This Day (Looking to Fight Edition)

Published:May 22, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

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

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:

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

5 Comments on “This Day (Looking to Fight Edition)”

  1. Michael C. Lucas

    I find it interesting that like many Historians you haven’t mentioned anything of the hundreds of African Americans from Virginia who served with the thousands of Confederate States Colored Troops which were already integrated within the Confederate Army. What’s your take on that topic?

  2. Mark Stevens

    There were about 180,000 African-Americans serving with the Federal Army and Navy, documented on muster rolls, pay sheets, pension files and other records. I honor those men who served not only the United States, but the cause of individual freedom. As to Afro-Confederate soldiers, illegal by the Confederate Constitution, never mentioned by period documents, I think there were as many Black Confederate SOLDIERS as there were Jewish SS.

  3. Michael C. Lucas

    Mark Stevens, and for anyone who actually cares enough to seek the documents, should actually try researching, but you will be easily confounded by what you seek and you shall find, otherwise keep living in ignorant bliss. Oh a couple of new books will be published shortly some based objectively on documentation, while others will be based on cherry picking with politically correct ignorance regarding black Confederates, so the discussion will be getting much broader not narrower.

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