Free African-Americans and
runaway slaves had already seen Civil War action when President Lincoln
authorized black troops in the Emancipation Proclamation Jan. 1, 1863.
At least three African-American Union regiments had been raised in New
Orleans; they later became part of the Corps d'Afrique. In fall 1862,
the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry fought at Island Mound, Mo., and three
companies of the 1st South Carolina Infantry (African Descent) had
joined coastal expeditions.
Early in 1863, Massachusetts
organized the first black regiment in the North. That July 18, the
state's 54th Infantry led an assault on Fort Wagner, SC, a drama made
famous in the 1989 movie Glory.
The US Colored Troops (USCT) didn't come
into being until May 22, 1863, when the government gave that designation to
all African-American units and created the Bureau of Colored Troops. It
was another year before Congress granted those soldiers the same pay as
their white comrades.
In all, 18,000 African-Americans served in
163 Union Army units; 18,000 served in the Navy. Learn more about the USCT at the National Archives website.
Also look for deeds of manumission, oaths of
allegiance, proof of ownership, certificates of monetary award and
bills of sale. These appeared most often for regiments from Kentucky,
Maryland, Missouri and Tennessee—slave states that stayed in the Union.
To facilitate recruitment, the War Department compensated citizens of
these states up to $300 for signing oaths of loyalty to the Union and
manumission (release) papers for their slaves who enlisted.
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