Missouri Digital Heritage :: Education :: United States Colored Troops :: History of U.S. Colored Troops

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United States Colored Troops in Missouri:
Finding African American History at the Missouri State Archives

History of United States Colored Troops

During the Civil War, over 8,000 black Missourians served in the Union Army. They were not treated the same as white soldiers. They were not paid as much and their weapons and uniforms were inferior and of poor quality. But these African American soldiers fought for something they believed in -- freedom from slavery.

The Civil War started on April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Many African American men wanted to fight for the Union. Some were free blacks and others were former slaves. They tried to volunteer at recruiting stations, but were turned away. The Union Army did not want black soldiers.

President Abraham Lincoln had trouble deciding whether to recruit black soldiers. Eleven slave states had already left, or seceded from, the United States. There were four more states that allowed slavery. These four states - Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware - were called "border states" because they were in between the southern states that seceded and the northern states. President Lincoln was afraid that if he allowed black men to fight, thereby emancipating them, those last four slave states would secede, too. He hoped that the war could be won quickly without using African American soldiers.

However, President Lincoln did not realize how hard the Confederate Army would fight. It won several battles, such as Bull Run in Virginia, and Wilson's Creek in southwest Missouri. Many soldiers from both sides were killed and wounded. But Lincoln still would not allow black soldiers to fight.

Some officers thought African Americans should be part of the Union Army. They tried to form regiments of black volunteers to fight, but the War Department forced them to stop.

By July 1862, the United States Congress passed a law allowing African Americans to serve in the Union Army as laborers or cooks or wagon drivers. The law still did not allow black soldiers. But abolitionist General Jim Lane organized a black regiment in Kansas. It was called the 1 st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment. It included former slaves from Missouri, Arkansas, and the Indian Territory. The regiment's first battle was at Island Mound, Missouri, in October 1862. By January 1863, the regiment was mustered into the regular Union Army, and it was renamed the 79 th United States Colored Infantry Regiment (New).

In August 1862, the War Department decided to officially allow the Union Army to recruit African American soldiers. It also said that any slave who fought would be declared free. This meant freedom for their wives and children, too.

Each state recruited its own black soldiers. In early 1864, all the units with African Americans were designated the United States Colored Troops (USCT), with a few exceptions. Each unit in the USCT was assigned a regiment number. The men who enlisted in the USCT came from many different states and backgrounds.

The USCT had an estimated 160 to 170 regiments of infantry, cavalry, heavy artillery, and light artillery. During the Civil War, most regiments consisted of up to 1,000 soldiers. It was hard to keep accurate records. The regiment numbers changed sometimes and some units were deactivated. The total number of African American soldiers is thought to have been between 176,000 and 200,000. There were also African American men and women civilians, perhaps as many as 200,000, who worked as scouts, spies, cooks, teamsters, or chaplains.

The United States Colored Troops made up about ten percent of the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Another 19,000 African Americans served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died in battle or from infection or disease. Though reluctantly accepted into the military, black soldiers consistently proved their courage during the fighting.