Dawn of the United States Colored Troops


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D.University of Virginia

The position of African Americans serving in the U.S. Army has not always been as it is today. For lengthy periods, there was long-standing opposition and prejudice against their service, not to even mention the era when they were slaves and had no place within the army.

A group of 21 African American troopers holding musical instruments in front of a building.
African American soldiers were initially used more as laborers in the Civil War. Later, they played more significant roles as soldiers. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Where Did It All Start?

Back in the 1860s, the U.S Civil War led the government to approve black men who were recently emancipated from slavery to serve in the army immediately. With the ratification of the Confiscation Act of July 1862 and subsequently the Militia Act in the same month, the U.S. president was granted the authority to use them to suppress the rebellion as he saw fit.

Accordingly, President Abraham Lincoln ordered black men into service with uniforms and arms. They were called the United States Colored Troops (USCT). However, he didn’t arm them right away since he was concerned about the possible reaction by border states. Initially, they were utilized as laborers. For this purpose, the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops to oversee the recruitment.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Prejudice Against Black Soldiers

Black men’s army experience was different from whites in many respects. Their regiments were segregated, and this would continue even after WWII. The black regiments also had white officers. At first, this made sense since there were few black men with any significant military service background. But the approach didn’t change even after the war went on, or when black men showed their combat skills and their merit for command.

Among 166 regiments raised during the war, there were only 100 black officers, most of whom were captains or belonged to lower ranks. Racism played a critical role here since many white officers were initially against arming black men.

Some officers never reconciled themselves to have black men in uniform. As William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in April 1963, he was against raising black regiments since he could not trust them. However, some officers decided to take a commission in black regiments in order to climb the ladder and get promoted.

Unequal Pay in the U.S. Army

Two African American Soldiers during the Civil War.
African American soldiers entered the army during the Civil War for the first time in U.S. history. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

In addition, black soldiers made much less money than whites for much of the war. They received $10 per month, in contrast to white soldiers who were paid $13 plus $3.50 in clothing allowance.

This led to abolitionist anger, as they believed black soldiers should be paid the same as whites since they both risked their lives in equal measure.

In response to the abolitionists, Lincoln stated that many white people in the North still believed black men should not fight. He also believed that there would be hatred among many Northerners if black soldiers were paid the same from the start. The pay was ultimately made equal in June 1864.

Learn more about the background to emancipation.

Limited Roles of Black Soldiers

Black soldiers often functioned more as laborers than soldiers, while some guarded army rears or garrisoned forts. There were many reasons behind this. For instance, some white officers believed blacks couldn’t make good soldiers since they could not fight effectively against their former masters who enslaved and controlled them for many generations.

Others thought black soldiers were a better fit to garrison posts in the deep South with much hotter weather than the Northern states where many white soldiers came from.

Another reason commanders deployed fewer black soldiers in combat was to prevent them from being captured since the Confederate government had announced they would treat black captured soldiers as runaway slaves rather than prisoners of war. They had also said they would treat officers commanding black soldiers as criminals who had provoked black men to revolt.

Execution of Captured Black Soldiers

Moreover, the Confederate government stated they would potentially execute any captured black soldier as well as their white commanders or officers. There were some instances where black soldiers were killed instead of being taken as prisoners.

Accordingly, some white officers preferred to have black men in essentially support or logistic roles. This led many white soldiers to favor black soldiers cleaning, helping on fortifications, etc., rather than doing it themselves. But black men deeply resented this. They wanted to have an opportunity to prove themselves as excellent and reliable fighters, just like white soldiers.

Learn more about the women at war.

Breakthrough of Black Soldiers

The combat record of black soldiers was pretty much the same as white soldiers in battle, with some of them doing exceptionally great. Black soldiers also fought in Mississippi and Louisiana. They fought along the Carolina coast at the Crater and other places during the siege of Richmond and Petersburg.

One of the best-known engagements black soldiers participated in was the assault against Battery Wagoneer, depicted in the movie Glory. The 54th regiment took heavy casualties while losing their commander, although they ultimately couldn’t manage to capture Battery Wagoneer.

Black soldiers participated in much fewer battles than white soldiers, with only 1.5 percent killed in action compared to 6 percent for white soldiers. Many black soldiers died from the disease. Their mortality rate due to illness was twice the rate of white soldiers.

Learn more about the war in Virginia, winter and spring 1862-63.

The Upshot of African American Presence in the Army

Many black soldiers remained in the army after the war. Eventually, most Northerners accepted them by the end of the war despite their initial opposition. They most likely saw this as necessary for the restoration of the union.

The employment of black soldiers in the United States Army was significant in two ways: firstly, it allowed them to have a dramatic active role in achieving their emancipation. There was no more direct role for a man than picking a musket and fighting for his country. Secondly, it established a strong claim to their citizenship in the United States, as no one could deny their citizenship when they had risked their lives for the U.S.

Common Questions about Dawn of the United States Colored Troops

Q: Why were black soldiers paid less than white soldiers?

Many white people in the North still believed black men should not fight at all. Also, Lincoln believed that there would be hatred among many Northerners if black soldiers were paid the same from the start.

Q: What did the Confederate government announce regarding captured black soldiers?

The Confederate government announced that they would treat captured black soldiers as runaway slaves instead of treating them as prisoners of war.

Q: What was the importance of black soldiers serving in the army?

Service in the army not only helped black soldiers achieve their emancipation, but it also established a strong claim that black people were citizens of America.

Keep Reading
The Financial Sources of the Union in the American Civil War
The Place of Slavery in the Early Union War
The Varied Political Views on Emancipation During the Civil War