The U.S. Congress passed a confiscation act in July 1862 that freed slaves of owners in rebellion against the United States, i.e. those states in the South that had seceded from the Union. A militia act was subsequently passed that empowered the President to use freed slaves in any capacity in the army.
In September 1862, Lincoln issued his preliminary proclamation that all slaves in rebellious states would be free as of January 1, 1863. Recruitment of colored regiments began in full force following the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863.
The United States War Department issued a General Order Number 143 on May 22, 1863, establishing a "Bureau of Colored Troops" to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers to fight for the Union Army comprised of many regiments, including infantry, cavalry, light artillery, and heavy artillery units.
Former slaves and freed blacks rushed to sign up to secure the promise of freedom and deliverance from the life of bondage and oppression that so many knew. They were recruited from all states of the Union and became known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Approximately 175 regiments of over 178,000 free blacks and freed slaves served during the last two years of the war, and bolstered the Union war effort at a critical time. By war's end, the USCT were approximately a tenth of all Union troops. There were 2,751 USCT combat casualties during the war, and 68,178 losses from all causes.
The reason I am writing about and remembering these brave men is because Ancestry.com has a database that you can use to search for the names of your ancestors and other relatives who may have served. However, it does not stop there. A lot of the original documents contain personal information like who their former owners were, who to contact in case of an emergency, promotions, whether they were wounded, hospitalized or died. It is a virtual diary of their military experience. As such, I urge you to explore it and see what you come up with.
These were true American heroes. These men put their lives on the lines not just for themselves but for the millions of other African Americans formerly enslaved and the countless number of future generations of African Americans in this country.
Over the years, the contribution of these men to this country has in many cases been mimimized, concealed and lost to even their own descendants and relatives. They received few accolades after the war due in part to the fact that many returned home to the bitter South that was still "pining" over the loss of the war. Most of these Southerners did not care to hear about the heroics of blacks responsible for their sudden change in lifestyle. Hence, many former soldiers kept their service and value under "wraps" for fear of being lynched or worse. Therefore, you would not have seen too many former soldiers marching around town in Union war uniforms or bearing medals. As well, there were no monuments in the South following the war commemorating United States Colored Troops.
As a result, the legacy of who they were and the sacrafices that they made for their country has to a great extent became hidden even from their own descendants. However, I feel that they are worthy of being remembered, revered, saluted and honored for an eternity because of their priceless contribution.
The African-American Civil War Memorial – The Spirit Of Freedom National Monument in Washington, DC is a memorial to all the USCT who served in the Civil War. It features a ten foot tall Spirit of Freedom sculpture at the center of a granite-paved plaza. The memorial is encircled on three sides by a Wall of Honor on which is inscribed the names of 209,145 members (including officers) of the USCT. The sculpture features uniformed black soldiers and a sailor, as well as images of women, children and elders, who represent the soldiers families and source of strength. It was designed by Ed Hamilton, who also designed the Connecticut Twenty-Ninth Colored Regiment, C. V. Infantry monument.
To search for your ancestors or names of the men who served, you can do so on Ancestry.com. The database is entitled, "U.S. Colored Troops Military Service Records, 1861-1865."
Here is the link:
I would like to send a personal message and Tribute to these heroes as follows :
To all the men of the US Colored Troops who have all now passed on to Glory, I want to thank you for your sacrifice and war efforts which have allowed so many to enjoy the freedoms that many of you early on were denied. Thank you for your willingness to lay down your lives for the benefit of countless others. You would be happy to know that your efforts were not in vain. Many are still reaping the benefits of your selfless acts. May you enjoy the peace and freedom in heaven that you fought so hard to bring about for your fellow brothers and sisters on Earth.
Eternally Grateful, Karen Burney, The Roots Exchange and Education Society.