Company E, 4th US Colored Infantry, Washington, DC. Photo by William Morris Smith, courtesy of National Library of Congress.
During Black History Month in the USA, it’s a good time to look at how the Emancipation Proclamation allowed liberated slaves to serve in the Union Army.
Eventually, approximately 178,000 black soldiers served in the Civil War, most of them as part of the US Colored Troops (USCT). Some were free blacks, but most were liberated slaves. Twenty-five received the Congressional Medal of Honor – eighteen soldiers and seven sailors.
An overview and documented details are in the 2016 book Abraham Lincoln and Mexico by historian/ educator Michael Hogan. His research and writing to examine the impact of including black soldiers in the Union Army goes further than most historians and textbooks.
Starting with references from works by other historians, Hogan uses archival documents to follow USCT soldiers after the Civil War who became part of the American Legion of Honor recruited by Mexico in late 1865-1866 to help Mexico fight French troops that invaded Mexico in 1861 and installed a puppet monarchy.
Union veterans comprised the officer corps of the Legion, according to Hogan, but many of the rank and file were remnants of the USCT.
“The American Legion of Honor consisted of approximately 3,000 men who served in Mexico from late 1865 through the final siege of Mexico in 1867,” Hogan writes. “There is a gravesite in Mexico City where those who fell in this conflict are interred.”
The US forces in Mexico were relatively small compared to the overall Mexican Army, says Hogan.
“They usually accounted for about 500-1000 in forces of 4,000 or more,” he writes. “However, their cohesiveness, their battle experience, their outstanding leadership, and finally their superior firepower made them a fearsome force.”