Background of the USCT's

"Who would be free themselves must strike the blow....I urge you to fly to arms and smite to death the power that would bury the Government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave. This is your golden opportunity."
Frederick Douglass



WHEREVER black regiments were engaged in battle during the Civil War, they acquitted themselves in a manner which fully justified the policy of the Government in enlisting their services. In the future wars of the Republic the colored American will find himself entrusted with his full share of the fighting.
And yet, the war for the Union was not the first one in which the African fought for the Stars and Stripes. Black faces were not uncommon among the ranks of the patriots in 1776. The first man to fall in that struggle was the negro who led the mob in its attack on the British troops at the Boston Massacre. At Bunker Hill, the free negroes fought intermingled with the whites; and, when Major Pitcairn was killed, it was by a bullet from a negro's rifle. At the battle of Rhode Island, Colonel Greene's black regiment repulsed three successive charges, during which they handled a Hessian regiment severely. In the war of 1812, General Jackson issued a proclamation authorizing the formation of black regiments, and, subsequently, in an address to the colored troops thus enlisted, acknowledged their services in unstinted praise.
But, at the time of the Civil War the negro was closely associated in the public mind with the political causes of the strife. The prejudice and opposition against the use of colored troops was so strong that the war was half finished before they were organized to any extent.
The first appearance of the negro in the military operations of that period occurred, September, 1862, in Cincinnati, at the time of the threatened invasion by Morgan's raiders. A so-called Black Brigade of three regiments was then organized, and assigned to duty in constructing the fortifications and earthworks about Cincinnati. These men gave their services voluntarily, but were unarmed and without uniforms. Their organization, such as it was, existed for three weeks only, and had no connection with the movement for enlisting colored troops.
About this same time General Butler took the initiative in the enlistment of colored men as soldiers, by organizing at new Orleans the regiments known as the Louisiana Native Guards, one of which completed its organization in August, 1862, and was mustered into service on the 27th of the following month. It was designated the First Louisiana Native Guard, and was the first black regiment to join the Union Army. The Second Louisiana Native Guard was mustered in, October 12, 1862; the Third, on November 24, 1862. the other regiments of the Guard, or Corps d'Afrique as it was called, completed their organizations within a few months later.
At this time, also, in August, 1862, recruiting for, a colored regiment was commenced in Kansas, and over 600 men were soon mustered in. The regiment, however, was not mustered into the United States service until January 13, 1863. It was then designated the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, but its name was changed, in December, 1864, to the 79th United States Colored Infantry.
Recruiting for a black regiment had, also, been undertaken in South Carolina by General Hunter, and an officer, Sergeant C. T. Trowbridge, had been detailed for that purpose as early as May 7, 1862. The recruiting progressed slowly, and was attended with so many difficulties and discouragements that a complete regimental organization was not effected until Jan. 31, 1863. Some of the companies, however, were organized at an earlier date. Colonel T. W. Higginson was assigned to the command of this regiment, his commission dating back to November 10, 1862. Trowbridge was made Captain of the first company organized, and subsequently promoted to the Lieutenant-Colonelcy. This regiment, First South Carolina, was the first slave regiment organized, the Louisiana Native Guard having been recruited largely from free blacks. The designation of the First South Carolina was changed by the War' Department, in February, 1864, to Thirty-third United States Colored Infantry.
Recruiting for the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts commenced in February, 1863, and its ten companies were full by May. It was the first colored regiment raised in a Northern State, the First Kansas having been recruited largely in Missouri, and partly from enslaved blacks. The Fifty-fourth was composed mostly of free men, and its recruits came from all the Northern States, it being their first opportunity to enlist.
By this time the movement had become general, and before the war closed the colored troops embraced 145 regiments of infantry, 7 of cavalry, 12 of heavy artillery, 1 of light artillery, and 1 of engineers; total, 166. Of these, about 60 were brought into action on the battle field, the others having been assigned to post or garrison duty.
Of the regiments brought into action, only a few were engaged in more than one battle; the war was half over, and so the total of killed does not appear as great as it otherwise would have done. The total number killed or mortally wounded in the colored troops was 143 officers, and 2,751 men. The officers were whites. Though participating only in the latter campaigns of the war, the black regiments made a noble record, and if, at times, they failed to win victories, it was through no fault of theirs.
The first action in which colored troops were engaged was an affair at Island Mounds, Mo., October 28, 1862, in which a detachment of the First Kansas was attacked by a superior number of Confederates under command of Colonel Cockerel. Although outnumbered, they made a successful resistance and scored a victory. Their loss was 10 killed, including a Captain, and 12 wounded. The First Kansas, also, lost 16 men killed on May 18, 1863, in a minor engagement at Sherwood, Mo.
In the assault on Port Hudson, La., May 27, 1863, colored troops were used for the first time in a general engagement. The Nineteenth Army Corps, during its besiegement of that stronghold, included several colored regiments in its organization. There were the First and Third Louisiana Native Guards; The First Louisiana Engineers, Corps d'Afrique; and, the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Infantry, Corps d'Afrique. During the siege the First Louisiana Native Guards lost 2 officers and 32 men killed, and 3 officers and 92 men wounded (including the mortally wounded); total, 129. But few regiments in the Nineteenth Corps sustained a greater loss. The other regiments of the Corps d'Afrique were actively engaged, but with fewer casualties. The First Louisiana Native Guard was attached to Augur's (1st) Division, and participated in the assaults of May 27th and June 14th, in which its principal loss occurred, its dead lying among those nearest the enemy's works. This regiment should not be confounded with the First Louisiana Infantry, also of Augur's Division, --a white regiment which, also, sustained a severe loss at Port Hudson.
On June 7th, 1863, the colored troops composing the garrison at Milliken's Bend, La., were attacked by Walker's Division numbering 3,000 men. The garrison consisted of three colored regiments: the Ninth Louisiana, Eleventh Louisiana, and First Mississippi. In addition there were 200 men of the 23d Iowa (white) who had been escorting prisoners up the river, and were on their return to the front. The regiments were small, many of the men, and most of the officers, being absent on recruiting service or other duty. When attacked the garrison was driven back to the river, where two gunboats came to their assistance. The troops then made a counter charge, regaining possession of their works and capturing several prisoners. The fighting was desperate in the extreme, many of the combatants on each side falling by bayonet thrusts or blows from clubbed muskets. The loss, as officially stated by the Assistant Secretary of War, who was then at Vicksburg, amounted to:

Regiment. Killed. Wounded. Total.
9th Louisiana 62 130 192
11th Louisiana 30 120 150
1st Mississippi 3 21 24
23d Iowa (white) 26 60 86

With the wounded are included those who were mortally wounded. Captain Miller, of the Ninth Louisiana, states that his regiment had only 300 men engaged, and that the whole force of the garrison was about 600 men.
The next action in which colored troops were engaged was the grand assault on Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863. To the 54th Massachusetts Colored was assigned the honor of leading the attack, and after the troops were formed on the beach, ready for the assault, the order to advance was withheld until the Fifty-fourth could march by and take position at the head of the column. The assault failed; but, not until the Colonel of the Fifty-fourth and many of his men had fallen dead on the parapet, or within the fort. The loss of the regiment in this affair was--3 officers and 31 men killed, 11 officers and 135 men wounded (including those mortally so), and 92 men missing; total, 279 -- out of 650 engaged. An impression has gained ground that no quarter was given to black troops; and, that the 92 missing or captured men met their death in the fort, after they had surrendered. But the official records show that 49 of these men died of disease in Confederate prisons, and that others of the captured men returned at the close of the war, rejoining their regiment before its muster-out.
One of the severest regimental losses during the war, occurred in the Eighth United States Colored Infantry, at the battle of Olustee, Fla., February 20, 1864. It lost there 2 officers and 49 men killed, 9 officers and 180 men wounded, and 63 missing; total, 303. The missing ones were, mostly, dead or wounded men who were left on the field; for, in this action the Confederates held possession of the ground, General Seymour's forces being obliged to retreat. Colonel Fribley of the Eighth was among the killed. The number of the killed was increased to 87 by those who died of wounds,and certain ones who were erroneously included with the missing. This same regiment distinguished itself, also, at Chaffin's Farm.
Upon the opening of the spring campaign in 1864, colored troops were a common feature of the armies before Richmond. Ferrero's Division of the Ninth Corps, and Hinks' Division of the Eighteenth Corps, were composed entirely of black regiments. In the first attack on Petersburg, June 15, 1864, Hinks' Division achieved a brilliant success, capturing the line of works in its front, and seven pieces of artillery. Had the Army of the Potomac arrived in time to follow up the success of the colored troops, Petersburg would have been taken then; but, by the time that the Eighteenth corps was reƫnforced, Lee's army had hurried thither by rail and were filing into the intrenchments. The opportunity was gone. In this assault of June 15th, the casualty lists show that the temporary success of the Colored Division was dearly obtained. Among the heavier losses were:

Regiment Killed Wounded Missing Total
4th U.S. Colored Infantry 15 110 10 135
22d U.S. Colored Infantry 14 116 8 138

The first opportunity to go into action granted Ferrero's Division, was at the Mine Explosion, or battle of The Crater, at Petersburg, July 30, 1864. This division was selected to lead the assault; but, at the last moment, the order was changed and it was sent in last. It was not ordered forward until the assault was a bloody failure, and although it did all that men could do, it was unable to retrieve the disaster. This change of plan relieved the colored regiments of all responsibilty for that defeat. Still, they fought bravely, and held their ground under the most discouraging circumstances. How well they stood is attested by their terrible losses.

JULY 30, 1864.

Regiment. Killed. Wounded. Missing. Total.
23rd U.S. Colored Infantry 74 115 121 310
29th U.S. Colored Infantry 21 56 47 124
31st U.S. Colored Infantry 27 42 66 135
43rd U.S. Colored Infantry 14 86 23 123
30th U.S. Colored Infantry 18 104 78 200
39th U.S. Colored Infantry 13 97 47 157
28th U.S. Colored Infantry 11 64 13 88
27th U.S. Colored Infantry 9 46 90 75
19th U.S. Colored Infantry 22 87 6 115
Total 209 697 421 1,327

To any one familiar with the extent of regimental losses in action, these figures tell a heroic story.
Hard fighting was also done by colored troops at Chaffin's Farm, September 29, 1864, where Paine's Division (colored)of the Eighteenth Corps, and Birney's Colored Brigade of the Tenth Corps--in all, about 10,000 strong--were actively engaged. These troops participated in the assaults on Fort Gilmer and the intrenchments at New Market Heights. Among the regiments sustaining the heaviest losses were the following:

Regiment. Killed. Wounded. Missing. Total.
6th U.S. Colored Infantry 41 160 8 209
5th U.S. Colored Infantry 28 185 23 236
4th U.S. Colored Infantry 97 137 14 178
36th U.S. Colored Infantry 21 87 -- 108
38th U.S. Colored Infantry 17 94 -- 111

The Sixth had only 367 officers and men engaged, its loss being over 57 per cent. The troops in Paine's Division were the same ones which carried the works at Petersburg, June 15, 1864.
In the action on the Darbytown Road, Va., October 27, 1864, the Twenty-ninth Connecticut (colored) distinguished itself by the efficiency with which it held a skirmish line for several hours, under a strong pressure. Loss, 11 killed and 69 wounded.
Two brigades of colored troops participated in the victory at Nashville, December 15, 1864. The heaviest loss in any regiment on that field occurred in the Thirteenth U.S. Colored Infantry, which, in its assault on Overton Hill, lost 55 killed (including 4 officers), and 166 wounded; total, 221.
The severest loss at the battle of Honey Hill, S.C., November 30, 1864, fell on a black regiment, the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts, which lost in that action, 29 killed, and 115 wounded; total, 144.
In the closing battle of the war--the victorious assault on Fort Blakely, Ala., April 9, 1865--a colored division bore a conspicuous and honorable part. Among the casualties in that engagement the following are worthy of note:

Regiment. Killed. Wounded. Missing. Total.
68th U.S. Colored Infantry 10 91 -- 101
76th U.S. Colored Infantry 13 78 -- 91

In addition to the battles heretofore mentioned, colored troops were prominently engaged in the following actions:

Morris Island, S.C. James Island, S.C. Liverpool Heights, Miss.
Yazoo City, Miss. Pleasant Hill, La. Prairie d'Ann, Ark.
Poison Springs, Ark. Camden, Ark. Jenkins' Ferry, Ark.
Saline River, Ark. Fort Pillow, Tenn. Natural Bridge, Fla.
Morganzia, La. Jacksonville, Fla. Brice's Cross Roads, Miss.
Tupelo, Miss. Athens, Ala. Drewry's Bluff, Va.
Bermuda Hundred, Va. Dutch Gap, Va. Deep Bottom, Va.
Darbytown Road, Va. Hatcher's Run, Va. Fair Oaks, Va.
Saltville, Va. Deveaux Neck, S.C. Boykin's Mills, S.C.
Cox's Bridge, N.C. Fort Fisher, N.C. Wilmington, N.C.
Spanish Fort, Ala. Fall of Richmond. Appomattox, Va.

They rendered effective and meritorious services in many of these engagements, and, in some of them, sustained serious losses.

From Fox's Regimental Losses

Last updated: February 1, 2018

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