150 years ago today a Bureau of Colored Troops was ordered by the federal War Department:
ADJUTANT GENERAL’S OFFICE,
Washington, May 22, 1863.
I — A Bureau is established in the Adjutant General’s Office for the record of all matters relating to the organization of Colored Troops, An officer, will be assigned to the charge of the Bureau, with such number of clerks as may be designated by the Adjutant General. …
VI — Colored troops maybe accepted by companies, to be afterward consolidated in battalions and regiments by the Adjutant General. The regiments will be numbered seriatim, in the order in which they are raised, the numbers to be determined by the Adjutant General. They will be designated: “——Regiment of U. S. Colored Troops.” …
BY ORDER OF THE SECRETARY OF WAR:
E. D. TOWNSEND,
Assistant Adjutant General.
Charles William Foster, Jr. was the chief of the bureau. The U.S.C.T. designation replaced a bunch of state names.
Seven Score and Ten posted on the black soldiers’ concern that they be treated as prisoners of war by the South if captured (as opposed to being re-enslaved, for example).
Here’s some evidence that the Lincoln administration intended to treat the black troops as separate but equal in terms of pay and benefits and expected them to be treated the same as whites if captured.
From the Richmond Daily Dispatch May 15, 1863:
How negro soldiers are to be treated.
The following letter, from Gov. Andrew, of Massachusetts, is in reply to questions addressed to him by Mr. Downing, concerning the position of colored troops in respect to pay, equipments, bounty, and protection, compared to that of white volunteers.
Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Executive Department. Boston, March23, 1863.
Geo. T. Downing, Esq., N. Y.
–In reply to your inquiries made as to the position of colored men who may be enlisted and mustered into the service of the United States, I would say that their position in respect to pay, equipments, bounty, or any aid and protection, when so mustered, will be precisely the same in every particular as that of any and all other volunteers.
I desire further to state to you, that when I was in Washington, on one occasion in an interview with Mr. Stanton, the Secretary of War, he stated, in the most emphatic manner, that he would never consent that free colored men should be accepted into the service, to serve as soldiers in the South, until he should be assured that the Government of the United States was prepared to guarantee and defend, to the last dollar and the last man, to these men all the rights, privileges and immunities that are given by the laws of civilized warfare to other soldiers. Their present acceptance and muster in as soldiers, pledges the honor of the nation in the same degree and to the same rights with all other troops. They will be soldiers of the Union–nothing less and nothing different. I believe they will earn for themselves an honorable fame, vindicating their race and redeeming their future from the aspersions of the past.
I am yours, truly,
John A. Andrew
At the National Archives points out “By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10 percent of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army, and another 19,000 served in the Navy.”
The National Park Service provides a good overview of The Bureau of Colored Troops