One hundred fifty years ago today, on May 22, 1863, the federal government issued its infamous Order #143 – establishing the Bureau of Colored Troops. Several regiments including the 1st Kansas, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts, the Corps de Afrique, and the 1st South Carolina were formed prior to the bureau.
Though it certainly wasn’t the first time coloreds would defend their country (the first known death in the Revolutionary War was a black man who died at the Boston massacre – Chrispus Attucks), their recruitment and enlistment into the Union army and navy helped shorten the Civil War and bring victory to the north. That fact cannot be disputed.
Here are six reasons to honor those men on this Sesquicentennial anniversary:
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1. Although you wouldn’t know it from the movie “Negro Soldiers” produced by Frank Capra in the 1940s in which the Civil War was not mentioned as having black troops, about 179,000 black soldiers and 18,000 black sailors joined the Union army and navy. By 1864, one in ten of the Union soldiers was black and about 15% of its sailors.
2. Black soldiers fought in 449 engagements including 39 major battles. Twenty-two black regiments (about 22,000 men) participated in the siege of Petersburg. And while they are most famous as having been associated with battles at Fort Pillow, Olustee (FL), Fort Wagner, and The Crater, those black soldiers participated in all of the battle campaigns of the Civil War.
U.S. Colored Troops at Camp Penn
3. Over 68,000 colored men died in the war, including over 2,000 in battle. When considering Civil War casualties, most men died of disease.
Unknown USCT soldier
4. Another 2,000 plus colored soldiers and sailors were POWs held in Confederate prisons during the war. Remarkably, 75% of those blacks incarcerated survived their prison experience.
USCT recruitment poster
5. Twenty two black soldiers and sailors received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their participation in the war. Seven of those award winners were sailors while 15 were soldiers.
6. The USCT soldiers belonged to 139 infantry regiments, six cavalry regiments, twelve heavy artillery regiments, and ten light artillery regiments. And reports coming from the battle front from unbiased observers said the black soldiers fought bravely and fiercely.