On this day 150 years ago, following Lincoln’s call for black soldiers in the Emancipation Proclamation, the War Department organized the Bureau for Colored Troops. Major Charles W. Foster was charged with issuing guidelines for black regiments, staffing the units with officers, and overseeing recruiting and enrollment. There were already a few black regiments, and they were brought under the auspices of the bureau. As our entry on United States Colored Troops, newly published today, notes:
The Bureau for Colored Troops brought efficiency to the USCT regiments, but not always equitable treatment. Despite objections from black leaders, the Bureau insisted on assigning only white men to commissioned officer positions. Although a small number of black soldiers received commissions by the end of the war—including the Virginia-born Martin R. Delany—and many served as noncommissioned officers, the USCT remained primarily an organization led by whites. Officials in the army and in the government also initially assumed that black regiments would rarely, if ever, be used in combat. As a result, black soldiers endured a disproportionate share of labor duty.
The image above, of white USCT officers during the siege of Petersburg, shows that well enough. Next to them is Sergeant Nimrod Burke, of the 23rd USCT, which mustered in Alexandria and also fought at Petersburg. You can read more about Burke’s story here.
About 5,723 black soldiers were mustered into service in Virginia, although many black Virginians—especially those who had escaped slavery—likely signed up and served elsewhere. Sixteen Medals of Honor were awarded to black soldiers during the war, and five of those went to Virginians:
- Powhatan Beaty (5th USCT),
- James Gardiner (36th USCT)
- Miles James (36th USCT)
- Edward Ratcliff (38th USCT)
- Charles Veal (4th USCT)
In the meantime, a monument for black troops was unveiled in Maryland last year. You can read more about that here.
IMAGES: United States Colored Troops Civil War Memorial Monument at John C. Lancaster Park in Lexington Park, Maryland (dcmilitary.com); Field and staff officers of the 39th U.S. Colored Infantry, Petersburg, September 1864 (Library of Congress); Sergeant Nimrod Burke (1836–1914), Company F, 23rd U.S. Colored Infantry