Teaching With Documents:
The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War
Preserving the Legacy of the United States Colored Troops
By Budge Weidman
The compiled military service records of the men who served with the United States Colored Troops (USCT) during the Civil War number approximately 185,000, including the officers who were not African American. This major collection of records rests in the stacks of the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA). They are little used, and their content is largely undiscovered. Since the time of the American Revolution, African Americans have volunteered to serve their country in time of war. The Civil War was no exception-official sanction was the difficulty.
In the fall of 1862 there were at least three Union regiments of African Americans raised in New Orleans, Louisiana: the First, Second, and Third Louisiana Native Guard. These units later became the First, Second, and Third Infantry, Corps d'Afrique, and then the Seventy-third, Seventy-fourth, and Seventy-fifth United States Colored Infantry (USCI). The First South Carolina Infantry (African Descent) was not officially organized until January 1863; however, three companies of the regiment were on coastal expeditions as early as November 1862. They would become the Thirty-third USCI. Similarly, the First Kansas Colored Infantry (later the Seventy-ninth [new] USCI) was not mustered into service until January 1863, even though the regiment had already participated in the action at Island Mound, Missouri, on October 27, 1862. These early unofficial regiments received little federal support, but they showed the strength of African Americans' desire to fight for freedom.
The first official authorization to employ African Americans in federal service was the Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July 17, 1862. This act allowed President Abraham Lincoln to receive into the military service persons of African descent and gave permission to use them for any purpose "he may judge best for the public welfare." However, the President did not authorize use of African Americans in combat until issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863: "And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service." With these words the Union army changed.
In late January 1863, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts received permission to raise a regiment of African American soldiers. This was the first black regiment to be organized in the North. The pace of organizing additional regiments, however, was very slow. In an effort to change this, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent Gen. Lorenzo Thomas to the lower Mississippi valley in March to recruit African Americans. Thomas was given broad authority. He was to explain the administration's policy regarding these new recruits, and he was to find volunteers to raise and command them. Stanton wanted all officers of such units to be white, but that policy was softened to allow African American surgeons and chaplains. By the end of the war, there were at least eighty-seven African American officers in the Union army. Thomas's endeavor was very successful, and on May 22, 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established to coordinate and organize regiments from all parts of the country. Created under War Department General Order No. 143, the bureau was responsible for handling "all matters relating to the organization of Colored Troops." The bureau was directly under the Adjutant General's Office, and its procedures and rules were specific and strict. All African American regiments were now to be designated United States Colored Troops (USCT). At this time there were some African American regiments with state names and a few regiments in the Department of the Gulf designated as Corps d'Afrique. All these were ultimately assimilated into the USCT, even though a small number of the regiments retained their state designations.
In February 1994, NARA began a pilot project to test procedures to arrange the compiled service records of Union volunteers prior to microfilming. This effort was made in conjunction with the National Park Service's Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS). The CWSS is a computerized database identifying combatants from the Union and the Confederacy. The data will include the name of the soldier or sailor and the regiment or ship to which he belonged. In addition, the system will identify the battles in which the named soldier's or sailor's unit participated. When this database is completed, it will be installed at the major Civil War sites operated by the Park Service. The CWSS will refer the park visitor to NARA for further documentation and information on Civil War participants.
The first index to be released by the National Park Service is that of the United States Colored Troops. This list of names will be available at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., as well as at NPS battlefield sites. The memorial is due for completion in the fall of 1997. When this monument is completed and the CWSS is in place, it is anticipated that there will be an increase in requests for the records of the USCT. Every new movie or television program about the Civil War period triggers a substantial rise in mail, telephone, and walk-in requests to NARA. To answer these demands in an era of downsizing, NARA created the Civil War Conservation Corps (CWCC). The CWCC is a volunteer project operating with over fifty private citizens who are members of the National Archives Volunteer Association. This group is opening and chronologically arranging the compiled service records of each soldier who became a USCT volunteer. This is the first part of a larger project to microfilm all the records of Civil War Union volunteer soldiers. NARA's collection of Confederate military service records is already available on microfilm.
The CWCC volunteers have brought to light records that reveal fascinating details and stories behind the names of the soldiers of the USCT. Samuel Cabble, for example, a private in the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry (colored) was a slave before he joined the army. He was twenty-one years old. Among the documents in his file was the following letter:
Dear Wife i have enlisted in the army i am now in the state of Massachusetts but before this letter reaches you i will be in North Carlinia and though great is the present national dificulties yet i look forward to a brighter day When i shall have the opertunity of seeing you in the full enjoyment of fredom i would like to no if you are still in slavery if you are it will not be long before we shall have crushed the system that now opreses you for in the course of three months you shall have your liberty. great is the outpouring of the colered peopl that is now rallying with the hearts of lions against that very curse that has seperated you an me yet we shall meet again and oh what a happy time that will be when this ungodly rebellion shall be put down and the curses of our land is trampled under our feet i am a soldier now and i shall use my utmost endeavor to strike at the rebellion and the heart of this system that so long has kept us in chains . . . remain your own afectionate husband until death-Samuel Cabble
The letter was in Cabble's file with an application for compensation signed by his former owner. It was used as proof that his owner had offered Samuel for enlistment.
Such manumission documents are unique to the records of the USCT. To facilitate recruiting in the states of Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky, the War Department issued General Order No. 329 on October 3, 1863. Section 6 of the order stated that if any citizen should offer his or her slave for enlistment into the military service, that person would, "if such slave be accepted, receive from the recruiting officer a certificate thereof, and become entitled to compensation for the service or labor of said slave, not exceeding the sum of three hundred dollars, upon filing a valid deed of manumission and of release, and making satisfactory proof of title." For this reason, records of manumission are contained in the compiled service records. Some documents contain well-known names. Several slaves belonging to Susanna Mudd, a relative of Dr. Samuel Mudd, enlisted in the Union army. Required evidence included title to the slave and loyalty to the Union government. Further, every owner signed an oath of allegiance to the government of the United States. Each statement was witnessed and certified.
The CWCC has also discovered five photographs, a rare find in the military records. Each picture depicts wounds received by the soldier. One such soldier was Pvt. Louis Martin of the Twenty-ninth USCI. The photograph was glued to his certificate of disability for discharge and shows amputation of his right arm and left leg. He participated in the battle known as "The Crater" at Petersburg, Virginia, on July 30, 1864, and received shell and gunshot wounds while charging the enemy's works. Further study of the service record leads the researcher to Private Martin's pension file, where an additional photograph is found.
The story of Garland White appears in the records of the Twenty-eighth USCI. He was a slave belonging to Robert Toombs of Georgia. White, who was literate, studied to become a minister while still a slave. According to documents in his file, he was licensed and "authorized to preach the Gospel" on September 10, 1859, in Washington, Georgia. In 1860 Toombs, with White as a house servant, was living in Washington, D.C. The Toombs's residence was two doors away from William Seward's, at the time a senator from New York. It is apparent from correspondence in his record that White enjoyed a friendly relationship with Seward.
During his time in Washington, White became a fugitive and made his way to Canada. According to his records, he was appointed to the "Pastorial Charge of London mission. The said mission being under the jurisdiction of the B. M. E. Annual Conference." It is not known how long he stayed in Canada, but he was very aware of the Civil War and knew that Seward was President Lincoln's secretary of state. He wrote to him from Canada and told him of his desire to serve his country in any way he could. Garland White returned to the United States (the exact date is not known) and began recruiting for the new USCT. He went to New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Indiana. He raised most of the men of the Twenty-eighth USCI. He petitioned Seward for help in obtaining the chaplaincy of the regiment. In his letter to Seward, White wrote, "I also joined the regiment as a private to be with my boys and should I fail to get my commission I shall willingly serve my time out."
On September 1, 1864, the Field and Company Officers elected Garland H. White chaplain of the Twenty-eighth USCI, subject to the approval of the secretary of war. On October 25, by order of the secretary of war, Garland H. White was appointed chaplain of the Twenty-eighth USCI. He was thirty-five years old. All the previous correspondence was found in his compiled military service record.
Among the documents in the compiled service records are many letters from mothers and wives. They detail hardship, illness, and most of all, lack of money. They are sometimes written by the sender and sometimes dictated, but all indicate the suffering war brought to everyone, especially the families of the African American soldier. Such suffering is evident in the pleas of Rebecca Barrett to her son, William, of the Seventy-fourth USCI.
My Dear Son
It is with pleasure I now embrace the opportunity of penning you a few lines to inform you that I am received your most welcomed letter for I had despaired of your writing. We are both sick pap is prostrated on his bed and has been so for three months and three weeks he got a little better but it did not last long I am very sorry that you have enlisted again for I wanted to see you once more You say you will send me some money do my son for God sake for I am needy at this time the Doctors are so dear that it takes all you can make to pay thier bill I work when I am able but that is so seldom God only knows what I will [do] this winter for I dont. Everything is two prices and one meal cost as much a[s] three used to cost when the rich grumble God help the poor for it is a true saying that (poverty is no disgrace but very unhandy) and I find it very unhandy for if ever a poor soul was poverty stricken I am one and My son if you ever thought of your poor old mother God Grant you may think of her now for this is a needy time. No more but remain Your mother Rebecca Barrat
From Letty Barnes to her husband, Joshua, of the Thirty-eighth USCI:
My dear husband
I have just this evening received your letter sent me by Fredrick Finich you can imagin how anxious and worry I had become about you. And so it seems that all can get home once in awhile to see and attend to their familey but you I do really think it looks hard your poor old Mother is hear delving and working like a dog to try to keep soul and body together and here am I with to little children and myself to support and not one soul or one dollar to help us I do think if your officers could see us they would certanly let you come home and bring us a little money.
She continues in this vein enumerating the various hardships the family is enduring. At the end of her letter she writes lovingly:
I have sent you a little keepsake in this letter which you must prize for my sake it is a set of Shirt Bossom Buttons whenever you look at them think of me and know that I am always looking and wishing for you write to me as soon as you receive this let me know how you like them and when you are coming home and beleave me as ever
Your devoted wife
Joshua Barnes received his buttons and was granted leave to visit his family. William Barrett did send his mother some money. Garland White survived the war and lived with his family in North Carolina. Samuel Cabble returned to Missouri for his wife, and together they moved to Denver, Colorado.
The compiled service records of the United States Colored Troops must not be overlooked when researching African Americans. The letters here are a small sample to be found in this important collection. They are a physical link to the Civil War era, and they bring to life the service of the African American soldier. As each jacket is arranged and prepared for microfilming, we come one step closer to bringing attention to a major group of unexplored records.
© 1997 by Budge Weidman
Note: All letters and quotations are transcribed as they were originally written and are from the Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, Record Group 94.
Ms. Budge Weidman is a National Archives volunteer. She has served as the project manager for the Civil War Conservation Corps since October, 1994.