United States Colored Troops

United States Colored Troops

An USCT recruiting poster
Active May 22, 1863 – Oct 1865
Allegiance Union
Branch army
Type infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineering
Size 175 regiments; 178,000 men
Motto(s) Sic semper tyrannis
Engagements American Civil War
Disbanded October 1865

The United States Colored Troops (USCT) were regiments in the United States Army composed primarily of African-American (colored) soldiers. Other people of color who were not of African descent, such as Native Americans[1] Pacific Islanders, and Asian Americans also fought under USCT regiments.[2] 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 of the manpower of the Union Army. At the height of its growth, the USCT comprised almost 180,000 men. The USCT was the precursor to the Buffalo Soldier regiments of the American Old West.


The Confiscation Act

USCT soldiers at an abandoned farmhouse in Dutch Gap, Virginia, 1864

The U.S. Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1862[3] in July 1862. It freed slaves whose owners were in rebellion against the United States, and Militia Act of 1862 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. Native American also played a significant role in the colored regiments of the American Civil War.[1]

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 in January 1863.[4]

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.[5] 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 comprising 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 made up 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, both black and white.[6]

USCT regiments were led by white officers, while 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.[7] For a time, black soldiers received less pay than their white counterparts, but they and their supporters lobbied and eventually gained equal pay.[8] 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.[9]

Volunteer regiments

Union soldier in uniform with family; he has been identified as Sgt. Samuel Smith of the 119th USCT[10]

Before the USCT was formed, several volunteer regiments were raised from free black men, including freedmen in the South. In 1863 a 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 Free North Carolina Colored Volunteers (FNCCV) and subsequently the 35th.[11] Nearly all of the volunteer regiments were converted into USCT units.

In 1922 Singleton published his memoir (in a slave narrative) of his journey from slavery to freedom and becoming 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.

These units were:

Corps d'Afrique

Escaped slave, Gordon (or "Whipped Peter"), in USCT uniform

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, who were property-owning free people of color (gens du couleur libres).[12]

Free mixed-race people had developed as a third class in New Orleans since the colonial years. During the Civil War, many of the free men of color wanted to prove their bravery and loyalty to the Confederacy like other Southern property owners, but the Confederates did not allow them to serve and confiscated the arms of those in the militia. The Confederates believed that enlisting black soldiers would hurt agriculture, as most African Americans were enslaved workers. Since the Louisianan 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 free people of color 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:

Right Wing, XVI Corps (1864)

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

USCT Regiments

Banner of the 22nd Regiment of the USCT, depicting a black U.S. soldier bayoneting a Confederate

Notable actions

U.S. Colored Troops Medal issued by General Benjamin Butler

The first engagement by African-American soldiers against Confederate forces during the Civil War was at the Battle of Island Mound in Bates County, Missouri on October 28–29, 1862. African Americans, mostly escaped slaves, had been recruited into the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers. They accompanied white troops to Missouri to break up Confederate guerrilla activities based at Hog Island near Butler, Missouri. Although outnumbered, the African-American soldiers fought valiantly, and the Union forces won the engagement. The conflict was reported by the New York Times and Harper's Weekly.[13][14] In 2012 the state established the Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site to preserve this area; the eight Union men killed were buried near the battleground.[15]

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.[16]

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.

U.S. Army general Ulysses S. Grant praised the competent performance and bearing of the USCT, saying at Vicksburg that:

Negro troops are easier to preserve discipline among than our white troops... All that have been tried have fought bravely.
Ulysses S. Grant, at Vicksburg, (July 24, 1863).[17]

Prisoners of war

USCT soldiers suffered extra violence at the hands of Confederate soldiers, who singled them out for mistreatment. They were often the victims of battlefield massacres and atrocities at the hands of the Confederates, most notably at Fort Pillow in Tennessee and at the Battle of the Crater.[18] They were at heightened risk for outright murder when captured by Confederate soldiers, as the Confederate army announced its intention to kill black Union soldiers rather than take any prisoner.[16]

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 rebellious slave insurrectionists in civil courts—a capital offense with automatic sentence of death.[19][20] In practice, USCT soldiers were often murdered by Confederate troops without being taken to court. The law became a stumbling block for prisoner exchange, as the U.S. government in the Lieber Code objected to such discriminatory mistreatment of prisoners of war on basis of ethnicity. The Republican Party's platform of the 1864 presidential election also condemned the Confederacy's mistreatment of black U.S. soldiers.[21] In response to such mistreatment, U.S. Army general Ulysses S. Grant, in a letter to Confederate officer Richard Taylor, urged the Confederates to treat captured black U.S. soldiers humanely and professionally and not to murder them. He stated the U.S. government's official position, that black U.S. soldiers were sworn military men and not slaves, as the Confederacy asserted they were.[22]

Numbers of 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. Most of the troops credited to West Virginia, however, were not actually from that state.[23]

North[24] Number South[24] 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  


The USCT was disbanded in the fall of 1865. In 1867 the Regular Army was set at ten 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 ten regiments of cavalry but cut to 25 regiments of Infantry, reducing the black complement to two regiments (the 24th and 25th (Colored) Infantry).

In the decades that followed, USCT soldiers fought in the Indian Wars in the American West, where they became known as the Buffalo Soldiers. They were nicknamed by Native Americans who compared their hair to the curly fur of bison.[25]


Sgt. William Harvey Carney, Medal of Honor recipient

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, 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:


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.[26]

The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum helps to preserve pertinent information from the period.[27]



Company E, 4th US Colored Troops at Fort Lincoln, November 17, 1865 (from Library of Congress)[28]

The history of the USCT's wartime contribution was kept alive within the U.S. 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. 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.[29]

Similar units

See also


  1. 1 2 Angela Y. Walton-Raji (2008). "Battles Fought in Indian Territory and Battles Fought by I.T. Freedmen outside of Indian Territory". Oklahoma's Black Indians. Retrieved 2008-10-24.
  2. Okihiro, Gary (2015). American History Unbound: Asians and Pacific Islanders. Oakland: University of California Press. pp. 87–89. ISBN 978-0-520-96030-5.
  3. Rodriguez, Junius P. Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, 2007, vol. 2, pg 241
  4. Cornish, The Sable Arm, pp. 29–111.
  5. Cornish, The Sable Arm, p. 130.
  6. Cornish, The Sable Arm, p. 288; McPherson, The Negro's Civil War, p. 237
  7. Cornish, The Sable Arm, p. 218.
  8. McPherson, The Negro's Civil War, Chapter XIV, "The Struggle for Equal Pay," pp. 193–203.
  9. Cited by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration on their website, "The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War".
  10. "Colored (African American) Soldier and Family in Civil War Era Photo Identified". Jubilo! The Emancipation Century.
  11. "The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony"; Carolina Country Magazine, date?, accessed November 10, 2010
  12. This group of mixed-race people were descended generally from male native-born Spanish and French colonists (called Criolla or Créole) and African slave women, or free 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.)
  13. "Affairs In The West.; A Negro Regiment in Action--The Battle of Island Mounds--Desperate Bravery of the Negros--Defeat of the Guerrillas--An Attempted Fraud", New York Times, 19 November 1862, accessed 22 February 2016
  14. Chris Tabor, "Skirmish at Island Mound", Island Mound website, accessed 12 Oct 2009
  15. Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site; Missouri Department of Natural Resources
  16. 1 2 Cornish, The Sable Arm, pp. 173–180.
  17. Words of our Hero: Ulysses S. Grant, edited by Jeremiah Chaplin, Boston: D. Lothrop and Company, pp. 13-14.
  18. Robertson, James I., Jr., and William Pegram. '"The Boy Artillerist": Letters of Colonel William Pegram, C.S.A.' The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98, no. 2 (The Trumpet Unblown: The Old Dominion in the Civil War), (1990), pp. 242–43.
  19. 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.
  20. Congress of the Confederate States of America. "No. 5.". Joint Resolution on the Subject of Retaliation. May 1, 1863. Retrieved March 6, 2016.
  21. Republican Party (June 7, 1864). "Republican Party Platform of 1864". Archived from the original on April 21, 2015. [T]he Government owes to all men employed in its armies, without regard to distinction of color, the full protection of the laws of war—and that any violation of these laws, or of the usages of civilized nations in time of war, by the Rebels now in arms, should be made the subject of prompt and full redress.
  22. Grant, Ulysses (1863). "Letter to Richard Taylor". Vicksburg. I feel no inclination to retaliate for the offences of irresponsible persons; but if it is the policy of any General intrusted with the command of troops to show no quarter, or to punish with death prisoners taken in battle, I will accept the issue. It may be you propose a different line of policy towards black troops, and officers commanding them, to that practiced towards white troops. So, I can assure you that these colored troops are regularly mustered into the service of the United States. The Government, and all officers under the Government, are bound to give the same protection to these troops that they do to any other troops.
  23. 45th United States Colored Troops
  24. 1 2 Gladstone, William A., United States Colored Troops, p. 120
  25. "Wild West Western Facts, Buffalo Soldiers". The Wild West. Retrieved 3 December 2015.
  26. Hahn, Steven (2004). "The Greatest Slave Rebellion in Modern History: Southern Slaves in the American Civil War". southernspaces.org. Retrieved August 22, 2010.
  27. African American Civil War Memorial and Museum; organization website
  28. "District of Columbia. Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln". loc.gov.
  29. See film review by historian James M. McPherson, "The 'Glory' Story," The New Republic, January 8 & 15, 1990, pp. 22–27.


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