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The U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War

Black History Month 2015

Co. E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry at Fort Lincoln, Washington, D.C.

Co. E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry at Fort Lincoln, Washington, D.C.
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"[Those] who would be free, themselves must strike the blow," declared Frederick Douglass, the noted abolitionist, author, orator, and former slave. Indeed, from the fall of Fort Sumter on 14 April 1861 and President Abraham Lincoln's initial call for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion, many black men had tried to enlist in the Union Army, only to be turned away. At first, the Army had no difficulty in meeting its recruitment quotas, as eager white volunteers flocked to the colors by the thousands. By the summer of 1862, however, as the casualties mounted and the war seemed to grind on inconclusively, the U.S. War Department found it increasingly difficult to fill the Army's thinning ranks. To address the manpower shortage, Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Acts on 17 July 1862, enabling the president "to employ as many persons of African descent" in the military service as he deemed necessary, and to "use them in such manner as he may judge best." The U.S. government set the black laborers' pay at $10 per month. With the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863, Lincoln not only declared most of the slaves in the Confederacy free, but he also authorized the use of black men as soldiers "to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places."

Sgt. Maj. Lewis Douglass

Sgt. Maj. Lewis Douglass of the 54th Massachusetts was a son of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Even before Lincoln's proclamation became law, several regiments of black volunteers raised in the occupied South and in the newly established state of Kansas had already taken the field. In early 1863, the War Department granted Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew permission to raise a regiment of black soldiers. The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry thus became the first such unit organized in the North; two of Douglass' sons enlisted in the 54th. On 22 May 1863, the War Department issued General Orders 143, establishing the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), and organizing it into three branches of what was then known as the line of the Army. Most of the state-sponsored volunteer regiments were subsumed into the USCT, which grew to seven regiments of cavalry, more than a dozen of artillery, and over a hundred of infantry. Nearly 180,000 black soldiers served in the USCT, comprising about 10 percent of the Union Army's manpower total. Of the USCT's roughly 5,000 commissioned officers, fewer than a hundred were black. At first, black privates were paid $10 per month, less a monthly clothing deduction of $3, leaving just $7. This was in contrast with the white enlisted men's monthly pay of $13. In June 1864, Congress granted equal pay to the black troops and made the action retroactive.

The Union Army was slow to use black soldiers in combat, limiting them mainly to fatigue, garrison, and guard duty—that is, until the worsening manpower situation dictated otherwise. On 18 July 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry led the assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina, most likely because it was the largest regiment in its brigade. The 54th's numerical superiority quickly evaporated, for it suffered heavy casualties in a futile attempt to capture the Confederate stronghold. Though the attack was unsuccessful, the 54th's courage and tenacity under fire convinced many skeptical Northerners that black fighting men were the equal of their white counterparts. After that, USCTs played a crucial role in many other battles, including the Battle of New Market Heights near Petersburg, Virginia, on 29 September 1864. For their valor in that engagement, fourteen black soldiers received the Medal of Honor.

2nd Lt. James M. Trotter

James M. Trotter was one of the few black men who rose above the enlisted ranks. This photograph shows him as a second lieutenant of the 55th Massachusetts.

If captured, black soldiers could not expect to be treated as prisoners of war. In accordance with a Confederate presidential proclamation, many USCTs—along with their white officers—could be tried for engaging in a servile insurrection, a capital crime in most Southern states. Worse yet, many Confederate soldiers simply refused to take black prisoners. The most notorious such atrocity was the Fort Pillow Massacre on12 April 1864. After capturing the fort, numerous Southern troops gave no quarter, shooting down Union soldiers who were in the act of surrendering. Over two-thirds of the 281 fatalities were black troops, and only 62 survived the battle. The incident became a cause célèbre in the North: "Remember Fort Pillow" became a popular rallying cry, and USCTs wore badges emblazoned with the slogan.

In addition to contributing to Union victory, the U.S. Colored Troops served as an occupation force in the South after the war and were among the last volunteer soldiers to be mustered out. Some of the veterans went on to enlist in one of the Regular Army's new black regiments, while the vast majority returned to civilian life. "For the tens of thousands who had served in the ranks," writes historian William A. Dobak, "their discharges released them into a new world in which most of them were free for the first time; a world that, whatever its imperfections, their own efforts had helped to shape."


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Sgt. Maj. Christian A. Fleetwood

Sgt. Maj. Christian A. Fleetwood received the Medal of Honor for saving the colors of the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry at New Market Heights on 29 September 1864.