Sunday, January 16, 2011

Getting to the Story by Learning the Facts

Enlistment Data on Soldier from the 27th US Colored Infantry
Source: Military Service Record, Pvt. Jacob Thomas,  National Archives Publication M1824

As one who has researched their ancestors' involvement in the Civil War, I have come to understand something about the myths and the realities of who did and did not serve in the Civil War.  

The reasons why some stories are not refuted even when they are purely nonsensical, and downright untrue, is because many of us who descend from enslaved people, have never studied the Civil War.

For example---in a recent genealogy chat, the involvement of black men who enlisted in the Union Army came up. One member described information about her ancestor who served in a unit from Mississippi. Another member of the same group---a regular to the chat for over 10 years, remarked that it was amazing to him, to hear that her Mississippi Ancestor enlisted in the Union Army.  
Headstone of soldier from the 11 US Colored Infantry. Unit was organized in Ft. Smith Arkansas
Soldier is buried in Dripping Springs Cemetery in Crawford County Arkansas.
(Cemetery was documented by Tonia Holleman)

I asked him why that was so unusual. and he replied that "well, her ancestor was not from the North, but he lived in the South."  I wanted to make sure that I understood what he meant, and I wondered if he was going to start talking about the infamous mythical confederate issue, but he did not.  He then innocently and sincerely asked the question, "well----weren't most black soldiers in the Union Army from places in the north, like Massachusetts?"

 I pointed out to him that a majority of the United States Colored Troops were units that were organized in the South.  He was surprised, amazed and confused! He was truly trying to understand---- "But how could that be? " he asked.

I was stunned by his word. But then I got it----I realized that other than what he had learned from the movie "Glory!" his knowledge of the role of African American soldiers from the south, in the Civil War, was non-existent!  He knew nothing!  And this is a man in his 60s, who has been dabbling in family history for more than a decade!

He was curious and asked honest and innocent questions---how could they get up north to enlist?  


The impression that he had, was that black men had to escape to the north to enlist in the Union Army. His sense was that all black Civil War soldiers were organized in the north like the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry.

Famous Image of the 54th Massachusetts at Ft. Wagner.  
Source: Library of Congress

There was no sense of time, nor place----and I pointed out to him that the war was fought in the south, on southern soil, and as federal soldiers came into an area, THAT provided the opportunity for them to enlist!  This was foreign to him.

Now I must point out, this is a gentleman whom I have respected as being a long lasting researcher, but I was so surprised at how there was almost no concept of how black men entered the Civil War, and where and under what circumstances.  

He did ask good questions-----how did they get a chance when they were still held as slaves? Wouldn't the slave masters have prevented their leaving to fight? 

Another member then reminded him----this was wartime! The slave masters and the overseers were not there----they had entered the confederate army to fight!  When Union soldiers came--they could raid area farms both large estates and small farms, and so many times the white men folk were not present, and slaves had access to the Union lines for the first time!

Recruitment Handbill, for soldiers to join Union Army

This small concept had never occurred to him, and he had never read anything about the recruitment of black soldiers---and up until that time----he always thought that a majority of black soldiers came from New England!!! 

It was pointed out that the 130 + regiments of United States Colored Troops, were organized in the south and he was truly amazed!  

I too was amazed, but for another reason---I had to ask, how many of our own elders in our communities were also under the impression that either we had no role in the War, or that only a few blacks from New England enlisted in the Union Army to fight? 

Was he alone in his misconception of black participation?  Is this why the black confederate myth went unchallenged for so long?  

Could it be, that our lack of knowledge of the true involvement of our ancestors in the Fight for Freedom, assisted the myth makers and revisionists in creating confederate regiments that never existed?  After all, the story was created by hobbyists, reenactors and not by historians.  

But as we who descend from US Colored Troops have had so few Civil War enthusiasts in our own midst, until recent years, and there was no one for a long time to refute this revised history and newly created myths.

I realized that until the past 20 years----there were no monuments to the USCTs.  

African American Civil War Memorial Monument
Washington DC

But---almost every town large and small in the south has confederate monuments in the town square or on the ground of the local courthouse. And they have had them for decades!

Monuments such as this one in Arkansas are found in hundreds of towns throughout the south.

The local and state histories show the photos of the confederate reunions well into the 20th century.  But no textbooks or state histories show images of USCT reunions. Though many GAR chapters were integrated, the reunions of black regiments were rare----if any occurred at all.  And in the south----did any occur ever?

What are the results of this lack of knowledge?

Did the actions of Andrew Johnson to restore the secessionists to their status of "first class" status over an oppressed second class, lead to a silencing of the soldiers, denying those men who fought and died, who were of African descent no chance to spread honor and pride to their descendants.  Were they thus prevented in their expressions of pride and dignity from passing this knowledge to the next generations?

Did the use of the confederate flag----a flag of the enemy for the US Colored Troops---- did the use of the flag officially flown in front of courthouses and as well as the flag use in terrorist acts, such as lynchings, force these honorable men, into a silence, requiring them to never speak to the next generation about their fight for freedom?   Is this how and why our stories got lost in our own families?  

And what was the result of this forced silence? Shame?  Poor self-esteem, powerlessness?

The better question----what comes from knowing one's history?

I can only say that having told the story twice at a family reunion, about our ancestors from Tennessee who served in the 111th US Colored Infantry, were captured, escaped and re-enlisted----I can only say that I saw with my own eyes----the changes in body language as the young males heard this story of our Uncle Sephus, Uncle Braxton, Cousins Henry and Emmanuel Bass.  I was asked to tell this story again to a new generation only this past year and once again----the effect was amazing.

Did they hear it and understand it?  

I don't know----but I know that in order for us to get to the story----we have to learn the Facts.

* There were 138 regiments of the US Colored Troops who were volunteers in the Union Army.
* Most of these regiments were organized in the South.
* There were 7 additional units part of the regular army. They were from Mass, Conn, and La. 
* All of these units served and/or saw action in the south.
* The US Colored Troops saw action in 268 different battles/skirmishes between 1863-1866.

Memorize these few facts and pass them on!!!

Many stories lie untold in the unread pages of the official records of the Civil War. 

As we speak of honoring our ancestors----we have to tell their stories and in order to get to the story----we must learn the facts!

Unknown Soldier, United States Colored Troops
Source: Library of Congress


  1. Coming from one who has never heard my family's Civil War Era stories, thank you! I am glad you are here to help set the record straight.

    One thing I do know... if we believe in ourselves and cherish our heritage (MLK), we will come to the place where we will desire to know the whole story.

    We will recognize our own exclusion from history. Fables will not resonate in our hearts, and we will venture back to the original historical documentation. We will also find voices we can trust just like I have found yours.

    What a difference this will make!

  2. I am glad to see you posting this and will be linking to it in several places. I have wondered if there were reunions or soldier's groups for the U.S.C.T? Years ago, I photographed all of the markers at the Little Rock National Cemetery and am now putting them online at There are several hundred soldiers from the U.S.C.T. and we have had quite a response in people finding their ancestors.

    Keep up the good work!
    Pris Weathers

  3. This is an extremely valuable blog. Thank you for giving us much to think about. You raise very important questions and as always, provide compelling evidence to support your conclusions.

    According to the National Archives, the USCT included 7 numbered cavalry regiments; 13 numbered artillery regiments plus 1 independent battery (originally from Kansas); 134 numbered infantry regiments; Brigade Bands Nos. 1 and 2 (Corps d' Afrique and U.S. Colored Troops); Powell's Regiment Colored Infantry; Southard's Company Colored Infantry; Quartermaster Detachment; Pioneer Corps, 1st Division, 16th Army Corps; Pioneer Corps, Cavalry Division, 16th Army Corps; Unassigned Company A Colored Infantry and Unassigned USCT.

    And then there were the 7 regiments from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Louisiana that continued to operate, with the approval of the War Department, under their sanctioned state volunteer regimental names.

    Accounts of the actual number of battles and skirmishes in which the U.S. Colored Troops and others participated have varied. The African American historian George Washington Williams wrote in his History of the Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion (1888)that the total number of skirmishes and battles in which the USCT participated numbered 449.

    The late Budge Weidman of the Civil War Conservation Corps of the National Archives wrote that the number of skirmishes exceeded 400 and that the U.S. Colored Troops fought in 39 major engagements (designated by the Army as "battles"). War Department records indicate that "Colored" troops were wounded in 249 engagements.

    Perhaps as many as 200,000 African American men fought in the war as soldiers and sailors--with casualties from disease and battle of approximately 37,000.

    Given the numbers of black men (and women too) who were enlisted in the service of the United States during the war it is reasonable to conclude that most black families in the U.S. at the time had a member in the military.

    Let us continue to strive together to raise consciousness of the role of our forebears in creating what Lincoln called a "New Birth of Freedom."

  4. Thank you Mr. Monroe for sharing your information as well. I agree that there have been varying numbers regarding battles and whichever numbers are closest, they all show the presence and involvement of the US Colored Troops in the American Civil War and their fight for freedom!

  5. Reading "Killing Lincoln" USCT mentioned of course!!