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Frederick Douglass, one of the most prominent abolitionists and intellectuals of the Civil War era, once commented: "[He] who would be free must himself strike the blow." The United States Colored Troops (USCT) was the embodiment of that philosophy.  Though there had been voices clamoring for the rights of black men to represent the United States in the Army since the beginning of the conflict, the door was never really open until Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the autumn of 1862.  In October of that year, African-Americans fought their first skirmish against Confederate forces at Island Mound, Missouri.  Many harbored doubts that blacks would not make suitable soldiers.  With every engagement they fought in, however, African-Americans proved again and again that they were equal to whites in every martial quality.  In early...

Frederick Douglass, one of the most prominent abolitionists and intellectuals of the Civil War era, once commented: "[He] who would be free must himself strike the blow." The United States Colored Troops (USCT) was the embodiment of that philosophy.  Though there had been voices clamoring for the rights of black men to represent the United States in the Army since the beginning of the conflict, the door was never really open until Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the autumn of 1862.  In October of that year, African-Americans fought their first skirmish against Confederate forces at Island Mound, Missouri.  Many harbored doubts that blacks would not make suitable soldiers.  With every engagement they fought in, however, African-Americans proved again and again that they were equal to whites in every martial quality.  In early 1863, Lincoln wrote to Andrew Johnson that, "The colored population is the great available yet unavailed of force for restoring the Union.  The bare sight of fifty thousand armed and drilled black soldiers upon the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once; and who doubts that we can present that sight if we but take hold in earnest."  

Two months later, War Department General Order #143 sanctioned the creation of the USCT, and colored units began to be integrated into the Union Army.  At Port Hudson in Louisiana, Fort Wagner in South Carolina, Chaffin's Farm in Virginia, and elsewhere, USCT units displayed courage under fire and won glory on the field of battle.

By the end of the war, African-Americans accounted for 10% of the Union Army.  180,000 men -- many former slaves -- volunteered, a staggering 85% of the eligible population.  Nearly 40,000 gave their lives for the cause.  The USCT was a watershed in African-American history, and one of the first major strides towards equal civil rights.  As Douglass eloquently put it: "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his soldier, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States."

At a Glance

Chronology

    • 1775-1781; 1812-1814 - African American soldiers serve in the United States Armed Forces against Great Britain
    • April, 1861 - The Civil War begins; free African Americans in the North trying to enlist in the Union Army are turned away
    • April 16, 1862 - Congress abolishes slavery in the District of Columbia
    • September 22, 1862 - Abraham Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the territory then in active rebellion against the government.
    • October 29, 1862 - African American soldiers skirmish with Confederates at Island Mound, Missouri
    • January 1, 1863 - Emancipation Proclamation goes into effect
    • May 21 - July 9, 1863 - Eight African American regiments take part in the Battle of Port Hudson
    • May 22, 1863 - War Department General Order 143 establishes the United States Colored Troops
    • July 1, 1863 - First Kansas Colored Volunteers fight in the Battle of Cabin Creek
    • July 18, 1863 - 54th Massachusetts assaults Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina; Sgt. William Carney becomes the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor
    • December, 1863 - Robert Smalls, a former slave from Charleston, becomes the first and only African American to be commissioned captain in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War
    • April 12, 1864 - Fort Pillow massacre in western Tennessee
    • June 15, 1864 - Congress passes a bill authorizing equal pay, equipment, arms and healthcare for African American troops
    • September 29, 1864 - Battle of Chaffin's Farm, Virginia. Fourteen U.S.C.T. earn the Medal of Honor
    • February 1, 1865 - Abraham Lincoln signs the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery throughout the United States
    • June 19, 1865 - Enslaved African Americans in Texas are the last to learn of their emancipation. The day is celebrated thereafter as 'Juneteenth'

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