In 1894, Paul Lawrence Dunbar wrote a factual poem to tell the vivid story of the United States Colored Troops. As we observe the 154th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, let us take time to remember the Colored Troops who fought valiantly in many difficult battles to keep the nation united and earn freedom from slavery. A brief review of the USCT is appropriate to honor the thousands who died for these causes.

The UCST were the non-white soldiers who fought with the Union Army during the Civil War. About 80 percent of them were African-Americans, and the remainder were Native Americans, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.

When the war started in April 1861, African-Americans were not permitted to fight because of the Militia Act of 1792 which prohibited African-Americans from bearing arms. Further, there were doubts that African-Americans would be good soldiers. Fredrick Douglas, an abolitionist, in his eloquent manner, summarized the plight of African-Americans in that era: “[He] who would be free must himself strike the blow.” This became the philosophy of the USCT.

President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, to give African-Americans a reason to fight. In October 1862, the first African-American regiment fought their  battle at Island Mound, Mo., and were victorious. Two more battles were fought by African-American regiments successfully in Tennessee and South Carolina by before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The performance of African-Americans in these battles prompted President Lincoln to write to Andrew Jackson to express how pleased he would be to have blacks join the Army, “The colored population is the great available yet unavailed force for restoring the Union. The bare sight of fifty thousand armed and drilled black soldiers upon the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once; and who doubts that we can present that sight if we but take hold in earnest.” 

 Frederick Douglas and other prominent blacks campaigned vigorously to recruit African-Americans into the Army. Two of Douglas’ sons volunteered in the USCT. His son, Charles, was the first African-American in New York to enlist in USCT.  Recruiting ads of the day promised freedom, protection and pay. Blacks were challenged to show courage and bravery by joining the USCT. Colored troops were recruited from 1863 to 1866.  

By the end of the war, 179,000 blacks were in the Union Army and 19,000 in the Navy. They fought 41 major battles, including Port Hudson, Cabin Creek, Fort Wagner, Fort Pillow, Chaffin’s Farm, Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Charleston and Richmond. Causalities were high at approximately 40,000, of which 30,000 were from diseases. Sixteen received the Medal of Honor.

The War Dept Act #143 of May 22, 1863, created the Bureau of Colored Troops to mange and evaluate recruits for commission in the black regiments. Most officers in the colored regiments were white. The 110 commissioned black officers were harassed, and many resigned.

After being first rejected, the Colored Troops endured significant disparity in the Union Army. Blacks were paid $10 per month, $3 less than whites. In addition, a $3 uniform fee was deducted from their pay. They also received inferior healthcare, equipment, arms and facilities. They were assigned the dangerous and challenging manual labor tasks and fewer combat duties. Despite these challenges, they excelled and captured both Charleston and Richmond. President Lincoln recognized their worth and remarked, “Without the military help of the black freedmen, the war against the South could not have been won.”  

The USCT paid an exceedingly high price of about 40,000 lives for the abolition of slavery and for keeping the country united. Today, this sacrifice is greatly appreciated, indeed. Freedom is not free!

The second part of this series will appear in an upcoming edition of The Warren Record.