The United States Colored Troops (USCT) were formed in 1863. 180,000 African-Americans comprising 175 units served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Both free African-Americans and runaway slaves joined the fight. Smaller numbers are said to have fought on the Confederate side including two units in Virginia in 1865.
At first, enrollment was slow. Colored regiments were led by white officers many white soldiers believed that black men lacked the courage to fight. By the end of 1863, fourteen African-American Regiments were in service.
On July 17, 1863, in Indian Territory, the 1st Kansas Colored under General James Blunt ran into a strong Confederate force. After a two-hour battle, the Confederates retreated. The 1st Kansas held the center of the Union line, advanced to within fifty feet of the Confederates and exchanged fire for twenty minutes until the Southern troops retreated. General Blunt wrote, "I never saw such fighting as was done by the Negro regiment... they make better solders in every respect than any troops I have ever had under my command."
The most widely known battle fought by African-Americans was the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by the 54th Massachusetts in 1863. The 54th volunteered to lead the assault on the strongly-fortified Confederate position. Frederick Douglass aided in the recruitment of this group and two of his sons served in it. This group was the basis for the movie "Glory."
Although black soldiers proved themselves as soldiers, it was not until June 15, 1864, when Congress granted equal pay for African-American soldiers.
Sixteen African-Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.
African-American soldiers comprised 10% of the entire Union Army. Approximately one-third of all African Americans in the military lost their lives during the Civil War.
One estimate suggests that between 60,000 and 93,000 blacks, both slave and free, served in the Confederate military in some capacity.
The Confederate Government prohibited enlisting African-Americans in the military. They did authorize payment for African-American musicians to entertain the troops in 1862.
In January, 1864, Confederate General Patrick Cleburne and several other officers proposed using slaves as soldiers in the national army. Southern President Jefferson Davis refused to consider it.
By the fall of 1864, the Confederacy was losing more ground, and some believed that only by arming the slaves could defeat be avoided. On March 23, 1865, an order was issued, allowing slaves to earn their freedom if they fought for the Confederacy. Only a few African-American companies were raised, and the war ended shortly thereafter.
After the war, many of the USCT veterans received no recognition and no military pensions. Most received no disability pensions until the early 1900s.
The African American Civil War Memorial is located in Washington, D.C. near the national museum on U Street.