The United States Colored Troops (USCT) was a branch of the United States Army founded in 1863.
By Dr. Peter C. Luebke
The United States Colored Troops (USCT) was a branch of the United States Army founded in 1863 to recruit, organize, and oversee the service of African American soldiers during the American Civil War (1861–1865). USCT regiments consisted of black enlisted men led in almost all cases by white officers. By the end of the Civil War, more than 185,000 men had served in the USCT, including more than 178,000 black soldiers and approximately 7,000 white officers. At least 5,723 black soldiers were mustered into service in Virginia, although Virginia-born and -raised black troops—especially former slaves who may have fled from the state or been sold to other parts of the Confederacy—likely joined in other locations. The administration of President Abraham Lincoln initially did not approve of black soldiers, and used them only as laborers. As the war dragged on, however, attitudes began to change, and the Final Emancipation Proclamation (1863) provided for the enlistment of African Americans. Once in uniform, the men of the USCT saw action in every major theater of the war, with five Virginians being awarded a Medal of Honor. In addition to making significant contributions to the war effort, they were also subjected to racially motivated atrocities. At war’s end, many black veterans continued to serve in the South during Reconstruction (1865–1877) while others became leaders in their communities.
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.
Even as the policy of using African Americans as laborers gained increasing acceptance in the North, the question of enrolling them as soldiers remained controversial. Abolitionists, especially the former slave Frederick Douglass, urged the Lincoln administration to arm African Americans, but Lincoln refused. Some members of the military attempted to recruit African Americans anyway. In the spring of 1862, Union general David Hunter organized a regiment of African Americans by recruiting men from Union-occupied plantations in the Sea Islands of South Carolina. When news of Hunter’s project reached Washington, D.C., however, the president and the War Department refused to grant Hunter authorization to enroll the men. During the summer of 1862, James Lane, the abolitionist senator from Kansas, organized the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers, ignoring orders to enroll white troops only. Later that summer, the members of several free black militia regiments in New Orleans, known as the Louisiana Native Guard, offered their services to Union authorities. General Benjamin Butler, now commanding in the city, eventually accepted their offer to serve.
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.
The Final Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, explicitly authorized all black men to enlist as soldiers in the army. In the months that followed, recruiting moved forward at a rapid pace. In March 1863, Stanton ordered Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas to the Mississippi Valley to recruit black men from contraband camps and abandoned plantations. By the end of the war, Thomas’s efforts had yielded as many as seventy black regiments. In the meantime, Northern states opened recruiting stations to African Americans. Massachusetts was among the first states to act, organizing the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a regiment filled with free blacks from across the North and former slaves from the South. Frederick Douglass acted as a recruiting agent, and his sons, Charles and Lewis Douglass, joined the regiment. The 54th was led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a member of a prominent family of abolitionists in Boston.
Organization and Treatment
As recruiting began in earnest, the United States government took steps to centralize the administration of its new black regiments under the auspices of one agency. On May 22, 1863, the War Department organized the Bureau for Colored Troops under the leadership of Major Charles W. Foster. The Bureau issued guidelines for black regiments, staffed the units with officers, and oversaw recruiting and enrollment. All existing and future black regiments mustered into Union service under the oversight of the Bureau. At that time, units received a regimental number under the designation USCT. For example, the 1st South Carolina became the 33rd USCT and the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers became the 79th USCT. An exception was made for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry regiments, both of which were allowed to keep their state designations and remain in state service.
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.
The assumption that black soldiers were workers, not fighters, led to inequities in pay. Stanton initially indicated that black soldiers would be paid $13 per month, which was the wage that white soldiers received. But in the Militia Act of 1862, Congress set the pay for black soldiers at $10 per month, $3 of which could be in clothing, which was the rate for military laborers. Black soldiers were also often denied recruitment bounties routinely offered to white soldiers, and were rarely eligible to collect aid for dependents, a benefit that state legislation often made available to white men serving in the ranks.
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
Virginia contributed at least 5,723 men to the United States Colored Troops. This figure takes into account only those troops mustered into service in Virginia; many African Americans native to Virginia joined units in neighboring jurisdictions, including Maryland, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. Because of Virginia’s role as a slave-exporter during the antebellum period, thousands of the other black troops likely had been born in Virginia or had spent a significant portion of their lives there. Most Virginia USCT units were raised in the Tidewater or Northern Virginia, both areas where Union control had been established early in the war, thus allowing for communities of contrabands, free blacks, and escaped enslaved African Americans to form.
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.
The Battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina, was the most publicized action involving black troops in 1863, and helped erase remaining resistance to using African Americans in combat. On July 18, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry led a Union assault on the Confederate fortification, which commanded Morris Island and the approaches to Charleston Harbor. The men of the 54th advanced across an open beach under heavy fire and seized a portion of the works. They helped hold the position for almost three hours before being driven back with heavy losses. The regiment’s colonel, Robert Gould Shaw, was killed during the attack. Although the Union columns failed to capture the fort, the 54th won praise for the skill and bravery it showed during the charge, and the fallen Colonel Shaw was mourned throughout the North as a white martyr in the cause of black liberty.
By 1864, black troops had earned the grudging respect of their white comrades. In May, large numbers of black soldiers entered Virginia for the first time. In one of their first engagements in the state, on May 24, 1864, a Union force composed mostly of black troops repulsed Confederate general Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry at the Battle of Wilson’s Wharf (also known as Fort Pocahontas). Black regiments were present in the Army of the James under Benjamin Butler, which fought in the trenches at Bermuda Hundred, and in Ambrose E. Burnside’s Ninth Corps, which marched with the Army of the Potomac during Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. Black troops were among the first to seize outlying Confederate works at Petersburg when the Union army made an unsuccessful push to capture the city in June 1864.
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.
Black soldiers at New Market Heights and Fort Gilmer earned fourteen of the sixteen total Medals of Honor awarded to African American soldiers during the Civil War. Of these fourteen Medals of Honor, five went to Virginians: Powhatan Beaty (5th USCT), James Gardiner (36th USCT), Miles James (36th USCT), Edward Ratcliff (38th USCT), and Charles Veal (4th USCT). Union general Benjamin Butler was so moved by the heroism of the African American troops that he commissioned 197 medals from Tiffany’s of New York to distribute to the troops.
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.
The presence of African American soldiers on the battlefields afforded them opportunities to win glory and acceptance, but also exposed them to racially motivated violence. When the United States Congress first authorized black military service in the summer of 1862, the Confederate War Department responded with General Order No. 60, issued on August 21, 1862. The order indicated that the Confederacy would not treat black men as soldiers, but would instead view them as slaves in a state of insurrection, making them liable to execution or sale into slavery. White officers captured while leading or training black troops would be tried for a felony, for which they could receive the death penalty. Confederate president Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress ratified these policies in subsequent pronouncements. On July 30, 1863, the Lincoln administration ordered retaliation for the mistreatment of black prisoners, pledging to execute one prisoner of war for every member of the USCT sentenced to death, and to put captured Confederates to hard labor for any black soldier sold into slavery. In 1864, the Confederate government’s refusal to exchange black prisoners led to a breakdown in the practice of parole and exchange for white prisoners of war.
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
Although African American soldiers continued to face discrimination, by the time the war ended, they had won a permanent place in the military. As Union forces demobilized, many USCT regiments remained in service. By the fall of 1865, black regiments made up as much as one-third of the Union forces occupying the South. Reconstruction duty presented rewards as well as challenges. On the one hand, black soldiers were able to play an active role in supporting the Freedmen’s Bureau, protecting former slaves, and enforcing the Reconstruction amendments. On the other hand, they faced hostility from white southern civilians, and they had to deal with a government whose commitment to protecting African Americans wavered. In Virginia, complaints from white citizens resulted in the removal of most black troops from the state. Late in April and early in May 1865, the Twenty-fifth Corps, made up of USCT units, was ordered from Virginia to Texas, where it served along the Rio Grande during the U.S. government’s standoff with France over Austrian Archduke Maximilian’s puppet empire in Mexico.
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.
During the 1880s and 1890s, thousands of black veterans joined the leading Union veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic. Though many GAR posts were segregated, especially in the South, the organization opened its doors to all Union soldiers, regardless of race. Significant numbers of veterans joined interracial posts, and regional department meetings practiced inclusion. Several black veterans earned high ranks within the organization, including George Washington Williams and Joseph Wilson, who served as aides-de-camp to the GAR’s commander-in-chief. Both of these men also wrote early and lengthy histories of the participation of African Americans in the Civil War.
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.
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- Gannon, Barbara A. The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
- Glatthaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: The Free Press, 1990.
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- Price, James S. The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs By the Sword. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2011.
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