The issues of freedom for the slaves and military service were intertwined from the beginning of the Civil War. News from Fort Sumter had set off a rush by free black men to enlist in military units. They were turned away, however, because a Federal law dating from 1792 barred them from bearing arms for the U.S. Army (although they had served in the American Revolution and in the War of 1812).
The Lincoln administration thought about authorizing the recruitment of black troops before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but they were worried that doing so would prompt the border states to secede.
Nevertheless, the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, did include mention of military service, although Lincoln did not call slaves and free blacks to serve as combatant troops in the war. Lincoln wrote, ”And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable conditions, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”
This statement directly applied to slaves in the slave states, and many black men moved to free themselves. Despite the restrictions of the Emancipation Proclamation in loyal border states, Tennessee, and portions of Union-occupied Louisiana and Virginia, slaves found their way to the Union armies and U.S. recruitment stations while their families remained in slavery.
From February to June 1863, the War Department established procedures for the selection, recruitment, and training of blacks–regardless of status–to serve in the U.S. Army. The War Department also created a selection process for white officers to lead the troops. On May 22, 1863, the War Department issued General Order 143, officially establishing a Bureau of Colored Troops and authorizing the raising of regiments of ”U.S. Colored Troops” (USCT). Many African Americans served in the USCT as the war continued.
You can read more about the beginning of the USCT in “Living with the Hydra” by Walter B. Hill, Jr., which was published in the Winter 2000 edition of Prologue. This story also comes from the National Archives online exhibit, “Our Documents,” featuring General Order 143.
The story of the creation of the USCT is featured in “The Meaning and Making of Emancipation,” a free eBook created by the National Archives. You can read it on your iPad, iPhone, Android, Nook, or other electronic device.
The National Archives will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation with a special display of the original document at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, from Sunday, December 30, to Tuesday, January 1. The commemoration will include extended viewing hours, inspirational music, a dramatic reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, and family activities and entertainment for all ages.