Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Basic Facts - US Colored Troops

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US Colored Troops at Dutch Gap VA

Several weeks ago I shared my thoughts about why so little is known about the Civil War.

Of course very few people can go into major detail about every battle or skirmish, or recite facts about every regiment.  However, because so many people of African Ancestry have ancestors who served with the US Colored Troops, I do consider Civil War research to be an integral part of the quest to learn more about one's ancestors. My hope is at least that basic facts are understood about US Colored Troops and the one fact is that these were Union soldiers!!!

One of the things I have found out about the Civil War, is that many people just have no idea of even some general basic facts about the war---- when it started, how it started and who was involved. And I have found out also, that even less is known when people mention the involvement of black soldiers in the Civil War. And sometimes, those lacking the most information are members of the African American community. This saddens me, because one might find their ancestors and learn so much more, if they learn basic facts about the war.

Recently on a genealogy list serve, to which I subscribe, a noted leader in the genealogy community looked at a photograph of  Contrabands ---slave refugees and declared them to be confederate soldiers.  The Library of Congress that owns the photos has identified them as contrabands of war---but this genealogy "leader" explained that of course these men were clearly ready to defend themselves when being shot at---and since the men in the photo had on what appeared to be something "gray" they had to be confederate soldiers. The image appears below.

African-Americans nicknamed contrabands before a signal tower in 1864.
Contrabands of War 
Source:  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-B8171-2594

In a recent online chat another seasoned researcher was trying to understand the history of US Colored Troops and wondered how so many of the 179,000 men managed to "escape to the north, and then come back south to fight."  He had no idea that most of the 179,000 men who became part of the Union Army and Navy, who were from the south, enlisted in the south, often, in the communities where they lived as slaves. They enlisted, as soon as opportunity came.    

And recently another genealogist was looking at the work of researcher Bennie McRae, well known for his work on US Colored Troops, and his massive website devoted to the US Colored Trops. and was this person was reading information from his list of black regiments.  On a site where he had mentioned regiments from the state of Mississippi, and mentioned the original name of the unit, as well as the later re-designated name that the unit had.  It was concluded by this one visitor to his site---that that the soldiers were confederates and the visitor exclaimed with amazement, so black soldiers DID fight for the confederacy. But hold it---------this site was a site pertaining to Union Army black soldiers!

It was later explained that the information wasconfusing because the unit represented was from Mississippi, and therefore, it was assumed that with Mississippi being a southern state, that these men were confederate soldiers, because they were organized in the South. So, even tough this was a site honoring Union soldiers who were black---since it was Mississippi---which is in the south---the soldiers had to be confederates.

I realized that with all of the information that researchers like Mr. McRae have done over the years--the basic information has not been understood.  All of the discussion about  179 regiments of black Union Army soldiers organzied throughout the south---the message has been missed---that these regiments of black soldiers organized throughout the south and a few states in the north---were Union regiments.

Perhaps the movie Glory confused some folks, since the unit in that movie was not from the South. But folks---the war was fought in the south.  A majority of black men recruited into the Union Army were from the South and they were recruited in the south!!

So, here are some basic facts:
1) Approximately 178,000 black men served in  the Union Army and Navy.

2) They served as part of the Union Army's United States Colored Troops (USCTs)

3) Some of the USCTs were organized from other regiments in their local area, and then were later all re-designated as US Colored Troops.

4) Most USCTs were recruited and enlisted in Southern States

5) Some of the early designations of US Colored Troops had a variety of names:
Corps D'Afrique, Troops of African Descent, Colored Infantry, Colored Cavalry, Colored Heavy Artillery, Colored Light Artillery.

I keep asking myself if the confusion over the history of these freedom fighters is that the movie GLORY! gave folks the impression that black Union soldiers were only from northern states.  And is there the possibility that it is just not understood that black regiments were MOSTLY southern organized men?

So, as much as I am amazed at what some will say things that are not accurate, I must also appreciate that it is an opportunity to teach. The lesson for me, is that some points will have to be broken down even more so than before---and the details spelled out clearly and often:

Black soldiers had to travel north to join the Union Army. Incorrect, the soldiers were organized in the communities where they lived.

The Black regiments organized in the South were confederates.  Incorrect.  Most Colored soldiers were recruited when the Yankees raided the community and the able bodied men enlisted in the Union Army right then.  It must be understood that no slave owners nor overseers were around to retain them, and therefore---they joined by the thousands.

So for the record here is a breakdown by state of the various regiments:

USCT Regiments by State:                                                                                                     
Alabama - 4 regiments
Arkansas – 7 regiments
Connecticut – 1 regiment*
District of Columbia – 1
Georgia - 4 regiments
Iowa -1 regiment
Illinois - 1 regiment
Indiana - 1 regiment
Kansas - 3 regiments
Kentucky - 22 regiments
Lousiana – 39 regiments
Massachusetts – 3 regiments **
Maryland - 6 regiments
Michigan - 1 regiment
Missouri - 5 regiments
Mississippi-11 regiments
No. Carolina – 5 regiments
New York – 3 regiments
Ohio - 2 regiments
Pennsylvania - 8 regiments
Rhode Island - 1 regiment
So. Carolina – 7 regiments
Tennessee - 18 regiments
Virginia – 7 regiments
* Note that  the 29th Connecticut Colored Infantry was considered to  be part of the regular army and the soldiers in this unit were not volunteers.

** Two of the three regiments from Massachusetts were technically not US Colored Troops. The 54th and 55th USCTs  were considered to be in the regular army. The US Colored Troops were considered volunteers. But the 54th and 55th are listed here because they were fighting alongside many USCTs in the same battles.  Also historically they are still considered to be “technically” colored soldiers.

My hope is that these basic facts will be understood. Let us continue to share this information. I hope that eventually teachers will also incorporate this data into their own lesson plans and educate the next generation correctly.


  1. Hi Angela,

    I just typed out a LONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNG comment in response to this post. Unfortunately, when I clicked to send it through, I got the page that asks me to sign into my google account, which I did, but then I got a message that "this action cannot be completed at this time." I tried using my back button to get back to the comment, but when I got back the comment box was empty.

    I always kind of feel like when this kind of thing happens, it's for a reason, so I won't even try to recount (or retype) the entire comment that I'd made. (The comment wasn't negative in any way, but I'd just really taken my time to clarify some of what led up to my twitter post, and to correct your interpretation of it. Since I am the researcher whom you are referring to regarding the information on the B. McRae page, I'd like to make the situation clearer.

    These were the two main points of my original comment:

    1. My tweet, which was the impetus for the entire (very short) line of conversation between you, one other researcher, and myself, was in the form of a question. It was not a statement of my belief. I have, in conversations with others in the genea-community, expressed my belief that Blacks did not fight for the confederacy. I've been pretty clear about this. Howver, on the day of our "twittersation", I'd just received the monthly edition of a family newsletter that I receive as a descendant of the Caucasion family of my gg-gf, in which the MS regiment was referred to, presumably as a Confederate regiment. Astonished, I googled the regiment, and came to (amongst others) the web site to which you've referred. I read the information on the page, carefully, and saw no mention of Union or Confederacy. I also saw nothing that indicated that it was Mr. McRae's site. (If I had, I would have known.) The questioning tweet was really one of disbelief because, as I told you that day, I thought that since the regiment was out of MS, it meant that I might have to give in and acknowledge that maybe I'd been wrong; perhaps these men did fight for the south? I couldn't and didn't want to believe it, so I was posing the question to my Twitter community, which I knew had enough seasoned Civil War researchers (like you), that the question would be answered. It was. Reassured, I was educated, and ready to move on.

    2. The other main message in my comment was one of gratitude. I thank you for all you do to help educate and enlighten those of us in the research (and larger) community about the issues which are most important to you. This gives all of us a broader knowledge-base, and exposure to information and ideas which, although we may not be concentrating on in our work, we should all be more aware of. I wanted to publicly acknowledge that you (and others) have opened my eyes to many issues about the Black (and Red) community, now and in the past, that I otherwise would not have known.

    In closing, I'd like to just say that, although I understand your frustration, and the points you made in your post, I think that we all need to have patience with one another and always try to have an air of uplifting. As I told you when we met, I have a great deal of respect for you and for the work that you're doing. I look forward to continue to learn from that work.

    Blessings always,


  2. Thanks for your response, and clarification.

  3. I for one will admit that prior to resurrecting my research (2009), I really had no clue about the this part of the history of the Civil War. Angela, thanks to your research in this area, I'm now hooked on learning more.

  4. Hi I am trying to learn more about the 81st U.S. COLORED INFANTRY REGIMENT, Port Hudson, Louisiana - formerly the 9th Corps de Afrique Infantry. I may have ancestor in it (same name, posibly recruited from the right area). What I find confusing. For eg, on lwfam.net it has: Organized Apr 4, 1864, from 9th Corps etc,. Attached 2nd Brigade, 1st Div, Corps de Afrique, Dept. of the Gulf, to July, 1864" (ok so far). Then: "Consolidated with 88th and 89th USCT July 6, 1864, to form [this is where I get confused] 77th USCT . Reorganized July, 1864, by consolidation of 87th and 95th USCT. Attached Engineer Brigade, Dept. of the Gulf, to September, 1864. 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, USCT, Dept. of the Gulf, to February, 1865. Garrison of Port Hudson, La., Dept. of the Gulf, to July, 1865. Dept. of the Gulf to January, 1866. Mustered out January 30, 1866.

    So is it saying as of July 6th 1864 there was no longer such an entity and never again and it was mustered out? Yet I find a "company of black soldiers from the 81st Infantry, United States Colored Troops" on 7/1 1866 protecting the New Orleans Tribune from white mobs. And then the Sgt I'm looking (buried Chalmette) dies Aug. 6, 1866. C Co. 81st. So was another group of units named the 81st after some other consolidation? Any assistance would be helpful.

  5. Also, I am interested in the Restore Our Ancestors project. Are there other states (like Louisiana or Virginia?)