African Americans and the Defenses of Washington

4th United States Colored Troops at Fort Lincoln during the Civil War.
Co. E, 4th United States Colored Troops (USCT) at Fort Lincoln near Bladensburg, Maryland in 1865.

One of the most ubiquitous image of African American soldiers during the Civil War, the 4th USCT was organized in Baltimore, Maryland in July 1863, saw action in Virginia, and served in DC in 1865-66.

Library of Congress

Freedom's Forts

At the start of the Civil War in April 1861, there were nearly 4 million enslaved African Americans residing in the United States of America according to the 1860 Census. In the nation's capital, an estimated 3,200 enslaved people resided within the confines of Washington DC. This number grew exponentially during the course of the Civil War--an estimated 40,000+ formerly enslaved African Americans sought freedom, refuge, and employment in Washington. Of that number, a large percentage were connected with the Defenses of Washington.

Washington DC did include a sizeable free Black population at the start of armed hostilities, estimated at over 10,000 people. Many offered their services to the US government, who were receiving thousands of state volunteers and mustering the regiments into Federal service. Secretary of War Simon Cameron flatly rejected the organization of African American volunteer units. In response to a colored gentleman named Jacob Dodson, Cameron replied firmly the War Department's disapproval on April 29, 1861, writing:

“This Department has no intention at present to call into the service of the Government any colored soldiers.”

According to source material, Mr. Dodson "was a free born African American whose family worked in the service of famed [army officer and explorer] John C. Fremont’s father-in-law, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton." Dodson accompanied "The Pathfinder" on three expeditions exploring the vast expanses of the Western territories. At the start of the war, Dodson, a civilian employee at the U.S. Senate building, offered his services to raise a unit of 300 men for the Union Army.

African Americans were not provided the opportunity to serve in the Federal armies in 1861, but as the war evolved from a conflict centered on the restoration of the Union to one of the conquest of the Southern states and the destruction of slavery, black units were organized en masse, including from the neighborhoods, streets, and fortifications in Washington DC.

Fortress Monroe and the "Contraband Decision"

“The end of slavery came through an unplanned alliance between the Union army and black refugees from slavery who came within the army’s lines during the Civil War.”
-Dr. James M. McPherson

The Civil War wrought uncertainty, unrest, and the breakdown of social order as war erupted across the landscape, especially in the Southern states as blue-clads soldiers marched deep into Confederate territory. Enslaved African Americans seized the opportunity produced by the war's outbreak to self-emancipate by seeking refuge with the Union armies and navies. By bringing the issues of slavery directly to Union forces, who were a direct extension of the Federal government, enslaved people literally broke the chains of bondage. What was the fate of enslaved people who came into Federal lines? Would they be accepted? Would they be rejected? Would slave owners have the right to reclaim their "property?"

The answer was answered, in part, along the tip of Virginia Peninsula at Fortress Monroe. The Third System fort remained in Federal control after Virginia approved an ordinance of secession in late May 1861 (Virginia officially adopted secession and joined the Confederate States of America on June 19, 1861. The same day that Virginia ratified secession, three slaves belonging to rebel Colonel Charles K. Mallory—known to us today as Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend—learned that their master planned to send them to North Carolina to support the secession forces. The three slaves fled to Fort Monroe seeking refuge. The following day, rebel Major John B. Cary requested the return of the slaves on grounds of the Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution (art. IV, sec. 2, cl. 3), which required that slaves who escaped to another state were to be returned to their owners, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which was intended to enforce the Fugitive Slave Clause.

Union Major General Benjamin F. Butler, who had arrived at Fort Monroe only two days before, determined that the U.S. Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act did not affect another country, which Virginia claimed to be. Given that the freedom-seekers were property of a rebel colonel and were about to be used against the United States, Butler resolved that he would hold the slaves, hence property, as he “would for any other property of a private citizen which the exigencies of the service seemed to require to be taken by [him], and especially property that was designed, adapted and about to be used against the United States."

Butler was a shrewd military leader and lawyer. His decision, which came to be known as the “Contraband Decision,” enabled thousands of slaves from states in rebellion to seek refuge behind Union lines. However, no existing law or policy supported his clever reasoning, which supplied the Union with able-bodied men capable and willing to support the Union. Despite the impact of his decision on slavery, Butler was not an abolitionist; he had voted for Jefferson Davis at the 1860 Democratic National Convention. Tellingly, his decision did not challenge the fundamental premise of slavery (people as property) and neglected a key question: Were these freedom-seekers now free?

Enslaved men who found their way to Fort Monroe quickly became known as “contrabands,” a term that marked their provisional state of being neither free nor enslaved. In subsequent months “contraband” was adopted into common use and signaled changing views of slavery in America. In the following years, Butler’s decision had resounding military, political, and social implications as well. It served as a forerunner to the First (1861) and Second Confiscation Acts (1862), the Militia Act (1862), the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), and, ultimately, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1865), which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the United States.

Just over one month after the three slaves found refuge at Fort Monroe, some nine hundred freedom-seekers—men, women, and children—had arrived at the fort. Their liberties were undoubtedly improved over plantation life. However, Butler continued to view the freedom-seekers as slaves and reported on them as such. Living conditions were poor; rations and promised compensation were often withheld.

When the freedom-seekers grew too numerous to be accommodated at the fort, the “Grand Contraband Camp” was established in the burned-out remains of the nearby city of Hampton. This was the first self-contained black community in the nation, which grew to a population of thousands by 1865. Other Union strongholds in Confederate territory saw an influx of “contrabands” as well. By the war’s end, approximately half a million freedom-seekers had fled to Union lines. **Contraband Decision information provided by Fort Monroe National Monument, National Park Service**

The Defenses of Washington and "Contrabands"

Federal soldiers used shovels, picks, and axes to alter the countryside on the elevated hills and plateaus around Washington. The Defenses of Washington, a system of earthen fortifications comprising 48 major forts, artillery batteries, and miles of rifle pits and military roads encircled the nation's capital by the end of 1861. By 1865, the Defenses comprised 68 forts, 93 batteries, 37 miles of earthworks, 30 miles of military roads, and mounted over 800 cannons and mortars. Washington DC was secure from immediate enemy assault and extended siege; Confederate forces dare not undertake a major offensive against the city, and kept a safe distance from the range of the fort's artillery. The Defenses served a dual role during the Civil War, one planned and the other spontaneous: a deterrent against the Confederate military, who threatened the land and water approaches to the city; and a beacon of freedom for enslaved African Americans, who poured from all directions toward the Federal capital during the conflict--an estimated 40,000+ people by war's end.

African American refugees of slavery proactively sought not only their freedom in Washington, but employment opportunities as well. Union forts and camps dotted the rural landscapes around the city. As early as January 1862--a full year before President Abraham Lincoln officially issued the Emancipation Proclamation--Federal soldiers welcomed formerly enslaved African Americans into their camps as "contraband of war." The soldiers provided protected, notably from Maryland slaveowners who maintained the right to retrieve their "property," even in US Army installations, and employment for people in dire-need to sustain themselves and their families. The refugees were hired on as camp servants, cooks, and laborers, including working to construct and enlarge the Defenses of Washington in 1862-64. Contrabands appeared in Washington DC and the surrounding region, including Camp Barker (Logan Circle), Duff's Green Row (East Capitol Street), Mason's Island (Theodore Roosevelt Island), and. Freedmen's Village (Arlington Virginia),

Due to the lack of other employees and the fact that contrabands worked for less money, numerous former slaves worked on the fortifications. In August 1862, contrabands, both men and women, received 40 cents plus rations, at the Quartermaster Departments' expense, a day for their work. By November 1863, Civil Engineers Gunnell and Childs recommended to Barnard that $1.00 per day to contrabands with rations was a fair wage. The Engineers also issued a variety of clothing to those contrabands and their families who worked on the fortifications. Some of the contrabands working on the fortifications lived in Freedmen's Village or other Government housing and sometimes even at the forts such as Fort Lyon, VA, or the shanty village at Fort Albany, VA.

The Army didn't always treat the refugees fairly. The Department informed Brigadier General Silas Casey, on April 6, 1862, that, in answer to his letter, "all negroes coming into the lines of any of the camps or Forts under his command are to be treated as persons and not as chattle." General Amiel W. Whipple's Division aide-de-camp, on August 25, 1862, called attention to the case of the contrabands employed on fortifications in the command declaring that Brigadier General Wadsworth, Military Governor of Washington, sent them over with instructions to pay them at the rate of 40 cents for each working day but many had been at work for more than two months and never received pay leaving them destitute of clothing and other necessaries. On July 11, 1862, the commander of the Military Defenses Southwest of the Potomac wrote that a great number of contrabands were employed on the fortifications in this command and, per orders from Whipple, they should be paid all that was due them." The aide-de-camp, Whipple's Division, informed commanders, on July 18, 1862, that regimental quartermasters "will make requisitions for funds sufficient to pay those laborers at the rate of forty cents for each days work" and "rations will be issued at the rate of one for each adult detached for service and where necessity required it food will be furnished for children." To make sure that the contrabands were taken care of, commanders received instructions to keep records of service each day and to make a full report on the subject at the end of each month.

Although most of the fortification work was not done by contrabands--most of the work was performed by white soldiers and civilian employees--they were used when available. The Military Defenses Southwest of the Potomac reported on July 11, 1862 that "there are a large number of Contraband employed as laborers on the forts and roads in this command." On August 1, 1862, Colonel Wagner, Second New York Artillery Regiment, learned that a party of contrabands would join him to "be employed in the new work in process of construction near Ft. Blenker." In November 1862, Barnard reported that he had 2 to 300 contrabands at work along the line from Fort DeKalb to Fort Worth. Alexander reported on July 31, 1864, that a gang of contrabands in the employment of the Quartermasters Department was removing the undergrowth of bushes springing up in front of the works. Thus, it was not strange for Alexander to state in his report of operations on the defenses during the month of July 1864, "This labor has been performed, under the direction of this office, partly by employees of the Q.M. Dept. and contrabands from Freedmen's Village, and partly by the garrisons of the different forts."

African American Soldiers in Washington DC

“This Department has no intention at present to call into the service of the Government any colored soldiers.” -Secretary of War Simon Cameron, April 29, 1861

The war's bloody escalation changed the Federal Government and War Department's regulations on the recruitment of African American soldiers. By 1862, African American units were organized in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Kansas. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, changing the legal status of enslaved African Americans in the rebellious states. The proclamation also authorized the recruiting and organization of African American men into Federal service:

"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." -President Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863

To properly organize, recruit, and train the new recruits, the War Department created the Bureau of Colored Troops.

No. 143
Washington, May 22, 1863.

I -- A Bureau is established in the Adjutant General's Office for the record of all matters relating to the organization of Colored Troops, An officer ,will be assigned to the charge of the Bureau, with such number of clerks as may be designated by the Adjutant General.

II -- Three or more field officers will be detailed as Inspectors to supervise the organization of colored troops at such points as may be indicated by the War Department in the Northern and Western States.

III -- Boards will be convened at such posts as may be decided upon by the War Department to examine applicants for commissions to command colored troops, who, on Application to the Adjutant General, may receive authority to present themselves to the board for examination.

IV -- No persons shall be allowed to recruit for colored troops except specially authorized by the War Department; and no such authority will be given to persons who have not been examined and passed by a board; nor will such authority be given any one person to raise more than one regiment.

V -- The reports of Boards will specify the grade of commission for which each candidate is fit, and authority to recruit will be given in accordance. Commissions will be issued from the Adjutant General's Office when the prescribed number of men is ready for muster into service.

VI -- Colored troops maybe accepted by companies, to be afterward consolidated in battalions and regiments by the Adjutant General. The regiments will be numbered seriatim, in the order in which they are raised, the numbers to be determined by the Adjutant General. They will be designated: "——Regiment of U. S. Colored Troops."

VII -- Recruiting stations and depots will be established by the Adjutant General as circumstances shall require, and officers will be detailed to muster and inspect the troops.

VIII -- The non-commissioned officers of colored troops may be selected and appointed from the best men of their number in the usual mode of appointing non-commissioned officers. Meritorious commissioned officers will be entitled to promotion to higher rank if they prove themselves equal to it.

IX -- All personal applications for appointments in colored regiments, or for information concerning them, must be made to the Chief of the Bureau; all written communications should be addressed to the Chief of the Bureau, to the care of the Adjutant General,


Edward D. TOWNSEND, Assistant Adjutant General.

United States Colored Troops (USCT) in DC

The 1st Regiment United States Colored Troops was organized in Washington DC. During the spring of 1863, two white Army chaplains, J.D. Turner and W.G. Raymond, began lobbying the President to raise a regiment from the District's swelling African American population. Lincoln approved their request and in the first week of May 1863 the two men began recruiting for the 1st District of Columbia Colored Volunteers. Scores of contrabands enlisted, and the chaplains also recruited soldiers from hospitals, prisons, and temporary refugee camps. These new recruits made their first public appearance less than two weeks later, marching through the streets of Washington on the afternoon of 15 May. Theodore Roosevelt Island (then known as Mason's Island) became the location for the 1st District of Columbia Colored Volunteers' training grounds and residence.

Although Washington was the seat of the Federal government, it was also a southern city with many residents sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and overtly hostile to the massive influx of African Americans. In this climate, racially motivated violence was not uncommon. In an effort to avoid such an altercation, the first two companies of volunteers were quickly relocated to Mason's Island (Roosevelt Island) on 19 May.

This removal was so secret that white recruiting officers were barred from visiting the island under penalty of arrest, and President Lincoln himself did not know where the colored soldiers were encamped. Despite this secrecy, a gang discovered their location and attacked in early June, severely wounding several soldiers before a detachment of Massachusetts troops arrived to protect them. The violence was probably spurred at least in part by War Department General Order No. 143, which, through the establishment of the Bureau of Colored Troops on 22 May 1863, allowed African Americans to serve in the Union Army as regular soldiers rather than volunteers. By 30 June, ten companies had been formed, all stationed on the island. On this day, the 1st District of Columbia Colored Troops was officially re-designated the 1st United States Colored Troops, the first African American regiment formally mustered into Federal service.

By 30 June, ten companies (700 men) had been formed, all stationed on the island, occupying barracks and buildings called Camp Greene. A month later, the regiment was ordered to the Department of Virginia where it served at Norfolk, Portsmouth and Yorktown until April 1864. The regiment saw service during the campaigns around Richmond and Petersburg for the remainder of the year, and later joined Federal operations in North Carolina, including the assault and capture Fort Fisher (Wilmington, NC) on January 15, 1865, and participated with Major General William T. Sherman's armies in the Campaign of the Carolinas (March-April 1865).

USCT in the Defenses of Washington

African American units served in the capital forts beginning in 1863 as unattached regiments in the training camps around Washington DC. The regiments were brigaded with other black units and later transferred to the front to serve in segregated divisions and corps with Union armies operating in Virginia and North Carolina.

It was not until the end of major hostilities that USCT regiments garrisoned the Defenses of Washington. The Bureau of Colored Troops organized the USCT regiments in 1863; recruits enlisted for 3-years of service. Consequently, African American soldiers remained in uniform as the majority of white troops were mustered out of Federal service. Their assignments included the capital defenses--20 forts remained active in June 1865. For example the 4th United States Colored Troops garrisoned the Northern Defenses and the Eastern Branch Line from October 1865-May 1866. The regiment was dispersed among the most strategically important defenses along the Maryland-Washington DC border, including forts that saw heavy action during the Battle of Fort Stevens in July 1864:

  • Companies A and I (Fort Sumner)
  • Company B (Fort Totten)
  • Companies C and H (Fort Stevens)
  • Company D (Fort Slocum)
  • Company E (Fort Lincoln)
  • Company F (Fort Mahan)
  • Companies G and K (Fort Reno)

Companies of the 107th United States Colored Troops garrisoned forts in the Arlington Line Defenses.The regiment was organized in Louisville, Kentucky in May 1864. The 107th was transferred east and served with the Federal 18th, 25th, and 10th Corps, participating in the Petersburg, Fort Fisher, Carolina Campaigns in 1864-65. After the surrender of Confederate forces in North Carolina in April 1865, the 107th was transferred to the Department of Washington to garrison the Defenses of Washington, including Fort Corcoran and Fort Woodbury. The 107th USCT was mustered out of Federal service on November 22, 1866.


Last updated: August 27, 2020

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