A generally forgotten factor in the United States Civil War of 1861-65 is the USCT, the United States Colored Troops. Black men were recruited for the Union Army. They were comprised of both free black men and of former slaves. Almost 180,000 served in the Union army, a tenth of the Union’s total strength.
Some 40,000 of these men died while serving, mostly from disease, as was the case with all troops on both sides.
The USCT were formally organized at the start of 1863 following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The USCT had about 175 regiments. These units had white officers. They got lower pay than white troops, and were often used as laborers.
Many of the regiments excelled in combat, and 18 of these soldiers won the Medal of Honor. They faced special dangers. Confederates threated to treat all captured USCT soldiers as fomenting slave rebellion, a crime punishable in the Confederacy by death. There were several incidents in which USCT troops were massacred, at Poison Springs, Fort Pillow and The Crater.
At one point, the Confederacy threatened to enslave captured USCT soldiers and hang their white officers. President Lincoln made it known that if Confederates did that, revenge would be taken on Confederate prisoners of war in the North.
Four USCT regiments remained in service after the War, at first in the South, enforcing reconstruction, and then on the frontier, guarding against Indian raids and fighting in the various Indian wars.
Indians called them ‘Buffalo Soldiers,’ starting a tradition. They have generally been ignored in the history of the American West.
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