National Archives Marks 150th Anniversary of U.S. Colored Troops
Press Release · Friday, May 22, 1863
Washington, DC…Marking today’s 150th anniversary of its creation, the National Archives announces the completion of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) Service Records Digitization Project, in partnership with Fold3. For the first time, this collection – nearly four million images of historic documents with detailed information on former slaves – is available online to anyone, anywhere.
On May 22, 1863, the War Department issued General Orders 143, establishing a Bureau of Colored Troops in the Adjutant General’s Office to recruit and organize African American soldiers to fight for the Union Army. These service records – including those of the men of the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry featured in the movie Glory – are a treasure trove for genealogists and a rich source of documentation on the black experience in America during the Civil War.
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.
For the first time, these valuable historical records are available online, thanks to Fold3, and to National Archives staff and volunteers who spent years preparing, preserving, microfilming, and digitizing them. The collection is available free of charge to non-subscribers on www.fold3.com/category_268 today through May 31, and can be accessed for free at any time on computers at National Archives research facilities nationwide.
In total, the USCT consisted of seven cavalry regiments; 13 artillery regiments plus one independent battery; 144 infantry units; two Brigade Bands; and other miscellaneous smaller units. Records are arranged by regiment and then alphabetically by surname of the soldier.
The USCT fought in 39 major engagements and more than 400 other ones. Sixteen African American soldiers received the Medal of Honor. The last USCT regiment was mustered out of Federal service in December 1867.
One soldier chronicled in the records is Edmund Delaney, a slave who served in Company E of the 117th USCT Infantry. Delaney was 25 years old when he enlisted in August 1864. His owner, Harvey C. Graves of Georgetown, Kentucky, filed a compensation claim for Delaney’s military service in December 1866, stating that Delaney was “purchased at private sale when he was quite a small boy.” Graves attached to his “proof of ownership” a rare photo of Delaney, and letters Delaney had written to him while serving in Brownsville, Texas.
Another soldier’s file reads like an ultimate page turner and details the tragic story of Fortune Wright, a free black man before the Civil War who served in the 96th USCT Infantry. Read USCT project manager Jackie Budell’s fascinating Prologue “Pieces of History” blog post at http://blogs.archives.gov/prologue/?p=12199
For more on African American records at the National Archives, see www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/ For information on records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, see www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/freedmens-bureau/ See Prologue Magazine’s special issue on the use of federal records for African American historical and genealogical research at www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/summer/index.html
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For press information, contact the National Archives Public Affairs staff at 202-357-5300.
This page was last reviewed on August 15, 2016.
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