For many years now, I’ve been interested in researching U.S. Colored Troops who served in Union forces from the communities where my family lived. Most people know by now that almost 200,000 black people, slaves and free blacks, served in the Union Army and Navy. The Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 finally began the process of their large-scale recruitment into the service as soldiers. The racial ideology of the times believed that black people, especially slaves, did not have the mental capacity, bravery or intelligence necessary in a soldier. However, blacks served with valor and distinction as U.S. Colored Troops and proved everyone wrong. Although the impetus for their service was military necessity, their service no doubt contributed to Northern victory and provided proof of their equality as men, even if most whites of the times were not ready to hear that message.
U.S. Colored Troops service records are available on Ancestry and Fold3. We always search for our own ancestors, but I’d like to recommend that you also search for others in the same county. Particularly in the case of former slaves, the analysis of service (and pension) records can expand your understanding of the community and add valuable details about the slave community. One of the ways to do this is to enter a county in the birth search box for the U.S. Colored Troops Service Records, but do not enter any names. So, if I put “Montgomery County, Maryland” into the birth place box, and leave everything else blank, the database will return soldiers born in that community. Keep in mind that they may have since migrated from that community. Also, there will be others from the county who may not have their county of birth recorded in the official cards. But this process will catch plenty of people. After analyzing these records, I cross reference and attempt to find pension records for those soldiers.
From NARA’s description at the 150th anniversary of the digitization of these records, we find the following:
Researchers may be surprised to find that the USCT military service records hold not only muster rolls but also a huge array of personal papers that can include enlistment papers, correspondence, orders, prisoner-of-war memorandums, casualty reports, and final statements. Starting in October 1863, slave owners could enlist their slaves and receive up to $300 upon filing a “manumission” or deed of ownership. Unique to some of the records of the USCT are these deeds of manumission and bills of sale. For genealogists, these records may offer the only source of documentation of an enslaved ancestor in the absence of other vital records.
I’d like to share some of the personal papers that can be found within the USCT service records. Below are two documents you’ll see in the files to let you know there are “other” papers (click to enlarge):
In the four border states of Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware and Missouri, slaves could join with their owner’s permission (runaways also joined). They had to be freed and the owners were compensated. There will be documents indicating the slaveowner’s claim, title and loyalty, and possibly the manumission document:
When soldiers died in the service, some files included death certificates and other statements about their death:
The brief cards created during hospital stays could provide a valuable contact name in the area for “PO address of wife or nearest relative”:
Some files indicate that the person was substituting for another, although who that other person is only sometimes stated. A whole industry of people willing to join for pay arose, stoking class conflict as only those with money had that luxury:
Sometimes the “remarks” on the bottom of cards will mention whether a person was “free” or “slave.”
By far my favorite document is the volunteer enlistment. If I had a direct ancestor who served, I would have this framed and up on the wall:
Many former soldier’s opened accounts at the Freedman’s Bank, so be sure to cross-reference the soldiers you find with that database:
There are many more interesting documents like medical examinations, documents indicating desertion and subsequent discipline, inventories if the soldier died in the service, letters, etc. Go back through your research and see what discoveries you can make by searching for others in the community. I’d love to hear in the comments what you’ve found.
For more detailed information, read NARA’s description of CMSR records, explore the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database and visit the website of the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum.