Colored Troops, U.S

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Colored Troops, U.S. From the beginning of the Civil War, concern over the use of black soldiers pervaded Union military policy. In order to avoid alienating slaveholding states that had not seceded, the federal government did not sanction the black volunteer regiments that were organized in South Carolina, Kansas, and Louisiana during the early years of the war. By 1863, the federal government needed manpower and passed a national conscription act, subsequently authorizing the recruitment of black soldiers, particularly in the South. In May 1863, the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops to oversee the organization of black regiments. These regiments formed the United States Colored Troops (USCT).

By the end of the war, the USCT consisted of over 140 regiments (infantry, cavalry, heavy and light artillery) with troop strength numbering almost 180,000 enlisted men and 7,000 officers. The bulk of the enlisted soldiers were Southern free blacks and freedmen, although the North provided some 30,000 men. Nearly all of the USCT's commissioned officer corps was white; only 100 or so blacks ever received commissions. Literate black soldiers became noncommissioned officers, largely to serve as intermediaries between white officers and their mostly illiterate troops. Training, esprit de corps, and presence on the battlefield varied among regiments, often influenced by the preconceptions of a particular unit's officers. Saddled with racial stereotypes of blacks as incapable of self‐discipline and possessing the character of children, many officers tailored their training methods to fit these prejudices. USCT regiments received a simpler training manual from the War Department, along with substandard weapons and equipment, and until March 1865, lower wages than white soldiers. Many regimental commanders, however, circumvented this unequal treatment and potentially low morale by training their troops under standard military protocol. The racial predispositions of military policies were also counterbalanced by the enthusiasm of black soldiers. The opportunity to strike a blow against slavery and racism, along with expected recognition of their citizenship, drove most USCT recruits to master the art of soldiering.

Initially, USCT regiments were mustered into service as labor and support units. The War Department and a substantial amount of the Northern public did not think that black troops could withstand the rigors of combat. Once they fought, black regiments dispelled that notion. In the spring and summer of 1863, USCT units engaged in three major battles. The 1st and 3rd Louisiana Guards participated in an assault on the Confederate stronghold of Port Hudson on the Mississippi River in May. Although they did not break through the Confederate defenses and lost almost 20 percent of their men, the regiments proved their mettle on the battlefield. Black troops, facing a Confederate force nearly twice as large, held their position at Milliken's Bend, Louisiana, in June, despite horrendous casualties. In July, men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, under the command of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, proved their courage in the siege of Fort Wagner, South Carolina, although they lost over 40 percent of their regiment, including Shaw. Overall, USCT troops fought in more than 400 battles, including 39 major engagements. Other significant fighting took place at the Battle of Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in April 1864; the Battle of Chaffin's Farm, Virginia, in September 1864, where fourteen blacks received Congressional Medals of Honor; the Battle of Nashville in December 1864, where the Confederacy's Tennessee campaign was halted; and the Battle of Fort Blakely, Alabama, in April 1865, one of the last major battles of the war. By war's end, USCT fatalities totaled almost 38,000. Most regiments were disbanded after the war, but six all‐black regiments (four infantry and two cavalry) were organized as regular army units. Eventually, two infantry regiments were decommissioned and the resulting four (the 24th and 25th Infantry and the 9th and 10th Cavalry) were stationed west of the Mississippi, where they participated in the Indian wars and the federal suppression of strikes.

Whether the Union would have won the war without the aid of the black troops was heatedly debated by Northerners and Southerners alike. The consensus among historians is that the USCT played an integral role in the Union's victory. More important, the USCT started a precedent in the American military's use of black soldiers, characterized by a reluctance to employ them, unequal treatment, and a grudging acknowledgment of their indispensable service. As blacks displayed their loyalty to the U.S. government and performed the highest duty of citizenship, limited gains in civil rights among the entire black community usually followed military crises.
[See also African Americans in the Military.]


Dudley Taylor Cornish , The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861–1865, 1956; repr. 1987.
James M. McPherson , The Negro's Civil War, 1965; repr. 1991.
Jack D. Foner , Blacks and the Military in American History, 1974.
Mary Frances Berry , Military Necessity and Civil Rights Policy: Black Citizenship and the Constitution, 1861–1868, 1977.
Joseph T. Glatthaar , Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers, 1990.

Martin Summers

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Colored Troops, U.S

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