Washington, DC: 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 to Fold3.com subscribers, and can be accessed for free at any time on computers at National Archives research facilities nationwide (in addition, some public libraries offer their cardholders free access to Fold3.com).
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.
National Archives press release on the USCT Digitization Project