The United States War Department issued General Order Number 143 on May 22, 1863 establishing a "Bureau of Colored Troops" to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers to fight for the Union Army.
Regiments were recruited from all states of the nation and became known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Approximately 175 regiments comprised of over 178,000 free blacks and freed slaves served during the last two years of the war and bolstered the Union war effort at a critical time. 1,715 USCT soldiers were combat casualties during the war.
USCT regiments were led by white officers and rank advancement was severely limited for black soldiers. For a time black soldiers received less pay than their white counterparts.
Famous members of USCT regiments were Martin Robinson Delany, and the sons of Frederick Douglass.
USCT regiments were used in battles throughout the south and in all theaters of the war. The most famous USCT action took place at the Battle of the Crater outside Petersburg, Virginia where regiments of USCT troops suffered heavy casualties attempting to break through Confederate lines. USCT soldiers were some of the first Union forces to enter Richmond, Virginia after its fall in April 1865. The 41st USCT regiment was present at the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox.
Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions with the 4th USCT at Fort Harrison, Virginia. Fleetwood took up the regimental colors after 11 other USCT soldiers had been shot down while carrying them forward. Many USCT soldiers won some of the nation's highest awards.
After the war many of these USCT veterans struggled for recognition and had difficulty obtaining the pensions due them. The Federal government did not address the inequality until 1890 and many of the veterans did not receive service and disability pensions until the early 1900s.
A national celebration in commemoration of the service of the United States Colored Troops was held in September of 1996. A national memorial has been planned to honor the soldiers of the USCT.