Photo courtesy of Library of Congress
Celebrating Black History Month is a great opportunity to honor African-American soldiers who served in wartime. One group that is sometimes overlooked is the original US Colored Troops formed during the Civil War, where they were an important part of success by Union Troops.
Some historians have written about African-American soldiers during the Civil War, notably William A. Dobak in “Freedom by the Sword.” Historian and educator Michael Hogan is one of the few to document the role of the USCT in helping exiled Mexican President Benito Juárez end French occupation of North America. His research of archival documents resulted in a chapter in his book “Abraham Lincoln and Mexico” about USCT troops fighting alongside Mexican troops.
Several key online sources contain more facts about African-American soldiers in the 1860s.
The website for the U.S. Army Center of Military History summarizes the origin and history of the USCT: “With the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863, Lincoln not only declared most of the slaves in the Confederacy free, but he also authorized the use of black men as soldiers ‘to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places.’
The official military history site also states that “Nearly 180,000 black soldiers served in the USCT, comprising about 10 percent of the Union Army’s manpower total.” During the war, these black troops played key roles in several battles, 25 received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery and sacrifice, and several had command roles. According to the website, Sgt. Maj. Lewis Douglass of the 54th Massachusetts was a son of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. You can read more at https://history.army.mil/news/2015/150200a_bHistory.html
The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley recognizes the contributions of the USCT along the Texas border: “By May 1865, nearly 16,000 USCT veterans of the 25th Corps arrived at Brazos … where they were assigned to prevent former Confederates from establishing their defeated government and army in Mexico.” You can listen to a 90-second audio history clip at http://www.utrgv.edu/civilwar-trail/civil-war-trail/colored-troops/index.htm
As the Civil War was ending, as documented in Dr. Hogan’s book, many of these black troops joined forces inside Mexico to help fight French occupation forces. “After the war the USCT was disbanded. However, many of these demobilized black freemen, finding little work at home and much prejudice, joined the Americans fighting in Mexico as part of the American Legion of Honor recruited in late 1865 and early 1866. They saw action in the last battles of the Franco-Mexican War including the battle of Zacatecas, the final siege at Querétaro, and triumphal march to Mexico City.”
Mexico honors the contribution of these troops, and the African-Americans soldiers among them, in Mexico City.
“There is a gravesite in Mexico City where those who fell in this conflict are interred,” Dr. Hogan states. “Many, however, survived and went on to settle in Mexico and have families; others returned to the United States and served in the military or returned to civilian life. They had, in the vernacular of the day, ‘seen the elephant’.”
His book about Lincoln’s legacy of support for Mexico is in the Lincoln Presidential Library and in private university libraries from Harvard and West Point to public university systems in Texas, Arizona, and California. His research documents that the American Legion of Honor had approximately 3,500 men who served in Mexico from 1865 through the final siege of Mexico in 1867. Additional history he has discovered about the Legion of Honor in Mexico, including its African-American members, is the subject of a forthcoming book.
Even more history about the USCT is available on the website for the Civil War Trust at https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/united-states-colored-troops