Lincoln and the U.S. Colored Troops

This is another in the Concise Lincoln Library series from Southern Illinois University Press. Professor John David Smith of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte wrote this excellent volume. He tells us, “By war’s end, the army had raised 178,975 enlisted men for the USCT. The War Department’s Bureau of Colored Troops organized the soldiers in 133 infantry regiments, four independent companies, seven cavalry regiments, twelve regiments of heavy artillery, and ten batteries of light artillery. Roughly 19 percent of the troops came from the eighteen northern states, 24 percent from the four Union slave states, and 57 percent from the eleven Confederate states. The 1860 Federal census reported around 750,000 male slaves, most residing in the Rebel states, of arms-bearing age and, accordingly, the majority of the men of the USCT were ex-slaves. Not only did slaves recruited in the South bolster Union armies, but they also denied the Rebels a sizable workforce, around eighty thousand bonded laborers. Overall 21 percent of the nation’s adult male black population between ages eighteen and forty-five joined the USCT, including almost three-quarters of all men in the free states of military age. Altogether, African Americans accounted for between 9 and 12 percent of all Union troops who served in the war. The USCT signified the first systematic, large-scale effort by the U.S. government to arm African Americans to aid in the nation’s defense.” [p. 2] He also writes, “In the sweep of two years Lincoln switched from opposing the arming of African Americans to championing it enthusiastically. Lincoln’s emancipation edict was unquestionably a revolutionary military move. Its provision to arm America’s black men revolutionized America and empowered its African American population.” [p. 3]

The USCT’s performance set the stage for eventual equality of African Americans and helped move Lincoln himself to support increased rights for African Americans. “More so than any other step Lincoln took toward suppressing the slaveholders’ rebellion, African American military service positioned the question of black citizenship at center stage. Once armed, black men instantly assumed a new status, entering one of America’s oldest and most honored institutions–the U.S. Army. Their integration–figuratively, not literally–into the American military and the black soldiers’ solid record in fighting the Confederates proved crucial in defeating the insurgents. Their service also raised numerous vexing questions about their postwar legal status–questions that Lincoln had only begun to think about when General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. … By the time of his death Lincoln had concluded that because of their contributions to sustaining the Union, enfranchising the men of the USCT was a moral obligation.” [pp. 4-5]

The USCT were integral to the United States victory in the Civil War. “In terms of manpower, Lincoln said, black men added around two hundred thousand men to the Union cause, concomitantly denying that number to the Confederates. They defended important military posts along the Union’s offensive line. If Lincoln abandoned those posts, he said, the war would be lost in three weeks. He and the country needed what Lincoln referred to as ‘the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee.’ The president made clear that the cause of restoring the Union and abolishing slavery were one and the same.” [p. 5]

The story of the USCT begins with emancipation. Professor Smith gives us a short overview of the steps taken toward emancipation. “Once white southerners engaged in armed rebellion, however, Lincoln systematically reneged on his promise not to interfere with slaveholders’ private property. To some degree he was forced to do so. The Confederacy’s early military successes depended significantly on slavery. Bondsmen provided the agricultural and industrial labor that supplied its armies. Slaves constructed fortifications, repaired railroads, and freed up white men to serve in the ranks. In response, Lincoln began a series of deliberate steps that culminated in his emancipating and arming African Americans. In his private ad public pronouncements the president used the idea of contingency as a rhetorical device to make his emancipation project palatable to a broad community of white northerners. Ultimately he could not suppress the rebellion without using his ‘Emancipation lever.’. ” [pp. 9-10]

We also learn about early moves by those in the field to arm African American, particularly Jams H. Lane in Kansas and John W. Phelps in Louisiana. In September of 1862, “Secretary of War Stanton reversed the administration’s policy, quietly authorizing General Rufus Saxton to begin recruiting black South Carolinians where Hunter had left off.” [p. 15] The 1862 Militia Act had authorized Lincoln to use African Americans in any function he felt was necessary. In his final Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1, 1863, Lincoln authorized the recruiting and mustering in of African American soldiers. “Lincoln’s final Emancipation Proclamation ushered in the first mobilization of African American soldiers in U.S. history. In inviting black men to bear arms to suppress the rebellion, Lincoln opened dramatic new avenues to freedom and manhood. The establishment of the USCT in 1863 became the focal point of the president’s emancipation project, and his subordinates worked to systematize and integrate black recruitment into national policy.” [p. 34]

The rebels reacted poorly to this development, promising to execute or enslave African American soldiers and to execute their white officers. This led Lincoln to move to protect them. “On January 10 Lincoln informed Stanton and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that he wanted to move forward in recruiting blacks but to keep them out of harm’s way–positioning them in posts where they would not be captured by Confederates and, as the Rebels threatened, executed. Accordingly, Lincoln suggested to Stanton that they be assigned garrison duty (as per the wording of the final Emancipation Proclamation) at Memphis, Tennessee, Columbus, Kentucky, and other places, thereby allowing white soldiers to ‘go on more active service.’ ” [p. 36]

The confederate reaction, as noted, was anger and the commission of war crimes. “Davis damned Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation as an ‘effort to excite servile war within the Confederacy’ and blasted the final Emancipation Proclamation as ‘the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man,’ one that would lead to insurrection by the slaves and to their ultimate ‘extermination.’ Captured armed slaves and their white officers would be tried under the laws of the various southern states, he said. Within weeks Methodist preacher George Richard Browder, a Kentucky slaveholder and southern sympathizer recorded in his diary that ‘confederates hang or shoot all the negroes they find in uniform & say they will give all the officers captured since the issuing of Lincolns [sic] proclamation into the hands of the State authorities to be punished for exciting insurrection. The penalty is death & this may lead to cruel & bloody retaliation.’ ” [p. 61] War crimes included commanders and civilian leaders ordering them. ” ‘The Department,’ [confederate Secretary of War James] Seddon wrote, ‘has determined that negroes captured will not be regarded as prisoners of war.’ A month later, in a joint resolution, the Confederate Congress declared that those engaged in freeing and arming the South’s slaves would be ‘lawfully repressed by retaliation.’ Any white officer of black troops would be considered an insurrectionist, ‘and shall if captured be put to death or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court.’ Captured black soldiers were to ‘be delivered to the authorities of the State or States in which they shall be captured to be dealt with according to the present or future law of such State or States.’ In June, General Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, discouraged his subordinates from capturing black soldiers or officers, suggesting instead that they give them ‘no quarter.’ ” [p. 61] The war department overruled him. Nevertheless, Professor Smith tells us about a umber of criminal atrocities confederates inflicted on African American United States soldiers.

This is an excellent book, giving us an overview of the history of the USCT during the Civil War. It’s very useful for students of the war and is short so it can be read quickly and can be quickly searched for information later. I can highly recommend it.


  1. Al

    May I swipe this review for NYMAS ( and StrategyPage, with suitable credit and links?

    1. Absolutely, Al.

  2. Al Nofi · · Reply

    Thank you.

    I’d like to make two changes, switching the “This” at the start of the first and last paragraphs to “Lincoln and the U.S. Colored Troops”, publishers like to see the title repeated a lot in a review.

    After the newsletter comes out, I’ll send you a copy, plus links to the online posts.

    It’ll include this comment:

    “Originally posted on Feb. 28, 2021, by the Student of the American Civil War website,, this review appears used through the kind permission of Mr. Mackey.”

    Could you send me mini-bio, so I can let people know who you are?

    1. Sounds good, Al. Take a look at the “About” section of this blog and see if that will fit the bill.

      1. Al Nofi · · Reply

        How’s this

        Al Mackey is a retired U. S. Air Force officer, former Human Resources Manager with a global company, and currently an educator. He developed an interest in the American Civil War while a college student, and has since collected books, videos, CDs, and magazines about the war. He regularly participates in internet forums, conferences, and discussion about the war with historians, and maintains the ‘Student of the American Civil War website —

        1. Looks good, Al. Thanks.

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