African Americans and the Civil War Forts of DC

US Colored Troops stand in uniform in front of white building, B&W photo
Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln.  Library of Congress photo.

From the beginning of the Civil War enslaved people "voted with their feet" by walking off their owners' plantations to freedom. As African Americans came to Washington D.C. and found protection behind Union lines, and the Defenses of Washington, they also contributed to the Union cause. Former slaves joined in the effort to abolish slavery and support the Union.

In 1861, Union Major General Benjamin Butler refused to return escaped slaves by declaring them the "contraband of war." The army employed many of them as laborers, and the soldiers called them "contrabands."

On July 17, 1862, President Lincoln authorized the use of African Americans in federal service by issuing the Second Confiscation and Militia Act. It was not until the the Emancipation Proclamation, of January 1, 1863, however, that black men could serve in combat.

The United States War Department issued General Order Number 143 on May 22, 1863. This order established the Bureau of Colored Troops and it recruited many African American men into the Union Army. The regiments of the Union army that were were composed of African American men were called the United States Colored Troops (USCT).

Soon there were 200,000 black soldiers serving in the Union Army and Navy. These men were paid less than white officers, were given old and worn uniforms and poor equipment, and could not become officers. Despite the unfair treatment, black men volunteered to take part in combat.

The USCT suffered from racial discrimination despite serving the Union forces. Seldom seeing active battle, many troops were assigned as laborers, construction workers, and guards on fortifications throughout the Union, including the Defenses of Washington. The 28th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops was one of the troops attached to the Defenses of Washington. This regiment of infantry was established on November 30, 1863 by Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton. Reverend Willis Revels of the African American Episcopal Church was the chief recruiting officer. The recruits trained for three months and on April 25 1863, six companies of the 28th left Indianapolis for Washington, D.C. where they were attached to the capital’s defenses.

"Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States." - Frederick Douglass

Last updated: January 10, 2018