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*The United States Colored Troops (USCT) began formation on this date in 1862. These were regiments in the United States Army composed primarily of Black (colored) soldiers, although members of other minority groups also served within the units. They were first recruited during the American Civil War. Many USCT soldiers fought with distinction, with 16 receiving the Medal of Honor and numerous others receiving other honors.
The U.S. Congress passed the Confiscation Act which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 17, 1862. It freed slaves whose owners were in rebellion against the United States, and the Militia Act of 1862 empowered the President to use former 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 using them as paid workers. In September 1862, Lincoln issued his 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.
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 Black soldiers to fight for the Union Army. These units became known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT), although other non-whites who were not of African descent, such as Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Asian Americans also fought under USCT regiments and made significant contributions. Regiments, including infantry, cavalry, engineers, light artillery, and heavy artillery units were recruited from all states of the Union.
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. In the last year-and-a-half and from all reported casualties, approximately 20% of all Blacks enrolled in the military lost their lives.
Notably, their mortality rate was significantly higher than white soldiers: [We] find, according to the revised official data, that of the slightly over two million troops in the United States Volunteers, over 316,000 died (from all causes), or 15.2%. Of the 67,000 Regular Army (white) troops, 8.6%, or not quite 6,000, died. Of the approximately 180,000 United States Colored Troops, however, over 36,000 died, or 20.5%. In other words, the mortality rate amongst the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War was thirty-five percent greater than that among other troops, notwithstanding the fact that the former was not enrolled until some eighteen months after the fighting began. — Herbert Aptheker.
USCT regiments were led by Union 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. For a time, black soldiers received less pay than their white counterparts, but they and their supporters lobbied and eventually gained equal pay. Notable members of USCT regiments included Martin Robinson Delany, Lewis Douglass, and Frederick Douglass. Jr.
The USCT engineers built Fort Pocahontas, a Union supply depot, in Charles City, Virginia. The courage displayed by colored troops during the War played an important role in African Americans gaining new rights. As Frederick Douglass wrote: Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, the 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.
District of Columbia
West Virginia Wisconsin
|At large Not accounted for||733 5,083|
|Total from the North||79,283||Total from the South||93,796|
The USCT regiments were precursors to the Buffalo Soldier regiments in the American Old West.