More than 178,000 free blacks and freedmen served in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) during the Civil War, comprising one-tenth of all Union troops by the war’s end. Their service contributed greatly to the Union’s war efforts and marked a turning point in the war, providing a much-needed boost in the Union ranks. During the war, 2,751 soldiers of the United States Colored Troops lost their lives in combat. More than 68,000 more died in the service from disease other causes 1.
In South Carolina alone, where Union troops occupied Port Royal beginning in November of 1861, more than 5,000 men served in the USCT in six regiments organized there (21st, 33rd, 103rd, 104th and 128th USCT).
Did your ancestor serve in the United States Colored Troops (USCT)? This post will take you step-by-step through how to find out.
Did your ancestor serve in the United States Colored Troops (USCT)? This post will take you step-by-step through how to find out. If your ancestor did serve, this opens a world of new records for discovering your ancestor’s story.
On May 22, 1863, the War Department issued General Order No. 143 authorizing the recruitment of African Americans into the armed forces. African American regiments created under this order were known as United States Colored Troops, or USCT. United States Colored Troops military units included cavalry, artillery and infantry. The majority of USCT veterans served in the infantry 2.
Recruiting Broadside for United States Colored Troops, from Freeman, Elsie, Wynell Burroughs Schamel, and Jean West. “The Fight for Equal Rights: A Recruiting Poster for Black Soldiers in the Civil War.” Social Education 56, 2 (February 1992): 118-120. [Revised and updated in 1999 by Budge Weidman.]
Civil War Soldier and Sailors System Database
The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System hosted by the National Park Service is a free searchable database of the names of those who served in Union or Confederate forces during the Civil War. Here you can search to see if your ancestor served in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) or the US Navy during the war. Search forms for soldiers and sailors are separate, so be sure to search both for your ancestor’s name.
If you find a record for your ancestor, there’s more to learn from this helpful database. The Soldiers and Sailors System website also offers information on the histories of USCT regiments and links to related information about significant battles, prisoner of war records and cemetery records 3.
If you find that your ancestor did serve in the USCT, this opens a world of new records for discovering your ancestor’s story.
USCT Service Records
If you find your ancestor listed in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System database, the next step is to gather his military service record.
To find your ancestor’s Civil War service record, you can search United States Civil War Service Records of Union Colored Troops, 1863-1865, a free database on FamilySearch.org.
Here you will find an index to the compiled service records available on the subscription site Fold3. The search results will link you directly to that soldier’s compiled service record on Fold3.
The records for each soldier typically include a jacket envelope labeled with the soldier’s name, rank, and the unit in which he served. Within the jacket envelope are cards that abstract records relating to the soldier as found in original muster rolls and other military service records relating solely to the particular soldier 4.
[Note: Some Civil War service records are being added to the National Archives website and are accessible through the NARA online catalog. Before you go to a subscription website, it’s worth checking to see if your ancestor’s USCT service record is available free on the National Archives’ website. Here, for example, is the USCT Compiled Service Record for Bram Strobert, who served in the 33rd USCT.]
Did Your Ancestor Apply for a Military Pension? Thank your Lucky Stars If So.
If your ancestor applied for a military pension, his pension record may contain information that will open many doors for your research. Civil War pension files are among the richest records that document formerly enslaved ancestors, and often contain information that can be found nowhere else.
In order to establish their eligibility for a pension for an illness or injury sustained while serving in the United States Colored Troops, veterans had to prove many details concerning their service, the nature of their illness or injury, the identity of their dependents, and more.
Because events in USCT veterans’ lives before the Civil War were seldom recorded in the documentary record, veterans had to go to great lengths to prove their identity, their dates of marriage, names and ages of children, and other biographical details that had to be documented in order for them to draw a military pension.
This frequently meant gathering the testimony of others who witnessed their marriage, the death of a spouse, the births of their children or other life events. Often those who testified about such events were enslaved on the same plantation as the soldier. Veterans often relied upon the testimony of others who served in the same regiment and company to help them prove their identity and service.
The testimony of supporting witnesses revealed much about the military veteran applying for a pension. Along the way, witnesses also revealed a lot about their own lives and families.
If there is a USCT pension file for your ancestor who served, it may be filled with rich information about your ancestor’s life before, during and after the war. To read more about the rich details you may find in a USCT pension file, please see our article USCT Pension Files: A Rich Resource for African American Genealogy by Bernice Bennett.
If there is a USCT pension file for your ancestor, it may be filled with rich information about your ancestor’s life before, during and after the war, including the name of your ancestor’s slaveholder, and the plantation where he was enslaved.
To see if your ancestor applied for a military pension for service in the USCT, you can search United States General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934, a free database on FamilySearch.
If you find an entry in the pension file index for your ancestor’s name, first verify that the search result is for your ancestor – that is, it lists the company and regiment your ancestor served in. Once you have verified that the entry is for your ancestor, you will be able to view and download the USCT pension file index card linked to the search result. This is the card you will need to order your ancestor’s pension file from the National Archives.
USCT Pension File Index Card for Bram Strobert, 33rd United States Colored Troops.
United States General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934, Database Online at FamilySearch.org.
Ordering Your Ancestor’s USCT Pension File
Once you have downloaded the USCT pension file index card for your ancestor, you can order the USCT pension file through the National Archives website here.
The National Archives’ current fee schedule lists costs for ordering copies. As of the date of this writing, the National Archives charges $80.00 to copy the first 100 pages of a USCT pension file. If the file is more than 100 pages in length, the National Archives will contact you regarding the cost to order the entire file. The file will be delivered electronically in about 6-8 weeks.
Here’s a bit of good news though – we will be ordering at least two USCT pension files per month for our online research collection. You can join our Facebook research group Genealogy of the United States Colored Troops, where you can add your pension file index card to the post that begins “Friends, if there is a USCT pension file you need…”
We will work our way through the list of requested pension files until we have ordered them all. If you don’t mind waiting a bit for your file, we will be happy to order it for you at no cost, and send you the link to download the file when it arrives. [Note: here is a link to the post pictured above, you will need to join the group before it works, but you can keep it handy for checking on the status of your file: “Friends, if there is a USCT pension file you need…“]
Locating More Records for Your USCT Veteran Ancestor
The FamilySearch Wiki has several useful articles that will help you locate records for documenting ancestors who served in the United States Colored Troops. United States Colored Troops in the Civil War provides a history of the United States Colored Troops and the records that document their service. Beginning United States Civil War Research provides basic research advice on beginning your search for USCT veterans. Union Volunteers in the Civil War and United States Civil War 1861 to 1865, Part 1 describe many documentary resources for USCT veterans and how to locate them.
 Cornish, Dudley Taylor. The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861–1865. New York: W.W. Norton, 1965.
 Civil War Trust. “The United States Colored Troops,” https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/united-states-colored-troops, accessed 20 Feb 2018.
 “Civil War Service Records of Union Colored Troops, 1863-1865,” database on FamilySearch, https://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/1932431?collectionNameFilter=false, accessed 20 Feb 2018.