Union Compiled Military Service Records - Colored Troops
Military service records of United States Colored Troops (USCT) serving in the Union Army, 1861-65
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Much of the information presented here is published in NARA’s descriptive pamphlets for each title, and written by Budge Weidman and Michael F. Knight.They can be accessed through the linked publication numbers below.
United States Colored Troops
Since the time of the American Revolution, African Americans have volunteered to serve their country in time of war. The Civil War was no exception. Official sanction was the difficulty. In the fall of 1862 there were four Union regiments of African Americans raised in New Orleans, LA: the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard, and the 1st Louisiana Heavy Artillery (African Descent). The 1st South Carolina Infantry (African Descent) was not officially organized until January 1863; however, three companies of the regiment were on coastal expeditions as early as November 1862. Similarly, the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry was not mustered into Federal service until January 1863, even though the regiment had already participated in the action at Island Mound, MO, on October 27, 1862. These early unofficial regiments received little Federal support, but they showed the strength of the African-American soldier's desire to fight for freedom.
The first official authorization to employ African Americans in Federal service was the Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July 17, 1862. This act allowed President Abraham Lincoln to receive into the military or naval service persons of African descent and gave permission to use them for any purpose "he may judge best for the public welfare." However, the President did not authorize use of African Americans in combat until issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
In late January 1863, Gov. John Andrew of Massachusetts received permission to raise a regiment of African-American soldiers. The pace of organizing additional regiments was very slow. In March Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent Gen. Lorenzo Thomas to the lower Mississippi Valley to recruit free and contraband African Americans. Thomas was given broad authority. He was to explain the administration's policy regarding African-American soldiers and recruit volunteers to raise and command them. Stanton wanted all officers of such units to be white, but that policy was softened to allow African- American surgeons and chaplains. By the end of the war, in addition to the chaplains and surgeons, there were some 87 African-American officers. Thomas' endeavor was very successful, and on May 22, 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established to coordinate and organize regiments from all parts of the country. Created under War Department General Order No. 143, the bureau was responsible for handling "all matters relating to the organization of Colored Troops." The bureau was directly under the Adjutant General's Office and its procedures and rules were specific and strict. All African-American regiments were now to be designated United States Colored Troops (USCT). At this time there were some African- American regiments with state names and a few regiments in the Department of the Gulf designated as Corps d'Afrique. All these were ultimately assimilated into the USCT, even though some of the regiments retained their state designations.
To facilitate recruiting in the states of Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and eventually Kentucky, the War Department issued General Order No. 329 on October 3, 1863. Section 6 of the order stated that if any citizen should offer his or her slave for enlistment into the military service, that person would, "if such slave be accepted, receive from the recruiting officer a certificate thereof, and become entitled to compensation for the service or labor of said slave, not exceeding the sum of three hundred dollars, upon filing a valid deed of manumission and of release, and making satisfactory proof of title." For this reason, some records of manumission are contained in the compiled service records reproduced in this publication.
The USCT fought in 39 major engagements and over 400 lesser ones. Sixteen African-American soldiers received Medals of Honor. As it was in other units, the death toll from disease was very high in the USCT. Deaths from disease and battle totaled 37,000. The last regiment of the USCT was mustered out of Federal service in December 1867.
Important sources for information about African-American units in the Civil War are the War Department’s The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, DC: 1880-1901; reprinted Harrisburg, 1971 and 1985) and the Navy Department’s The War of the Rebellion; A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies (Washington, DC: 1874-1922; reprinted Harrisburg, 1971 and 1985.) These multivolume works contain reports of operations and other official correspondence.
Creation of U.S. Colored Troops
The general order to establish the United States Colored Troops is dated May 22, 1863. The 2-page image is available here.
Compiled service records consist of a jacket-envelope for each soldier, labeled with his name, rank, unit, and card numbers. The compilation of service records of Union soldiers began in 1890 under the direction of Col. Fred C. Ainsworth, head of the Record and Pension Office of the Adjutant General's Office, Department of War. Information from muster rolls, regimental returns, descriptive books, and other records was copied verbatim onto cards. A separate card was prepared each time an individual name appeared on a document. These cards were numbered on the back, and these numbers were entered onto the outside jacket containing the cards. The carded information was verified by a separated operation of comparison; great care was taken to ensure that the cards were accurate.
A typical jacket contains card abstracts of entries found in original records relating to the soldier and original documents relating solely to that soldier. Examples of the latter include enlistment papers, substitute certificates, casualty sheets, death reports, prisoner-of-war memorandums, and correspondence. Unique to the records of the USCT are deeds of manumission, oaths of allegiance, proof of ownership, certificates of monetary award, and bills of sale. These items appear most frequently in units recruited in the border states of Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland. These states remained in the Union but were slave states. Jackets and cards include a section labeled "bookmark" which was reserved for cross-references to other records relating to the individual or his unit.
The service records are arranged by arm of service, thereunder numerically by regiment or independent battalion or company, and thereunder alphabetically by name of the soldier. Records for officers are interfiled alphabetically by name with the records of enlisted men. If an individual served in more than one unit, which was typical for USCT officers, there will be a separate service record for each unit in which he served.
The unjacketed miscellaneous cards were accumulated by the War Department with the expectation that they would be incorporated in individual compiled service records. However, the expectation was never fulfilled, because either insufficient or contradictory information made it impossible to associate the cards or papers with a particular soldier's service records.
Stories within the records
James Underdue, a chaplain with the 39th USCT Infantry, requested a transfer to the Colored Hospital at Fortress Monroe in Virginia on March 10, 1865, stating that he “lost my health in the last expedition against Wilmington, NC and thereby rendered unfit for service with my regiment in the field, and having no desire to leave the Army." A few months previously, on November 28, 1864, he requested "a leave of absence for twenty days that I may visit my home in Philadelphia, PA. I have a child there which is very ill and not expected to live."
William C. Powell was a surgeon with the 127th USCT Infantry. He mustered in at Philadelphia on September 1, 1864, and mustered out at Brazos Santiago, Texas, on October 20, 1865. After the end of the war, he requested a five-day leave of absence, "Having lost (supposed to be stolen) a valuable horse on the march to Appomattox C.H." He believed the horse to be "in the possession of a Lieut Wilks in the 116th."
Isham Wilburn, a private in the 6th USCT Infantry, also known as the 4th Missouri, “died of disease” in a New Orleans hospital on April 28, 1865, of “wounds received in action” at Blakely, Alabama, April 9, 1865. The wound was a gunshot wound on his left arm. The Battle of Fort Blakely is widely considered to be the last major battle of the Civil War. In its battle detail for Fort Blakely, the National Park Service reports “The siege and capture of Fort Blakely was basically the last combined-force battle of the war. African-American forces played a major role in the successful Union assault.”
The Inventory of his possessions at death indicates he left no effects. He did leave a widow and four children behind, as evidenced within the Civil War Widows' Pension file for his wife. The children are listed as Isam, Charles, Amy, and George. The evidence presented for their birth dates was copied "from the Wm. Smith Family Record (Bible)" by William Smith "who was my master."
There are many more stories like these among the USCT Compiled Military Service Records. Also, as with Private Wilburn, there are plenty of opportunities to connect with more of the soldiers' stories by looking at other titles as well. Enjoy your discoveries.
Among the records of the Adjutant General's Office in the National Archives are many of the original records that were abstracted or "carded" by the Record and Pension Office. These include the individual unit’s muster rolls, returns and descriptive books. Other series in RG 94 that contain information relating to volunteer Union soldiers who served with the USCT include carded records relating to Union staff officers, carded medical records of volunteer Union soldiers, unbound and bound regimental records and "record of events" cards. The regimental records of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored) have been reproduced as Microfilm Publication M1659, Records of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment (Colored), 1863-1865.
The "record of events" cards include information copied from the unit’s muster rolls and returns. They show the stations of the field and staff and those of the various companies of the regiment at the time the muster roll or return was prepared and sometimes mention battles, skirmishes, or other activities in which the regiment participated. The cards have been reproduced as Microfilm Publication M594, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Volunteer Union Organizations.
Record Group 94 also includes a card index for the USCT, reproduced as Microfilm Publication M589, Index to Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with U.S. Colored Troops, which may be used to locate the regiment of USCT personnel. An index card gives the name of the soldier and his rank, as well as the unit in which he served; sometimes there is a cross-reference to his service in other units or organizations. The National Archives is continually producing microfilm publications of volunteer Union compiled military service records. A complete listing of finished publications can be found in the National Archives Microfilm Resources for Research: A Comprehensive Catalog which is available online at http://www.nara.gov.
The Records of the Colored Troops Division, within RG 94, include division correspondence and records relating to recruiting, the appointment of officers, and the slave or free status of individuals; and a compilation of historical extracts and official papers concerning the military service of African Americans from the colonial period through the Civil War entitled The Negro in the Military Service of the United States 1639-1886. This compilation is reproduced as Microfilm Publication M858. The Records of the Bounty and Claims Division, also in RG 94, include correspondence of the division and records relating to bounties and claims paid to loyal owners of slaves by the Slave Claims Commissions of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
If an application for a pension was made, the pension application case file may be among the Records of the Veterans Administration (RG 15). Indexes to the pension applications have been reproduced as Microfilm Publication T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934, and T289, Organizational Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900.
If a soldier or officer was tried before a general court-martial or if an individual or his unit was the subject of a court of inquiry or military commission, transcripts of the proceedings may be among the Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Army) (RG 153). The registers to the proceedings have been reproduced as Microfilm Publication M1105, Registers of the Records of the Proceedings of the U.S. Army General Courts-Martial, 1809-1890.
Other record groups having information pertaining to the USCT include Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (RG 105); Records of the Provost Marshal General's Bureau (Civil War) (RG 110); Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury (RG 217); and Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920 (RG 393).
Holdings of the National Archives relating to the Civil War are outlined in Kenneth W. Munden and Henry Putnam Beers, Guide to Federal Archives Relating to the Civil War (Washington, DC: National Archives, 1962) and Henry Putnam Beers, Guide to the Archives of the Government of the Confederate States of America (Washington, DC: National Archives, 1968), which were reprinted as The Union (1986) and The Confederacy (1986).
NARA's Prologue Blog: The 150th Anniversary of the United States Colored Troops
Source - from microfilm
These images are reproduced documents which are part of the Records of the Adjutant General's Office 1780-1917, Record Grou (RG) 94.
NARA has published descriptive pamphlets (DP) on the following titles. A great deal of information, including the history of colored troops in the Civil War, will be found within these pamphlets. The first link to the NARA publication number will take you to the DP to view or download. The second link, "Explore...," will take you to a Fold3 page to search or browse further within that specific title.
NARA M1817. Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served With the United States Colored Troops: 1st through 5th United States Colored Cavalry; 5th Massachusetts Cavalry (Colored); 6th United States Colored Cavalry. Explore NARA M1817.
NARA M1819. Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served With the United States Colored Troops: 1st United States Colored Infantry; 1st South Carolina Volunteers (Colored); Company A, 1st United States Colored Infantry (1 Year). Explore NARA 1819.
NARA M1820. Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served With the United States Colored Troops, 2nd through 7th Colored Infantry: 2d through 7th Colored Infantry, including 3d Tennessee Volunteers (African Descent); 6th Louisiana Infantry (African Descent); and 7th Louisiana Infantry (African Descent). Explore NARA 1820.
NARA M1821. Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served With the United States Colored Troops: Infantry Organizations, 8th through 13th, including the 11th (new). Explore NARA 1821.
NARA M1824. Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served With the United States Colored Troops: Infantry Organizations, 26th through 30th, including the 29th Connecticut Infantry (Colored). Explore NARA M1824.
View a list of all NARA Titles Available on Fold3.
Source - from paper records
Compiled military service records of volunteer Union soldiers belonging to the 56th through 138th infantry units were digitized from textual records.
From the following Fold3 title page, you can search, browse, and see what others are finding within these documents:
View a list of all NARA Titles Available on Fold3.