Remembering the United States Colored Troops Who Helped Win the Civil War

A training manual from 1863 for U.S. colored troops is part of an exhibit titled “Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality” at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke, AP)

It’s when Maurice Imhoff dons his vintage Union Army soldier uniform that he feels most connected to history. With his navy blue wool jacket, a wooden rifle with a bayonet fixed into the muzzle and a gold eagle breastplate across his chest, he represents an often forgotten group of soldiers – the United States Colored Troops.

“These men, once they got the opportunity, they stood up and took the call to action,” Imhoff said. “They picked up the rifle, picked up the flag, and they led the way towards freedom and to free others.”

Though Civil War reenactors are most often thought of as older men, Imhoff, 19, is a high school senior who graduates in June. He is a member of the 102nd U.S. Colored Troops Company C, a reenactment group in Jackson, Michigan, composed of mostly high school students.

Recruitment flyers called “men of color” to arms. / Photo By Eric Long, Collection Of The Smithsonian National Museum Of African American History And Culture (2012.133)

They honor Michigan’s only regiment in the colored troops, which was comprised of nearly 1,000 Black soldiers from Detroit, including men who were born in slave states. The original 102nd engaged with Confederate forces numerous times in the Deep South.

As the nation marks Memorial Day and pays tribute to those who died during military service, some remember the Black soldiers who fought on the Union side during the Civil War. Undeterred by racism, thousands of Black soldiers answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call to fight for the United States and their freedom.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Black men throughout the free states were eager to volunteer, but federal law prohibited them from serving in the Army, said Kelly Mezurek, a history professor at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio. Mezurek is a leading expert on African American service in the Civil War.

It wasn’t until Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, that Black men could participate in combat.  This federal legislation freed slaves living in Confederate states and permitted African Americans to fight in the U.S. military.

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SOURCE: USA Today, Javonte Anderson