Pennsylvania in the Civil War

Virtue ~ Liberty ~ Independence

The Colored Troops1

History of Their Organization

Wherever black regiments were engaged in battle during the Civil War, they acquitted themselves in a manner which fully justified the policy of the Government in enlisting their services. In the future wars of the Republic the colored American will find himself entrusted with his full share of the fighting.

And yet, the war for the Union was not the first time an African fought for the Stars and Stripes. Black faces were not uncommon among the ranks of the patriots in 1776. The first man to fall in that struggle was the negro, Cripus Attucks,2 who led the mob in its attack on the British Troops in the Boston Massacre. At Bunker Hill, the free negroes fought intermingled with the whites; and when Major Pitcairn was killed, it was by a bullet from a negro’s rifle. At the Battle of Rhode Island, Colone Greene’s black regiment repulsed three successive charges, during which they handled a Hessian regiment severely.3  In the War of 1812, General Jackson issued a proclamation authorizing the formation of black regiments, and, subsequently, in an address to the colored troops thus enlisted, acknowledged their services in unstinted praise.

But, at the time of the Civil War, the negro was closely associated with the public mind with the political causes of the strife. The prejudice and opposition against the use of colored troops was so strong that the war was half finished before they were organized to any extent.

The first appearance of the negro in the military operations of that period occurred September, 1862, in Cincinnati, at the time of the threatened invasion by Morgan’s raiders. A so-called Black Brigade of three regiments was then organized, and assigned to duty in constructing the fortifications and earthworks about Cincinnati. These men gave their services voluntarily, but were unarmed and without uniforms. Their organization, such as it was, existed for three weeks only, and had no connection with the government for enlisting colored troops.

About the same time General Benjamin Butler took the initiative in the enlistment of colored as soldiers, by organizing at New Orleans the regiments known as the Louisiana Native Guards, one of which completed its organization in August, 1862, and was mustered into service on the 27th of the following month. It was designated the First Louisiana Native Guard, and was the first black regiment to join the Union Army. The Second Louisiana Native Guard was mustered in, October 12, 1862; the third on November 24, 1862. The other regiments of the Guard or Corps d’Afrique as it was called, completed their organizations within a few months later.

At this time, also, in August 1862, recruiting for a colored regiment was commenced in Kansas, and over 600 men were soon mustered in. The regiment, however, was not mustered into the United States service until January 16, 1863. It was the designated the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, but its name was changed, in December 1864, to the 79th United States Colored Infantry.

Recruiting for a black regiment had, also, been undertaken in South Carolina by General Hunter, and an officer, Sergeant C. T. Trowbridge, had been detailed for that purpose as early as May 7, 1862. The recruiting progressed slowly, and was attended with so many difficulties and discouragements that a complete regimental organization was not affected until January 31,1863. Some of the companies, however, were organized at an earlier date. Colonel T. W. Higginson was assigned to the command of this regiment, his commission dating back to November 10, 1862. Trowbridge was made Captain of the first company organized, and subsequently promoted to the Lieutenant Colonelcy.

This regiment, First South Carolina, was the first slave regiment organized, the Louisiana Native Guard having been recruited largely from free blacks. The designation of the First South Carolina was changed by the War Department, in February 1864, to Thirty-third United States Colored Infantry.

Recruiting for the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts commenced in February 1863, and its ten companies were full in May. It was the first colored regiment raised in a Northern State, the First Kansas having been recruited largely in Missouri, and partly from enslaved blacks. The Fifty-fourth was composed mostly of free men, and its recruits came from all the Northern States, it being their first opportunity to enlist.

By this time the movement had become general, and before the war closed the colored troops embraced:

Type of Regiment


Infantry      143
Cavalry          7
Heavy Artillery        12
Light Artillery          1
Engineers          1

Of these, about 60 were brought into action on the battle field, the others having been assigned to post or garrison duty.

The Losses in Battle and by Disease

Of the regiments brought into action, only a few were engaged in more than one battle; the war was half over, and so the total of killed does not appear as great as it otherwise would have done. The total number killed or mortally wounded in the colored troops was 143 officers, and 2,751 men. The officers were whites. Through participating only in the latter campaigns of the war, the black regiments made a noble record, and if, at times, they failed to win victories, it was through no fault of their own.

The first action in which colored troops were engaged was an affair at Island Mounds, Mo., October 28, 1862, in which a detachment of the First Kansas was attacked by superior number of Confederates under command of Colonel Cockerel. Although outnumbered, they made a successful resistance and scored a victory. Their loss was 10 killed, including a Captain, and 19 wounded. The First Kansas, also, lost 16 men killed on May 18, 1863, in a minor engagement at Sherwood, Mo.

In the assault on Port Hudson, La., May 27, 1863, colored troops were used for the first time in a general engagement. The Nineteenth Army Corps during its besiegement of that stronghold, included several colored regiments in its organization. There were the First and Third Louisiana Native Guards; the First Louisiana Engineers, Corps d’Afrique; and, the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Infantry, Corps d’Afrique. During the siege the First Louisiana Native Guards lost 2 officers and 32 men killed, and 3 officers and 92 men wounded (including the mortally wounded); total 129. But few regiments in the Nineteenth Corps sustained a greater loss. The other regiments of the Corps d’Afrique were actively engaged, but with few casualties. The First Louisiana Native Guard was attached to August’s First (1st) Division, and participated in the assaults of May 27th and June 14th, in which the principal loss occurred, its dead lying among those nearest the enemy’s works. This regiment should not be confounded with the First Louisiana Infantry, also of Augur’s Division,--a white regiment which, also sustained a severe loss at Port Hudson.

On June 7th, 1863, the colored troops composing the garrison at Milliken’s Bend, La., were attacked by Walker’s Division numbering 3,000 men. The garrison consisted of three colored regiments:  The Ninth Louisiana, Eleventh Louisiana, and First Mississippi. In addition, there were 200 men of the 23d Iowa (white) who had been escorting prisoners up the river, and were on their return to the front. The regiments were small, many of the men, and most of the officers, being absent on recruiting service or other duty. When attacked the garrison was driven back to the river, where two gunboats came to their assistance. The troops then made a counter charge, regaining possession of their works and capturing several prisoners. The fighting was desperate in the extreme, many of the combatants on each side falling by bayonet thrusts or blows from clubbed muskets. The loss, as officially stated by the Assistant Secretary of War, who was then in Vicksburg, amounted to: 





9th Louisiana       62      130     192
11th Louisiana       30      120     150
1st Mississippi         3       21       24
23d Iowa (White)        26       30       86
    TOTAL       121      301       452
With the wounded are included those who were mortally wounded.  Captain Miller, of the Ninth Louisiana,4 states that his regiment had only 300 men engaged, and that the whole force of the garrison was about 600 men.

The next action in which colored troops were engaged was the grand assault on Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863. To the 54th Massachusetts Colored was assigned the honor of leading the attack, and after the troops were formed on the beach, ready for the assault, the order of advance was withheld until the Fifty-fourth could march by and take position at the head of the column. The assault failed; but, not until the Colonel of the Fifth-fourth and many of his men had fallen dead on the parapet, or within the fort. The loss of the regiment in this affair was—3 officers and 31 men killed, 11 officers and 135 men wounded (including those mortally so), and 92 men missing; total 272 out of 650 engaged. An impression has gained ground that no quarter was given to the black troops; and, that the 92 missing or captured men met their death in the fort, after they had surrendered. But the Official Records show that 49 of these men died of disease in Confederate prisons, and that others of the captured men returned at the close of the war, rejoining their regiment before its muster-out. 

One of the severest regimental losses during the war, occurred in the Eighth United States Colored Infantry, at Olustee, Fla., February 20, 1864. It lost here 2 officers and 49 men killed, 9 officers and 180 men wounded, and 63 missing; total 303. The missing ones were mostly, dead or wounded men who were left on the field; for, in this action the Confederates held possession of the ground, General Seymour’s forces being obliged to retreat, Colonel Fribley of the of the Eighth was among the killed. The number of the killed was increased by 87 by those who died of wounds, and certain ones who were erroneously included with the missing. This same regiment distinguished itself, also, at Chaffin’s Farm.

Upon the opening of the spring campaign in 1864, colored troops were a common feature of the armies before Richmond. Ferrero’s Division of the Ninth Corps, and Hinks’ Division of the Eighteenth Corps, were composed entirely of black regiments. In the first attack on Petersburg, June 15, 1864, Hinks’ Division achieved a brilliant success, capturing the line of works to its front, and seven pieces of artillery. Had the Army of the Potomac arrived in time to follow up the success of the colored troops, Petersburg would have been taken then; but, by the time that the Eighteenth Corps was reinforced, Lee’s army had hurried thither by rail and were filing into the intrenchments. The opportunity was lost. In this assault of June 15th, the casualty lists show that the temporary success of the Colored Division was dearly obtained. Among the heavier losses were:






4th U. S. Colored Infantry         15        110         10        135
22d U. S. Colored Infantry         14        116         8        138

 The first opportunity to go into action for Ferrero’s Division, was at the Mine Explosion, or battle of the Crater, at Petersburg, July 30, 1864. This division was selected to lead the assault; but, at the last moment, the order was changed and it was sent in last. It was not ordered forward until the assault was a bloody failure, and although it did all that men could do, it was unable to retrieve the disaster. This change of plan relieved the colored regiments of all responsibility for that defeat. Still, they fought bravely, and held their ground under the most discouraging circumstances. How well they stood is attested by there terrible losses. 

Casualties in Ferrero’s Division
Battle of the Mine, July 30, 1864






23d U. S. Colored Infantry





29th U. S. Colored Infantry





31st U. S. Colored Infantry





43d U. S. Colored Infantry





30th U. S. Colored Infantry





39th U. S. Colored Infantry





28th U. S. Colored Infantry





27th U. S. Colored Infantry





19th U. S. Colored Infantry










*Includes the mortally wounded
**A large proportion of the missing were killed or wounded

 To any one familiar with the extent of regimental losses in action, these figures tell a heroic story.

Hard fighting was also done by colored troops at Chaffin’s Farm, September 29, 1864, where Paine’s Division (colored) of the Eighteenth Corps, and Birneys4 Colored Brigade of the tenth Corps—in all, about 10,000 strong—were actively engaged. These troops participated in the assaults on Fort Gilmer and the intrenchments at New Market Heights. Among the regiments sustaining the heaviest losses were the following:  






6th U. S. Colored Infantry





5th U. S Colored Infantry





4th U. S Colored Infantry





36th U. S Colored Infantry





38h U. S Colored Infantry





The Sixth had only 367 officers and men engaged, its loss being over 57 percent. The troops in Paine’s Division were the same ones which carried the works at Petersburg, June 15, 1864.

In the action on the Darbytown Road, Va., October 27, 1864, the Twenty-Ninth Connecticut (Colored) distinguished itself by the efficiency with which it held a skirmish line for several hours, under a strong pressure. Loss:  11 killed and 69 wounded.

Two brigades of colored troops participated in the victory at Nashville, December 15, 1864. The heaviest loss in any regiment on that field occurred in the Thirteenth U. S. Colored Infantry, which, in its assault on Overton Hill, lost 55 killed (including 4 officers), and 166 wounded (includes the mortally wounded); total:  221.

The severest loss at the battle of Honey Hill, S.C., November 30, 1864, fell on a  black regiment, the Fifth-fifth Massachusetts, which lost in that action, 29 killed, and 115 wounded; total:  144.

In the closing battle of the war—the victorious assault on Fort Blakely, Ala., April 9, 1865—a colored division bore a conspicuous and honorable part. Among the casualties in that engagement the following are worthy of note:






68th U. S. Colored Infantry





75th U. S Colored Infantry





In addition to the battles heretofore mentioned, colored troops were prominently engaged in the following actions:  

Morris Island, S.C. Yazoo City, Miss.
Poison Springs, Ark. Saline River, Ark.
Morganzia, La. Tupelo, Miss.
Bermuda Hundred, Va. Darbytown Road, Va.
Saltville, Va. Cox's Bridge, N.C.
Spanish Fort, Ala. James Island, S.C.
Pleasant Hill, La. Camden, Ark.
Fort Pillow, Tenn. Jacksonville, Fla.
Athens, Ala. Dutch Gap, Va.
Hatcher's Run, Va. Deveaux Neck, S. C.
Fort Fisher, N. C. Fall of Richmond
Liverpool Heights, Miss. Prairie d'Ann, Ark.
Jenkins Ferry, Ark. Natural Bridge, Fla.
Brice's X Roads, Miss. Drewry's Bluff, Va.
Deep Bottom, Va. Fair Oaks, Va. (1864)
Boykin's Mills, S. C. Wilmington, N. C.
Appomattox, Va.

They rendered effective and meritorious service in many ofthese engagements, and, in some of them, sustained serious losses.

1Fox, William F., Lt. Colonel, U. S. Volunteers, Regimental Losses in The American Civil War, 1861-1865. Albany, NY: Brandow Printing Company, 1898. Chapter IV. pp. 52-56.

2Crispus Attucks. His body was placed in Faneuil Hall, and honored with a public funeral. With others who fell, he as buried beneath a stone bearing the words:

“Long asin Freedom’s cause the wise contend,
Dear to your country shall your fame extend,
While to the world the lettered stone shall tell
Where Caldwell, Attacks, Gray, and Maverick fell.”

3 Arnold. History of Rhode Island.

4Brown. Negro in the Rebellion.






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