Black Civil War Soldiers - Facts, Death Toll and Enlistment

Black Civil War Soldiers - Facts, Death Toll and Enlistment

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation: “All persons held as slaves within any States…in rebellion against the United States,” it declared, “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” (The more than 1 million enslaved people in the loyal border states and in the Union-occupied parts of Louisiana and Virginia were not affected by this proclamation.) It also declared that “such persons [that is, African-American men] of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States.” For the first time, Black soldiers could fight for the U.S. Army.

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A “White Man’s War”?

Black soldiers had fought in the Revolutionary War and—unofficially—in the War of 1812, but state militias had excluded African Americans since 1792. The U.S. Army had never accepted Black soldiers. Navy, on the other hand, was more progressive: There, African Americans had been serving as shipboard firemen, stewards, coal heavers and even boat pilots since 1861.

After the Civil War broke out, abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass argued that the enlistment of Black soldiers would help the North win the war and would be a huge step in the fight for equal rights: “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 pocket,” Douglass said, “and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” However, this is just what President Lincoln was afraid of: He worried that arming African Americans, particularly former or escaped slaves, would push the loyal border states to secede. This, in turn, would make it almost impossible for the Union to win the war.

READ MORE: 6 Black Heroes of the Civil War

The Second Confiscation and Militia Act (1862)

However, after two grueling years of war, President Lincoln began to reconsider his position on Black soldiers. The war did not appear to be anywhere near an end, and the Union Army badly needed soldiers. White volunteers were dwindling in number, and African-Americans were more eager to fight than ever.

The Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July 17, 1862, was the first step toward the enlistment of African Americans in the Union Army. It did not explicitly invite Black people to join the fight, but it did authorize the president “to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion…in such manner as he may judge best for the public welfare.”

Some Black people took this as their cue to begin forming infantry units of their own. African Americans from New Orleans formed three National Guard units: the First, Second and Third Louisiana Native Guard. (These became the 73rd, 74th and 75th United States Colored Infantry.) The First Kansas Colored Infantry (later the 79th United States Colored Infantry) fought in the October 1862 skirmish at Island Mound, Missouri. And the First South Carolina Infantry, African Descent (later the 33rd United States Colored Infantry) went on its first expedition in November 1862. These unofficial regiments were officially mustered into service in January 1863.

The 54th Massachusetts

Early in February 1863, the abolitionist Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts issued the Civil War’s first official call for Black soldiers. More than 1,000 men responded. They formed the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first Black regiment to be raised in the North. Many of the 54th soldiers did not even come from Massachusetts: one-quarter came from slave states, and some came from as far away as Canada and the Caribbean. To lead the 54th Massachusetts, Governor Andrew chose a young white officer named Robert Gould Shaw.

On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts stormed Fort Wagner, which guarded the Port of Charleston, in South Carolina. It was the first time in the Civil War that Black troops led an infantry attack. Unfortunately, the 600 men of the 54th were outgunned and outnumbered: 1,700 Confederate soldiers waited inside the fort, ready for battle. Almost half of the charging Union soldiers, including Colonel Shaw, were killed.

READ MORE: The 54th Massachusetts Infantry

Confederate Threats

In general, the Union army was reluctant to use African American troops in combat. This was partly due to racism: There were many Union officers who believed that Black soldiers were not as skilled or as brave as white soldiers were. By this logic, they thought that African Americans were better suited for jobs as carpenters, cooks, guards, scouts and teamsters.

Black soldiers and their officers were also in grave danger if they were captured in battle. Confederate President Jefferson Davis called the Emancipation Proclamation “the most execrable measure in the history of guilty man” and promised that Black prisoners of war would be enslaved or executed on the spot. (Their white commanders would likewise be punished—even executed—for what the Confederates called “inciting servile insurrection.”) Threats of Union reprisal against Confederate prisoners forced Southern officials to treat Black soldiers who had been free before the war somewhat better than they treated Black soldiers who were formerly enslaved—but in neither case was the treatment particularly good. Union officials tried to keep their troops out of harm’s way as much as possible by keeping most Black soldiers away from the front lines.

The Fight for Equal Pay

Even as they fought to end slavery in the Confederacy, African-American Union soldiers were fighting against another injustice as well. Army paid Black soldiers $10 a week (minus a clothing allowance, in some cases), while white soldiers got $3 more (plus a clothing allowance, in some cases). Congress passed a bill authorizing equal pay for Black and white soldiers in 1864.

By the time the war ended in 1865, about 180,000 Black men had served as soldiers in the U.S. Army. This was about 10 percent of the total Union fighting force. Most—about 90,000—were former (or “contraband”) enslaved people from the Confederate states. About half of the rest were from the loyal border states, and the rest were free Black people from the North. Forty thousand Black soldiers died in the war: 10,000 in battle and 30,000 from illness or infection.

The Civil War's Black Soldiers

No doubt, the costliest aspect of discrimination in the Union army was its medical care. Throughout the Civil War medical care was for the most part dreadful, but for black soldiers it was especially horrible and at times reprehensible. Men in the USCT served a disproportionate amount of duty in the most unhealthy environments, suffered from a shortage of qualified physicians and staff, endured the abuse of racist surgeons, and lost countless lives to separate and woefully unequal hospital facilities. All this resulted in a mortality rate from illness of two and one-half times per one thousand men greater than for white soldiers.

Illnesses took a much heavier proportionate toll on the USCT than they did on white volunteer units. Like most new white enlistees, many of the black troops had no previous exposure to the diseases that roared through military camps. Compounding that misery, authorities assigned black commands to the most unhealthy locations, mainly to perform occupation duties, because they assumed they were immune to all tropical diseases. As weeks and months passed in garrison, camp sanitary problems invariably magnified, and the ensuing illnesses inflicted fearful losses among black men in Union blue.


According to official medical records, the surgeons and assistant surgeons in the USCT cared for over 600,000 illnesses and 10,000 wounds among enlisted men. This figure not only understated the number of cases significantly, it excluded health issues among officers of black units from the count.

Serious personnel shortages in the medical area enhanced the burden. Since many white doctors refused to serve in a black regiment and there were so few qualified black physicians, regiments usually functioned with just one or two surgeons, even though the War Department authorized three. Trained nurses and hospital stewards could have eased the workload and maintained proper sanitation in regimental hospitals, but they, too, were in short supply. Volunteer physicians and nurses, who improved the lot for sick and wounded white troops so regularly, seldom offered their services to black regiments. Under these circumstances, it was not unusual for a solitary surgeon to care for an entire regiment, and on a few occasions a soldier had to treat other soldiers because there was no one else to do it.

Despite the small number of health workers, black soldiers almost always received their best care on the regimental level. There were, of course, tremendous demands on the physicians and limited facilities, but the physicians who received commissions in the USCT were for the most part competent. With the entire unit stationed nearby, soldiers had direct channels for their complaints, and regimental commanders could oversee the hospital organization and rectify problems as they developed.

Because of the limited staff on the regimental level, when soldiers became very ill or suffered serious wounds or injuries, medical officers were supposed to send the patients to more advanced facilities, usually division, post, or general hospitals. The problem was that most black commands performed occupation duties and seldom constituted even brigades until late in the war, so that there were few division hospitals for them. Usually the institutions for severe cases were post or general hospitals, which were outside the direct chain of command for the USCT and regularly had separate and grossly unequal facilities for blacks and whites. Physicians who worked at these hospitals were not part of the USCT, demonstrated little concern for the plight of black soldiers, and their neglect caused unnecessary pain, suffering, and even death for their black patients. Time after time, post or general hospitals for black troops were understaffed and extremely unsanitary, and mortality rates were dramatically higher than in adjacent or near by facilities for whites.


As a result of such woeful and discriminatory medical care, nine times as many black troops died of disease as on the battlefield. Over 29,000 lost their lives from illness, with pneumonia, dysentery, typhoid fever, and malaria taking the heaviest tolls on the black ranks. Within specific commands, the number of deaths was sometimes staggering. A black heavy artillery regiment lost over eight hundred men to illness, and one infantry regiment, in service less than one year, suffered 524 deaths, 50 percent of its strength.

Black Confederates: Truth and Legend

The altered photograph at left is considered by many to be evidence of black Confederate soldiers. However, the photograph has been intentionally cropped and mislabeled. The photograph is presented in its original state at right, in which a Union officer is clearly shown. 1,500 free blacks formed the "1st Louisiana Native Guards" in the early days of the war, but they were ordered to disband by the Confederacy in January 1862. Some of the men of the unit later joined the Union Army. This photograph is of a Union U.S.C.T unit. The University of Virginia Freed slaves smile for the camera amidst the ruins of Richmond in 1865. Library of Congress

T he lives of Southern black people changed immeasurably during the war years. In the midst of a see-saw struggle that promised freedom as well as desolation, these men, women, and children made difficult and highly personal decisions in extraordinary circumstances.

Many Southern slaves took advantage of the fog of war to escape towards freedom. Before the Emancipation Proclamation was officially adopted, these escapes usually meant congregating around the Union armies that were operating in Southern territory. Vast columns of escaped slaves followed almost every major Union army at one point or another. These people, sometimes called “contrabands,” as in “confiscated enemy property,” frequently served as scouts and spies for the Union soldiers.

When the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, Union forces had regained control of large swaths of the South. Although many now claim that the Proclamation was effectively useless because it established policy for a foreign nation, the practical reality is that the Union, by force of arms, had every necessary power to establish policy in its occupied territories, just as Confederate armies exercised their power to capture and enslave free black people during their brief occupations of Northern territories.

After the Proclamation, the refugees in the contraband camps, along with free black people throughout the North, began to enlist in the Union Army in even greater proportion than Northern white men. After some time in legal limbo, many Southern black men took up arms against their former masters and distinguished themselves on campaign and on the battlefield. By the time the war was over, black soldiers made up 10% of the Union Army and had suffered more than 10,000 combat casualties.

Some black Southerners aided the Confederacy. Most of these were forced to accompany their masters or were forced to toil behind the lines. Black men were not legally allowed to serve as combat soldiers in the Confederate Army--they were cooks, teamsters, and manual laborers. There were no black Confederate combat units in service during the war and no documentation whatsoever exists for any black man being paid or pensioned as a Confederate soldier, although some did receive pensions for their work as laborers. Nevertheless, the black servants and the Confederate soldiers formed bonds in the shared crucible of conflict, and many servants later attended regimental reunions with their wartime comrades.

This is not to say that no black man ever fired a gun for the Confederacy. To be specific, in the “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion,” a collection of military records from both sides which spans more than 50 volumes and more than 50,000 pages, there are a total of seven Union eyewitness reports of black Confederates. Three of these reports mention black men shooting at Union soldiers, one report mentions capturing a handful of armed black men along with some soldiers, and the other three reports mention seeing unarmed black laborers. There is no record of Union soldiers encountering an all-black line of battle or anything close to it.

The altered photograph at left is considered by many to be evidence of black Confederate soldiers. However, the photograph has been intentionally cropped and mislabeled. The photograph is presented in its original state at right, in which a Union officer is clearly shown. 1,500 free blacks formed the "1st Louisiana Native Guards" in the early days of the war, but they were ordered to disband by the Confederacy in January 1862. Some of the men of the unit later joined the Union Army. This photograph is of a Union U.S.C.T unit. The University of Virginia

In those same Official Records, no Confederate ever references having black soldiers under his command or in his unit, although references to black laborers are common. The non-existence of black combat units is further indicated by the records of debates in the Confederate Congress over the issue of black enlistment. The idea was repeatedly rejected until, on March 13, 1865, the Confederate Congress passed a law to allow black men to serve in combat roles, although with the provision “that nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize a change in the relation which the said slaves shall bear toward their owners,” i.e. that black soldiers would still be slaves.

Robert Toombs was the Confederacy's first Secretary of State and a general in Robert E. Lee's army. His response to the decision to enlist black soldiers in the Confederate Army appeared in a June 1865 edition of the Augusta Chronicle.

Active fighting ended less than three weeks after the law was passed, and there is no evidence that any black units were accepted into the Confederate Army as a result of the law. Whatever black combat service might have occurred during the war, it was not sanctioned by the Confederate government. Even beyond the Official Records, there is no known letter, diary entry, or any other primary source in which a Confederate mentions serving with black soldiers.

In the years shortly after the war, hundreds of prominent Southerners wrote and spoke about “the Lost Cause,” a vision of the war in which the South was fighting to secure state rights and in which slavery was a secondary concern. None of these Southerners ever mentioned black soldiers fighting for the South, although it would have been a good time to present such evidence if there was any truth behind it. The notion of widespread black combat service has only arisen within the past 25 years or so, long past the life-span of real veterans from either side, who would have immediately denied its legitimacy.

The modern myth of black Confederate soldiers is akin to a conspiracy theory—shoddy analysis has been presented, repeated, amplified, and twisted to such an extent that utterly baseless claims of as many as 80,000 black soldiers fighting for the Confederacy (which would roughly equal the size of Lee’s army at Gettysburg) have even made their way into classroom textbooks. It is right to study, discover, and share facts about the complex lives of 19th century black Americans. It is wrong to exaggerate, obfuscate, and ignore those facts in order to suit 21st century opinions.

Black Soldiers in the Civil War

By Budge Weidman

The compiled military service records of the men who served with the United States Colored Troops (USCT) during the Civil War number approximately 185,000, including the officers who were not African American. This major collection of records rests in the stacks of the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA). They are little used, and their content is largely undiscovered. 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 at least three Union regiments of African Americans raised in New Orleans, Louisiana: the First, Second, and Third Louisiana Native Guard. These units later became the First, Second, and Third Infantry, Corps d'Afrique, and then the Seventy-third, Seventy-fourth, and Seventy-fifth United States Colored Infantry (USCI). The First 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. They would become the Thirty-third USCI. Similarly, the First Kansas Colored Infantry (later the Seventy-ninth [new] USCI) was not mustered into service until January 1863, even though the regiment had already participated in the action at Island Mound, Missouri, on October 27, 1862. These early unofficial regiments received little federal support, but they showed the strength of African Americans' 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 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: "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." With these words the Union army changed.

In late January 1863, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts received permission to raise a regiment of African American soldiers. This was the first black regiment to be organized in the North. The pace of organizing additional regiments, however, was very slow. In an effort to change this, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent Gen. Lorenzo Thomas to the lower Mississippi valley in March to recruit African Americans. Thomas was given broad authority. He was to explain the administration's policy regarding these new recruits, and he was to find 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, there were at least eighty-seven African American officers in the Union army. Thomas's 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 a small number of the regiments retained their state designations.

The Project

In February 1994, NARA began a pilot project to test procedures to arrange the compiled service records of Union volunteers prior to microfilming. This effort was made in conjunction with the National Park Service's Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS). The CWSS is a computerized database identifying combatants from the Union and the Confederacy. The data will include the name of the soldier or sailor and the regiment or ship to which he belonged. In addition, the system will identify the battles in which the named soldier's or sailor's unit participated. When this database is completed, it will be installed at the major Civil War sites operated by the Park Service. The CWSS will refer the park visitor to NARA for further documentation and information on Civil War participants.

The first index to be released by the National Park Service is that of the United States Colored Troops. This list of names will be available at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C., as well as at NPS battlefield sites. The memorial is due for completion in the fall of 1997. When this monument is completed and the CWSS is in place, it is anticipated that there will be an increase in requests for the records of the USCT. Every new movie or television program about the Civil War period triggers a substantial rise in mail, telephone, and walk-in requests to NARA. To answer these demands in an era of downsizing, NARA created the Civil War Conservation Corps (CWCC). The CWCC is a volunteer project operating with over fifty private citizens who are members of the National Archives Volunteer Association. This group is opening and chronologically arranging the compiled service records of each soldier who became a USCT volunteer. This is the first part of a larger project to microfilm all the records of Civil War Union volunteer soldiers. NARA's collection of Confederate military service records is already available on microfilm.

The Records

The CWCC volunteers have brought to light records that reveal fascinating details and stories behind the names of the soldiers of the USCT. Samuel Cabble, for example, a private in the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Infantry (colored) was a slave before he joined the army. He was twenty-one years old. Among the documents in his file was the following letter:

Dear Wife i have enlisted in the army i am now in the state of Massachusetts but before this letter reaches you i will be in North Carlinia and though great is the present national dificulties yet i look forward to a brighter day When i shall have the opertunity of seeing you in the full enjoyment of fredom i would like to no if you are still in slavery if you are it will not be long before we shall have crushed the system that now opreses you for in the course of three months you shall have your liberty. great is the outpouring of the colered peopl that is now rallying with the hearts of lions against that very curse that has seperated you an me yet we shall meet again and oh what a happy time that will be when this ungodly rebellion shall be put down and the curses of our land is trampled under our feet i am a soldier now and i shall use my utmost endeavor to strike at the rebellion and the heart of this system that so long has kept us in chains . . . remain your own afectionate husband until death-Samuel Cabble

The letter was in Cabble's file with an application for compensation signed by his former owner. It was used as proof that his owner had offered Samuel for enlistment.

Such manumission documents are unique to the records of the USCT. To facilitate recruiting in the states of Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and 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, records of manumission are contained in the compiled service records. Some documents contain well-known names. Several slaves belonging to Susanna Mudd, a relative of Dr. Samuel Mudd, enlisted in the Union army. Required evidence included title to the slave and loyalty to the Union government. Further, every owner signed an oath of allegiance to the government of the United States. Each statement was witnessed and certified.

The CWCC has also discovered five photographs, a rare find in the military records. Each picture depicts wounds received by the soldier. One such soldier was Pvt. Louis Martin of the Twenty-ninth USCI. The photograph was glued to his certificate of disability for discharge and shows amputation of his right arm and left leg. He participated in the battle known as "The Crater" at Petersburg, Virginia, on July 30, 1864, and received shell and gunshot wounds while charging the enemy's works. Further study of the service record leads the researcher to Private Martin's pension file, where an additional photograph is found.

The story of Garland White appears in the records of the Twenty-eighth USCI. He was a slave belonging to Robert Toombs of Georgia. White, who was literate, studied to become a minister while still a slave. According to documents in his file, he was licensed and "authorized to preach the Gospel" on September 10, 1859, in Washington, Georgia. In 1860 Toombs, with White as a house servant, was living in Washington, D.C. The Toombs's residence was two doors away from William Seward's, at the time a senator from New York. It is apparent from correspondence in his record that White enjoyed a friendly relationship with Seward.

During his time in Washington, White became a fugitive and made his way to Canada. According to his records, he was appointed to the "Pastorial Charge of London mission. The said mission being under the jurisdiction of the B. M. E. Annual Conference." It is not known how long he stayed in Canada, but he was very aware of the Civil War and knew that Seward was President Lincoln's secretary of state. He wrote to him from Canada and told him of his desire to serve his country in any way he could. Garland White returned to the United States (the exact date is not known) and began recruiting for the new USCT. He went to New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Indiana. He raised most of the men of the Twenty-eighth USCI. He petitioned Seward for help in obtaining the chaplaincy of the regiment. In his letter to Seward, White wrote, "I also joined the regiment as a private to be with my boys and should I fail to get my commission I shall willingly serve my time out."

On September 1, 1864, the Field and Company Officers elected Garland H. White chaplain of the Twenty-eighth USCI, subject to the approval of the secretary of war. On October 25, by order of the secretary of war, Garland H. White was appointed chaplain of the Twenty-eighth USCI. He was thirty-five years old. All the previous correspondence was found in his compiled military service record.

Among the documents in the compiled service records are many letters from mothers and wives. They detail hardship, illness, and most of all, lack of money. They are sometimes written by the sender and sometimes dictated, but all indicate the suffering war brought to everyone, especially the families of the African American soldier. Such suffering is evident in the pleas of Rebecca Barrett to her son, William, of the Seventy-fourth USCI.

My Dear Son
It is with pleasure I now embrace the opportunity of penning you a few lines to inform you that I am received your most welcomed letter for I had despaired of your writing. We are both sick pap is prostrated on his bed and has been so for three months and three weeks he got a little better but it did not last long I am very sorry that you have enlisted again for I wanted to see you once more You say you will send me some money do my son for God sake for I am needy at this time the Doctors are so dear that it takes all you can make to pay thier bill I work when I am able but that is so seldom God only knows what I will [do] this winter for I dont. Everything is two prices and one meal cost as much a[s] three used to cost when the rich grumble God help the poor for it is a true saying that (poverty is no disgrace but very unhandy) and I find it very unhandy for if ever a poor soul was poverty stricken I am one and My son if you ever thought of your poor old mother God Grant you may think of her now for this is a needy time. No more but remain Your mother Rebecca Barrat

From Letty Barnes to her husband, Joshua, of the Thirty-eighth USCI:

My dear husband
I have just this evening received your letter sent me by Fredrick Finich you can imagin how anxious and worry I had become about you. And so it seems that all can get home once in awhile to see and attend to their familey but you I do really think it looks hard your poor old Mother is hear delving and working like a dog to try to keep soul and body together and here am I with to little children and myself to support and not one soul or one dollar to help us I do think if your officers could see us they would certanly let you come home and bring us a little money.

She continues in this vein enumerating the various hardships the family is enduring. At the end of her letter she writes lovingly:

I have sent you a little keepsake in this letter which you must prize for my sake it is a set of Shirt Bossom Buttons whenever you look at them think of me and know that I am always looking and wishing for you write to me as soon as you receive this let me know how you like them and when you are coming home and beleave me as ever
Your devoted wife
Letty Barnes

Joshua Barnes received his buttons and was granted leave to visit his family. William Barrett did send his mother some money. Garland White survived the war and lived with his family in North Carolina. Samuel Cabble returned to Missouri for his wife, and together they moved to Denver, Colorado.

The compiled service records of the United States Colored Troops must not be overlooked when researching African Americans. The letters here are a small sample to be found in this important collection. They are a physical link to the Civil War era, and they bring to life the service of the African American soldier. As each jacket is arranged and prepared for microfilming, we come one step closer to bringing attention to a major group of unexplored records.

Note: All letters and quotations are transcribed as they were originally written and are from the Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, Record Group 94.

Ms. Budge Weidman is a National Archives volunteer. She has served as the project manager for the Civil War Conservation Corps since October, 1994.

Researching African Americans in the U.S. Army, 1866-1890

During the Civil War approximately 186,000 African Americans served in the Union army in the U.S. Colored Troops.1 Black soldiers served in volunteer cavalry, artillery, and infantry units, but the opportunity to serve as regulars in the Army was not afforded African Americans until after the Civil War. In 1866, due in large part to the wartime service of the U.S. Colored Troops, Congress authorized the army to raise six black regiments: four infantry and two cavalry. This change was part of a much larger army reorganization and laid the foundation for the proud tradition of the "Buffalo Soldiers."2 This article describes records held by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to aid genealogists researching African Americans who served in the regular army from 1866 to 1890. It also highlights records related to Charles Woods, who served in Company E, Ninth U.S. Cavalry, as an example of how to trace an individual's service in the army.

On July 28, 1866, Congress passed an act reorganizing the army by adding four regiments to the already existing six regiments of cavalry and expanding the number of infantry regiments from nineteen to forty-five. The reorganization included the creation of six colored regiments designated in November as the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the Thirty-eighth, Thirty-ninth, Fortieth, and Forty-first Infantry.3 The new colored regiments were to be composed of black enlisted men and white officers. Three years later, Congress reorganized the army again by reducing the number of infantry units from forty-five to twenty-five regiments. For the African American regulars, this reorganization changed only the infantry units and not the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry. The Thirty-eighth Infantry and Forty-first Infantry became the Twenty-fourth Infantry, while the Thirty-ninth and Fortieth were consolidated into the Twenty-fifth Infantry. These two new infantry regiments completely replaced the former Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth.4

For the next twenty years the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry served in the West on the frontier. The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry spent much of their time in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Indian Territory protecting citizens, mail and supply routes and battling hostile Native Americans, and outlaws. The Twenty-fourth Infantry served in the Department of Texas, Indian Territory, and the Department of Arizona, while the Twenty-fifth Infantry served in the Department of Texas and the Department of Dakota.5

It was during this period that two of the regiments gained the nickname "Buffalo Soldiers." The nickname initially described troopers of the Tenth Cavalry, but the Ninth soon adopted the name as well. Although Native Americans bestowed the name upon the troopers, there are differing accounts as to the reason. One account suggests the name was acquired during the 1871 campaign against the Comanches, when Indians referred to the cavarlymen as "Buffalo Soldiers" because of their rugged and tireless marching. Other accounts state that Native Americans bestowed the nickname on the black troopers because they believed the hair of the black cavarlymen resembled the hair of the buffalo. Another suggests that the name was given because of the buffalo-hide coats worn by the soldiers in cold weather. The troopers took the nickname as a sign of respect from Native Americans, who held great reverence for the buffalo, and eventually the Tenth Cavalry adopted the buffalo as part of its regimental crest.6

Enlisted Men

Unlike individuals who served as volunteers in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, black regulars do not have compiled military service records. The War Department did not compile military service records for individuals who served in the regular army. The place to start researching African American enlisted men is the Regular Army Enlistment Papers, 1798 - 1894 (Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's - 1917, entry 91). This series is arranged alphabetically by name of soldier and generally shows the soldier's name, place of enlistment, date, by whom enlisted, age, occupation, personal description, regimental assignment, and certification of the examining surgeon and recruiting officer. Soldiers will usually have multiple enlistment papers if they served two or more enlistments.

Researchers should also consult the Register of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798 - 1914, which is reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M233. The register of enlistments are arranged chronologically and thereunder alphabetically by first letter of surname and usually show the individual's name, military organization, physical description, age at time of enlistment, place of birth, enlistment information, discharge information, and remarks.

For medical information, consult carded medical records (1821 - 1884) found in RG 94, entry 529. These cards relate to regular army personnel admitted to hospitals for treatment and may include information such as name, rank, organization, age, race, birthplace, date entered service, cause of admission, date of admission, hospital to which admitted, and disposition of the case. This series is arranged by the number of the regiment (cavalry, infantry, and artillery are filed together under the common regiment number) and then by initial letter of surname. For example, the Ninth Cavalry is filed under the number "9" along with the Ninth Infantry.

Using the enlistment papers, register of enlistments, and carded medical records, researchers can gain valuable information about a soldier. For example, according to his enlistment paper, Charles Woods, born in New Orleans, enlisted for five years at Baton Rouge on September 1, 1866. The twenty-two-year-old laborer was assigned to the Ninth Regiment of Cavalry. The enlistment paper also provides a physical description showing, "this soldier has black eyes, black hair, yellow complexion is five feet, one inches high."7 The register of enlistments shows that Private Woods was discharged June 17, 1870, for disability at Fort Concho, Texas.8 According to the carded medical records, Woods at various times suffered from rheumatism, diarrhea, bronchitis, and gonorrhea.9

From their inception, the colored regiments were led by white officers. This changed once black cadets started graduating from the U.S. Army Military Academy. Three black graduates of West Point, Henry O. Flipper, John Alexander, and Charles Young, all served as Buffalo Soldiers. Flipper was commissioned in 1879 and served in the Tenth Cavalry. John Alexander (commissioned in 1887) and Charles Young (commissioned in 1889) both served in the Ninth Cavalry.10

When researching both black and white officers, researchers should consult the two volumes of Francis B. Heitman's Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, From Its Organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903 (Washington: GPO, 1903). Volume one contains a register of army officers, providing a brief history of their service. Volume two contains a "chronological list of battles, actions, etc., in which troops of the Regular Army have participated and troops engaged."

When researching the records for an officer's military service, consult the Commission Branch (CB) and Appointment, Commission and Personal Branch (ACP) records both found in RG 94, entry 297, Letters Received, 1863 - 1894. There is a card index arranged by name of officer for each of these files. CB files are reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M1064, Letters Received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant General's Office, 1863 - 1870, and a select number of ACP files have been reproduced on National Archives Microfiche M1395, Letters Received by the Appointment, Commission and Personal Branch, 1871 - 1894.

Other records that may be of interest to researchers are post returns and regular army unit returns. Returns for many military posts, camps, and stations are reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M617, Returns from U.S. Military Posts, 1800 - 1916. Returns generally show units stationed at the post and their strength, the names and duties of officers, the number of officers present and absent, and a record of events. Unit returns are monthly returns of military organizations reporting stations of companies and names of company commanders, unit strength, including men present, absent, sick, on extra duty or daily duty, in arrest or confinement, and significant remarks. Unit returns for Buffalo Soldiers can be found on National Archives Microfilm Publication M744, Returns from Regular Army Cavalry Regiments, 1833 - 1916. When researching the unit returns of the African American infantry regiments, consult National Archives Microfilm Publication M665, Returns from Regular Army Infantry Regiments, June 1821 - December 1916. The returns for the Thirty-eighth, Thirty-ninth, Fortieth, and Forty-first Infantry cover 1866 to 1869. A note of caution: When researching the returns for the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry, be sure to start with the 1869 returns the returns for the period 1866 to 1869 are for the old units and are not African American soldiers. For additional records related to individual regular army regiments, consult Record Group 391, Records of United States Regular Army Mobile Units, 1821 - 1942.


Researchers will find that court-martial records are a great source of information not only for a particular soldier but also for providing insights into the trials and tribulations faced by black soldiers. The court-martial records include the proceedings or testimony of a case, which contains common language used by black soldiers in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Records related to proceedings of U.S. Army courts-martial or courts of inquiry can be found in Record Group 153, Records of the Judge Advocate General (Army). To find an individual's case file, first consult National Archives Microfilm Publication M1105, Registers of the Records of the Proceedings of the U.S. Army General Courts-Martial, 1809 - 1890. The years 1866 - 1890 are covered by registers OO to RR and are reproduced on microfilm roll numbers six through eight. The case files include proceedings of courts of inquiry and court-martial trials related to African American soldiers. These files are not on microfilm and are filed by case file number in RG 153, entry 15A. For this period, the files have a double-alpha numeric file number such as PP-248.

In searching court-martial records, we find that Cpl. Charles Woods was tried by a general court-martial at Austin, Texas, on June 4, 1867. There were several charges in the case including mutiny, striking his superior officer, and desertion. Corporal Woods pleaded "not guilty" to the first two charges and "guilty" to the third charge of desertion. Woods was found guilty of all three charges and sentenced to death. Because of facts brought out during the case, including the harsh treatment by an officer toward his men, the judge advocate general recommended that Woods's sentence be remitted. In writing to the adjutant general, the judge advocate general wrote, "But in view of the extraordinary circumstances developed by the testimony, showing that there was no disposition on the part of the prisoner either to mutiny or to desert, but that his conduct, and that of his company, was the result of outrageous treatment on the part of one of the commissioned officers, and in view of the suffering he has already endured, the sentence is remitted and the prisoner will be restored to duty."11 A November 20 regimental order reduced Woods to the rank of private.

For researchers interested in pension files of individuals who served as Buffalo Soldiers or in black infantry units, consult National Archives Microfilm Publication T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861 - 1934. This microfilm publication is arranged alphabetically by the individual's last name. The index cards include the individual's unit(s), making it easier to decipher individuals with the same name. Once the application number or pension certificate number is found (this includes invalid and widow pensions), researchers can request to view the pension file. Pension files (including application files) often contain valuable personal information on soldiers that are not found in their military records.

Our story of Charles Woods ends with the pension records. After consulting the pension index, we find that Woods's pension application is shown as number 413,571. According to the index, the pension application was filed on December 14, 1880, from the state of Texas.12 Upon checking Woods's pension application file, we find that his story ends on a sad note. It appears Woods was denied a pension because of his court-martial conviction. Several appeals were made to the commissioner of pensions, who contacted the Adjutant General's Office (AGO) for more information. One response from the AGO shows the root of the problem: "The record of desertion appearing against the claimant has not been, nor can it be, removed He was tried by General Court - Martial for the offence and convicted. His sentence was remitted by this office and he was restored to duty with his troop."13 Unfortunately, Charles Woods died June 6, 1887, while his pension application was still being appealed.14

Medals of Honor

Between 1866 and 1890 African Americans established a proud tradition of service as regulars in the U.S. Army. Proof of their bravery can be found in the Medals of Honor awarded to several of their members. During the Indian Campaigns, eighteen African Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor. Records related to these soldiers have been reproduced on roll two of National Archives Microfilm Publication M929, Documents Relating to the Military and Naval Service of Blacks Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor from the Civil War to the Spanish-American War. Roll two, covering the Indian Campaigns, is arranged alphabetically by surname and includes three Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts who were awarded the Medal of Honor.15 Consult the NARA pamphlet describing M929 for the list of recipients' names and corresponding microfilm frame numbers.

The records and microfilm publications described in this article are available at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. For researchers unable to visit the National Archives, copies of enlistment papers, register of enlistments, and pension files held by NARA can be obtained through the mail. To obtain the proper request form, please write to Old Military and Civil Records, National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001.

1. Bernard C. Nalty, Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military(1986), p. 43.

2. For a description of the link between Gen. Colin Powell and the Buffalo Soldiers, see Walter Hill, "Exploring the Life and History of the 'Buffalo Soldiers,'" The Record: News from the National Archives and Records Administration (March 1998): 12 - 14 (also available online at

3. AGO General Order No. 56, Aug. 1, 1866, and AGO General Order No. 92, Nov. 23, 1866. Robert M. Utley, Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866 - 1891 (1973), p. 12.

4. AGO General Orders No. 15 & 16, Mar. 11, 1869, and AGO General Order No. 17, Mar. 15, 1869. Utley, Frontier Regulars, p. 16. The old Twenty-fourth Infantry consolidated with the Twenty-ninth to form the new Eleventh Infantry, while the old Twenty-fifth consolidated with the Eighteenth to form the new Eighteenth. See Army Lineage Series: Infantry: Part I: Regular Army (1972), pp. 31 - 32.

5. The Twenty-fourth Infantry served in the Department of Texas from 1869 to 1880, Indian Territory from 1880 to 1888, and following 1888 in the Department of Arizona. The Twenty-fifth Infantry served in the Department of Texas from 1870 to 1880 and the Department of Dakota following 1880. See Aloha P. South, Reference Information Paper No. 63, Data Relating to Negro Military Personnel in the 19th Century (1973), p. 3.

6. Account of Col. Benjamin H. Grierson, Tenth Cavalry, found in Hill, "Exploring the Life and History of the 'Buffalo Soldiers,'" p. 13. Other accounts found in Nalty, Strength for the Fight, p. 54 William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (1967), p. 26 and Gerald Astor, The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military (1998) pp. 46 - 47.

7. Charles Woods, Enlistment Papers, 1798 - 1894, box 846, Record Group (RG) 94, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's - 1917, National Archives Building (NAB), Washington, DC.

8. Register of Enlistments, Vol. 64, p. 271, Register of Enlistments of the U.S. Army, 1798 - 1914 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M233, roll 32), RG 94, NAB.

9. Charles Woods & C. Woods, Carded Medical Records, box 495, entry 529, RG 94, NAB.

10. Nalty, Strength for the Fight, pp. 58 - 61.

11. AGO General Court-Martial Order No. 83, Oct. 16, 1867. Case file OO-2488, box 2258, Records of the Judge Advocate General (Army), RG 153, NAB. Reduced to the ranks from corporal per Regimental Order No. 110, Nov. 20, 1867. See remarks under Pvt. Charles Woods in Co. E, 9th Cav., Muster Rolls, Oct. 31 to Dec. 31, 1867, box 1118, entry 53, RG 94, NAB.

12. General Index to Pension Files, 1861 - 1934 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T288, roll 534), RG 15, Records of the Veterans Administration, NAB.

13. From Adjutant General's Office to Commissioner of Pensions, Jan. 22, 1887, pension file SO 413571, entry 9A, RG 15, NAB.

14. Pension file SO 413571, ibid.

15. The Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts were descendants of blacks who had intermarried with Seminole Indians in Florida and migrated to Mexico in the 1830s. In 1870 the Seminole-Negro Indians began crossing the Mexican border into Texas, settling in areas around Fort Clark and Fort Duncan.

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Articles Featuring Civil War Casualties From History Net Magazines

In 1864, 200 acres were set aside for Arlington National Cemetery. Today, it spans 624 acres. Image: Library of Congress.

According to Dr. J. David Hacker, the traditional death toll of 620,000—which historians have accepted for more than a century—failed properly to account for several key factors, including the influx of immigrants into the armed forces, not to mention casualties among black women who found themselves victims of the onrush of war. Hacker employed a new range of statistical accounting to determine mortality, including a system called the “two-census method.” To measure deaths, he counts the number of 20- to 30-year-olds in the 1860 census, and the number of 30- to 40-year-olds who turn up in—or, more important, disappear from—the next count, 10 years later. The difference represents the number of young people who died in the intervening decade, and Hacker took an educated stab, based on a shrewd reading of regional loyalties, at determining how many of them likely perished on the battlefield and not home peacefully in bed.

It’s useful to keep in mind that the long-accepted 620,000 tally was the work of two energetic but amateur historians, William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore, Union veterans who read every pension record, battlefield report and muster roll they could put their hands on. Fox published his Regimental Losses in the American Civil War in 1889—and through their extraordinary research we learned that the average Federal soldier weighed 143.5 pounds.

Inevitably, the new death-counting process proved more complicated than even this. For one thing, apparently, the reunited country’s 1870 census was something of a hash, with a level of undercounting that made the complaints around our recent 2010 census seem mild by comparison. Hacker admits it also remains difficult to count civilians who died in wartime. And he’s still as intrigued as the rest of us by the challenge of counting the number of farm boys who died from sickness after exposure to germ-riddled, but essentially immune, urban soldiers. Union medical care, he further points out, was far superior to Confederate—and more Johnny Rebs might have died of disease than Billy Yanks. Deaths among African-American troops have long had a widely accepted numerical accounting, but these numbers, too, Hacker believes, deserve reconfiguring, though no one is quite sure how to do it.

Caveats notwithstanding, Hacker bravely aimed at revising the total count, concluding the actual death toll for the Civil War amounted to between 650,000 and 850,000—and by prudently splitting the difference, proposed a new number: 750,000, as reported in America’s Civil War in March 2012. It also inspired a major New York Times story in April by Guy Gugliotta (whose new book, Freedom’s Cap, by the way, tells the extraordinary story of the U.S. Capitol and the coming of the rebellion). The scholarly journal Civil War History not only published the Hacker findings but trumpeted them, almost uncharacteristically, as “among the most consequential pieces ever to appear” between its covers.

Drew Gilpin Faust was right. In her extraordinary book This Republic of Suf­fering, the historian and president of Harvard University reminded modern readers of post-war America’s obsession with Civil War death and memory. The rush to build cemeteries, monuments and memorials, together with the overwhelming responsibility merely to bury dead bodies, filled survivors with an abiding reverence for, and obsessive fascination with, those who sacrificed that the nation might live (and even those who gave their lives that it might die). Exhumations were common as survivors and widows struggled with competing notions of sacred ground. Soldiers cemeteries became part of the American culture—and not just at Gettysburg. Those old emotions remain raw. Mass mourning is never far from the surface of Amer­ican culture, and statistics not only encourage scholarly debate but expose unhealed wounds.

The new Civil War death toll numbers have stirred the pot afresh. In reporting the new statistics, the Times, for example, took an unexpected pot shot at veteran historian James M. McPherson, one among countless scholars who have long accepted the earlier 620,000 number. The article called out the dean of the field for using that number “without citing the source in Battle Cry of Freedom, his Pulitzer-winning 1988 history of the war.” The fact that no one else has ever “sourced” the figures did not seem to matter in the new rush to up the gruesome ante.

McPherson, in turn, had a bone to pick with yet another great historian, Mark E. Neely, who once convincingly argued that the Civil War was not a total war in the 20th-century sense. McPherson com­mented that the revised numbers suggest that Neely was wrong after all—for what else but a total war could produce such staggering casualty figures?

What is extraordinary about all this is that we still desperately want to know the truth—the whole truth, and nothing but the precise truth—about the toll of war. We may never find out for certain how many men and women, blacks and whites, native born and foreign born died to save the Union and destroy slavery. But as the new science and the new attention show—thanks to David Hacker, Guy Gugliotta, et al.—more than curiosity is at work here. Hacker put it modestly when he opined that “it is just a curiosity.” In a sobering afterthought, he wisely told Gugliotta and the Times: “It’s our duty to get it right.”

Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.



The Civil War, in which blacks participated in appreciable numbers, brought about the end of slavery and therefore constitutes a pivotal point in African American history.

Materials and Preparation

Students should read either chapter 17 in The African American Experience: A History (“The Civil War and the End of Slavery”) or chapters 20 and 21 in African American History (“The House Divides” and “War’s End Brings Freedom”).

Students and the teacher should read pages 27-29 in Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History.

The teacher should read chapter 11 in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (“Civil War”).

Time Period

Each of the activities that follow will take one class period.



  1. Explain the main ways in which the Civil War facilitated the emancipation of African Americans. Point out to the students the role of the Emancipation Proclamation in encouraging slaves to seek freedom. Have students analyze this proclamation and respond to the assertion that it actually freed no slaves. Ask them to explain why it didn’t apply to areas over which Lincoln exercised authority.
  2. Evaluation: Have the students imagine they were asked by President Lincoln to prepare a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. Have them prepare a draft that differs from the document issued by Lincoln. Ask them to justify their draft.


  1. Describe the kinds of military roles blacks performed while serving in the Union forces. Have students identify the various roles that blacks played in fighting for the North during the Civil War (such as soldiers, sailors, scouts, spies, nurses, cooks, teamsters, cooks). Have them discuss the importance of these roles.
  2. Evaluation: Have students imagine they are blacks serving with the Union forces. Have each student write a 500-word essay indicating what role he/she would have preferred performing and why. Both combatant and noncombatant roles should be included. Students should also indicate the importance of the particular role chosen. For example, if a student would have preferred being a cook, he/she should explain the importance of meals or food to an overall military effort.

Supplemental Activities

  1. Show students the film Glory, the story of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment (180 minutes), Point out that this unit, whose performance at Fort Wagner proved the capability of blacks for bravery and courage and thereby facilitated the acceptance of blacks in the Union forces, contained black New Jerseyans. The film can be obtained from any local video rental facility.
  2. Visit black cemeteries that contain the graves of Civil War veterans and have students obtain various data from their headstones (for example, their units, year of birth, year of death). Such cemeteries can be found in a number of New Jersey communities, including Burlington, Mount Laurel, Westampton (Timbuctoo), Camden, Lawnside, Pennsauken, Greenwich (Springtown), Eatontown, Neptune, Tinton Falls, Aberdeen, and Matawan.

Explore how the American Civil War changed the way Americans thought about death, religion, and race

The American Civil War was a conflict between the United States and the Confederate States of America, which was formed by 11 Southern states that had seceded from the Union.

The war lasted from 1861 to 1865, ending when the Confederate army surrendered and the Union was restored.

For the first time, telegraphs and newspapers informed civilians of news from the battlefield almost as soon as it happened, bringing more of the horror of war - the personal and political trauma - to them with new immediacy.

The Civil War resulted in the deaths of as many as 851,000 soldiers, or approximately 2% of the American population at the time.

American religion changed as survivors on both sides struggled to comprehend the enormous death toll.

Understanding of the afterlife shifted, with Northerners and Southerners comforting themselves with the idea that heaven looked like their parlors at home.

When the North and South reunited, how their new society would function was not assured. President Andrew Johnson showed leniency toward Southern whites and former slave owners, who invented new ways to limit opportunities for Black Americans.
The South was forced to abide by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Enslaved people were freed and granted citizenship and equal civil and legal rights.
But by returning seized Southern land to its previous owners, Johnson kept Black people from prospering in the new economy.
Many Black families turned to sharecropping, forcing them to rent the land they farmed, and both Black and poor white Southerners began to rely heavily on credit to pay their bills.
Allowed to make their own rules, especially after the end of Reconstruction in 1876, Southern states legally limited the ways Black citizens could participate in society.
Even after legal segregation began to end in the 1950s, undoing centuries of codified racism was a defining American problem.

How Many Union soldiers were killed?

On the other side of the country, Civil War casualties climbed even higher. The Union armies had anywhere from 2,500,000 to 2,750,000 men fighting for their cause. At best estimate, they lost 110,070 in battle and 250,152 to diseases and other causes. That leads to a final number on the Union side of 360,222 men. In addition to deaths due to battles and disease, the Union listed fatalities such as deaths in prison, drowning, accidents, murder, suicide, sunstroke, military executions, executions by the enemy, those killed after capture and others. There was even an unclassified category that was fitting for 14,155 deaths on the Union side.

Watch the video: Black Soldiers United States Colored Troops: The Civil War in Four Minutes