincoln and the U.S. Colored Troops (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013). 156 pp.
  • Williams, George W., A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1887.

External links