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.