The Racial Politics of Demobilizing USCT Regiments

Company of colored troops, 1865 (Courtesy of the New York Public Library)

On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee (commander of the Confederate States Army) formally surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant (commander of the U.S. Army). The event not only reshaped American history, but it remains a widely depicted historical event for officially recognizing the end of the Civil War. Many people either ignore or remain unaware that numerous United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments, including the Eighth United States Colored Infantry (USCI) and the 127th USCI, assisted in chasing Lee’s forces to Appomattox, Virginia. Some people may not know that those USCT regiments were present at Lee’s surrender. As the recent scholarship of Caroline Janney, Steven Ramold, David Silkenat, and Gregory P. Downs denote, the truce between Lee and Grant did not imply that Confederates, or their sympathizers, would stop fighting to protect slavery and white supremacy. After all, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination occurred on April 14th, five days after Lee’s surrender, and the last surrender of Confederate forces occurred in Liverpool, England, on November 6, 1865

As the complicated processes of surrender and potential readmission of ex-Confederates eventually took place, numerous white soldiers (in both armies) began seeing their military service come to an end. Various U.S. Army officers permitted Confederate soldiers, who surrendered and swore an oath of allegiance to the United States, could receive a pardon. Eventually, President Andrew Johnson included an offer of amnesty to ex-Confederates, which would allow them to have their American citizenship returned while absolving their earlier treasonous actions from receiving punishment. Confederate prisoners of war, meanwhile, also received their releases from captivity, primarily in an attempt to close military prison camps and possibly expedite reconstructing the nation. At the same time, the U.S. War Department began mustering out white regiments under the belief that white soldiers “deserved” an accelerated return to civilian life because they served from the war’s outset. 

USCT regiments, meanwhile, did not get similar opportunities to end their military service and return to their families and civilian lives. U.S. Army officer Philip Sheridan (for whom Black soldiers comprised 75 percent of his military forces) claimed, in 1866, that Black soldiers had more rights in service than civilians. Sheridan’s logic ignored that many USCT soldiers did not have the freedom, or even the option, to leave the military after Lee’s surrender as the U.S. War Department only permitted white U.S. Army regiments to demobilize. 

 Nor did Sheridan consider the kin of USCT soldiers who were desperately awaiting the potential return of their male relatives. For instance, an anonymous USCT soldier pointed this fact out, in a letter to Edwin Stanton (the U.S. Secretary of War), questioned why USCT soldiers, who struggled—emotionally and psychologically—without their family after years of separation as enlisted men, would now head towards Texas “whilce thire Familys is in a Suffern condishtion[.]” Some family members also wrote letters to their relatives where they clamored for the soldiers to return home, as Etta Watson did in a letter to her unnamed spouse in a July 25, 1865 correspondence. After informing her husband how their child, Fay, recently became gravely ill, she was distraught. “Dr. Hendrick said thear was an order the day after [the] 54th Reg. to be mustered out imeadetley….I thought you was on your way home.”

Unfortunately for many USCT soldiers and their families, federal officials and U.S. War Department deemed USCT regiments critical to enforcing various Reconstruction policies. USCT regiments responsibilities included remaining near the Mexican-American border (in Texas) to stave off a suspected invasion by Napoleon III’s French forces, forcing Native Americans off of their land and onto reservations, protecting freedpeople in reconstructing states and attempting to stop defiant ex-Confederates from reasserting power (in various ways). From the perspective of the U.S. policymakers and military officials, these duties were both invaluable and necessary, and they needed soldiers to do it. Moreover, thus, that responsibility befell USCT soldiers as they served in dangerous, and sometimes fatal, situations. For instance, William B. Johnston of the Third USCI reported (in June of 1865) while stationed in Olustee, Florida, that “The rebs here seem to die very hard at the idea of having black troops to guard them…” 

Meanwhile, USCT regiments stationed in former Confederate states, including Texas, experienced differing hardships ranging from having limited access to supply lines and fighting with the commanding officers for resources. Numerous USCT soldiers became seriously ill as the men battled the elements and environments. For instance, Stacey Hemenway (a Forty-First USCI surgeon) estimated that perhaps nearly 80 percent of the regiment dealt with scurvy, due to a vitamin C deficiency, during their time in Texas. At the same time, Black Texans (particularly those who were unaware of their emancipation) celebrated the arrival of USCT regiments, such as the Thirty-First USCI, that notified and protected the freedom of formerly enslaved people. Serving in Texas illustrates the complicated aspects of Black military service, post-Lee’s surrender as soldiering in Texas solidified the end of slavery, ushered in a new life for formerly enslaved people. However, it also meant that USCT soldiers’ lives were in constant jeopardy.

In the end, prolonging the military service of USCT regiments had real, and sometimes, horrific results for Black men that the federal government and U.S. War Department refused to demobilize after Lee surrendered. Their extended service had unfortunate consequences for the enlisted men, and their families were eager to reconnect. The demobilization process was a racialized experience that denied USCT soldiers the ability to resume their civilian lives while permitting white soldiers to leave the U.S. Army.  

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Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

Dr. Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Furman University. His book, The Families' Civil War: Northern African American Soldiers and The Fight for Racial Justice, will be released in June of 2022. Follow him on Twitter @PhUsct.