Four "regular" units of African American soldiers served in the Union Army during the war: the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and the 29th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry.

Photograph by Robert Stanley, MyShot
  • Nearly 200,000 black soldiers served in the United States military during the Civil War.

    Although the war began in 1861, African Americans were not allowed to serve in the military until 1862. The Emancipation Proclamation, which essentially abolished slavery in the Confederacy, was announced a year later.

    Leaders such as Frederick Douglass encouraged African Americans to enlist, and thousands of free blacks and former slaves did. Two of Douglass' own sons served in the Army.

    The Bureau of Colored Troops oversaw these new recruits: about 179,000 in the Army and 19,000 in the Navy. By the end of the war in 1865, these veterans received the same pay (about $13 a month) and benefits (including medical care) as their white counterparts.

    The first regiment recognized as part of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) was from Louisiana. USCT regiments soon formed from Massachusetts (where Douglass' sons served), Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, as well as the southern states of Virginia and North Carolina (where they represented the Union—not their states—in the Army of the James).

    Both Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln recognized the critical importance of the USCT.

    "Let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on [E]arth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship," wrote Douglass.

    "Without the military help of the black freedmen, the war against the South could not have been won," said Lincoln.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    abolish Verb

    to wipe out or get rid of.

    Abraham Lincoln Noun

    (1809-1865) 16th American president.

    African American Civil War Memorial and Museum Noun

    (African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation and Museum) institution formed to help visitors, researchers, and descendants of United States Colored Troops better understand American history.

    Civil War Noun

    (1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).

    Confederacy Noun

    Confederate States of America, states which broke from the United States to form a new government during the Civil War.

    Emancipation Proclamation Noun

    (1863) declaration by President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War that freed all people held as slaves in most rebellious states.

    enlist Verb

    to use or employ someone for a specific purpose.

    Frederick Douglass Noun

    (1818-1895) American civil rights pioneer and a leader in the fight to end slavery.

    military Noun

    armed forces.

    musket Noun

    firearm used from the 16th through the 19th centuries, similar to the modern rifle.

    recruit Verb

    to work to supply a group with new members.

    regiment Noun

    military group.

    slavery Noun

    process and condition of owning another human being or being owned by another human being.

    soldier Noun

    person who serves in a military.

    United States Colored Troops (USCT) Noun

    regiments of the U.S. Army during the Civil War made up of African American soldiers.

    veteran Noun

    person who has served their country in a military capacity.