Military Records in African American Research
Blacks have fought in every war this country has waged, from the colonial militia and the American Revolution up to today’s Middle Eastern conflicts. Since they often served in higher percentages than their population makeup, military records offer a good source of information to genealogists.
Historically, soldiers were classified as either volunteers or as members of the regular army. For the most part, African Americans served in the volunteer army to fight a war. After the war they returned to civilian life or slavery. Only after the Civil War were blacks allowed to become career soldiers and serve in the peace-time regular army as professional soldiers. There is evidence of some blacks serving in the regular army before the Civil War, but this is rare.
The Regular Army
The first African Americans in the regular army are referred to as Buffalo Soldiers. They were organized in 1866 into the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantries; the infantry units were reorganized in 1869 into the 24th and 25th infantries. These soldiers served in most of the states in the West and fought against Native Americans. They also guarded railroads, telegraph lines, and wagon trains.
Blacks served in segregated units until the army was integrated in 1952. They could be enlisted or drafted soldiers until the end of the Vietnam War. At this time the draft ended, so those who have participated in the military since Vietnam, including the current conflicts in the Middle East, have served as career soldiers in the regular army.
In addition to researching soldiers in the regular army, researchers should check for volunteer soldiers (enlisted or drafted) in World Wars I and II, the Spanish American War (1898), the Philippine Insurrection (1899), and earlier conflicts. Search the various branches as well. Blacks served in the Army Air Corps, Navy, Air Force, Marines, State Militia, and the National Guard.
Researching soldiers in the regular army is different than researching volunteers. There are no Compiled Military Service Records (CMSR) for the regular army, but there is a Register of Enlistments, which is similar. Many veterans applied pensions, and they are included in General Index to Pension Files, 1861–1934. (This microfilm is often erroneously referred to as the “Civil War Pension Index.”)
Refer to chapter 11, “Military Records,” for basic sources. The researcher who already knows the regiment can search the Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900, which is organized by state, arm of service (infantry, cavalry, artillery), then numerically by regiment. To research blacks in the regular army, consult Irene Shubert’s and Frank N. Shubert’s On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldier II: New and Revised Biographies of African Americans in the U.S. Army, 1866–1917, which has 8,000 biographies. See also, Tony Burroughs’s “Researching Buffalo Soldiers for Genealogical and Historical Links,” in the Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.
Some of the best information for African American genealogy exists in Civil War records. Upwards of 170,000 African Americans served in segregated units called the United States Colored Troops (USCT). The renowned Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment (that inspired the movie Glory, starring Denzel Washington) was the first regiment of African Americans authorized by Congress in 1863, but unofficial regiments from Kansas, South Carolina, and Louisiana were formed earlier. Black regiments from Massachusetts and Connecticut were raised under state sponsorship and retained their state designations. All other regiments had U.S. Colored Troop numerical designations within the infantry, artillery, or cavalry.
Recruits for these regiments came from a variety of circumstances. Some were free blacks who joined regiments raised in the North. Some were slaves from border states that had not seceded. Under these circumstances slave owners “volunteered” services of their slaves in exchange for the bounty that would normally have gone to the recruit. A third group was comprised of those who joined USCT regiments in the South after abandoning their former owners in areas under Union control.
Another group of blacks in the Civil War were those who served in white regiments. It was long thought that blacks were prohibited from serving in white regiments, or that such service was an aberration. Juanita Patience Moss dispelled that myth with her 2004 book, The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War. She uncovered the names of over 1,000 blacks serving in white regiments.
Many veterans applied for pensions and all have military service records. As military service and pension records are covered elsewhere in this volume, they are not discussed in great detail here. Searching for African Americans in the Civil War, however, requires particular care.
First, the units were segregated, so the Index to Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops (CMSR), should be searched rather than the National Archives indexes microfilmed by state designation as for white soldiers (other than ones listed in Moss’ book mentioned previously).
Second, the names of former slaves present a special challenge. For a variety of reasons, soldiers served under one name during the service, but often were known by a different name before or after the Civil War. Therefore, searching for a person under the name known in 1870 may or may not locate him on the CMSR.
Third, when oral history says an African American “served” in the Civil War, it may mean that he may have only “worked” in the war effort and was never a member of a military regiment. In these cases, the ancestor might be listed in the Quartermaster General’s records (NARA record group 92) as an employee of the military. Among its other duties, the Quartermaster hired civilians to work in procuring and distributing supplies and building fortifications. Or, the person sought may have lived in a contraband camp, where fugitive slaves of secessionist owners sought refuge.
Civil War Pension Records
Because of the problem with names, it is often more successful to begin researching African Americans in the Civil War by searching pension application files, instead of starting with the Index to Compiled Military Service Records. If a soldier applied for a pension under one name and served in the war under a different name, both names are noted and indexed on the General Index to Pension Files.
Civil War veterans often submitted affidavits for their comrades in support of pension claims. The writing of affidavits was usually a reciprocal affair, and a network of veterans from the same company would write affidavits for one another. Taken as a totality, the pension affidavits can, on occasion, reveal a common background for the applicants. This could be particularly important in researching USCT veterans, as such an approach could uncover veterans from the same locality, or even the same plantation, or contraband camp who enlisted together. Obtaining the pension files of each of the fellow veterans who supplied affidavits for an ancestor’s application could reveal important critical detail about the ancestor himself.
As previously noted, slave owners in the border states sometimes collected bounties when their slaves joined USCT regiments. Records for this bounty may be found in the soldier’s service record, indicating the name of the former slave owner, hence making the service record far more valuable than is usually the case. The National Archives has special records for these claims.
Compiled Military Service Records
If a veteran’s name is located in the pension application files, a service record may be ordered under the name the soldier used during the Civil War. If a pension file is not located, researchers should search the Index to Compiled Military Service Records. This index is available on the National Park Service Soldiers and Sailors website, Ancestry.com, or on microfilm at the National Archives or the Family History Library.
In most instances, especially when dealing with a common name, it will be helpful to consult Frederick Dyer’s Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, which contains brief histories of all Union regiments, stating where they were organized and where they served. This information will often enable the researcher to identify an ancestor’s regiment. For example, if the researcher had an ancestor from Tennessee and it was discovered that three soldiers with his name were on the rolls of three separate regiments, consulting Dyer’s might indicate that only one of those regiments was raised in Tennessee. The researcher would then be able to request the correct military service records from the National Archives. The Massachusetts 54th and 55th will be more challenging, however, because they recruited from all the northern states, not just Massachusetts.
In researching the Civil War, most genealogists neglect the navy, which has different records and different indexes. The Civil War navy, in contrast to the army, was integrated; approximately 18,000 blacks served in the Civil War navy. David Valuska lists 10,000 in his book, The African Americans in the Union Navy, 1861–1865. His number is lower because Valuska identifies only recruits joining at rendezvous stations, which were recruiting ships. Many other slaves walked off plantations and boarded vessels in midstream.
Starting with Valuska’s book is a good choice, but all the names of blacks in the navy have been transcribed by Howard University students and are available on the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors website. If you have searched the Index to U.S. Colored Troops (Army) and did not find your ancestor, by all means search the navy index at that website. Naval pension applications are included in the “General Index to Pension Files.” Because these records are indexed on blue cards, the microfilm is dark and difficult to read.
Just before the end of the Civil War, the Confederate government adopted a policy to use slave soldiers; however, the policy change came too late for meaningful enactment, and no African Americans actually served as soldiers for the Southern cause. Even so, many slaves served as body servants to their owners or to the owners’ sons when they entered Confederate service. Others worked as teamsters or helped build fortifications. After the war some were able to live in retirement homes for Confederate veterans. Civil War service qualified them for pensions paid by the former states of the Confederacy. However, the pensions came so late (the 1920s) that most of the veterans had died.
Records of these pensions may be found in legislative acts (see figure 14-3), at state archives, or in genealogical libraries. The names of blacks with Confederate pensions from South Carolina have been published in Alexia Jones Helsley’s South Carolina’s African American Confederate Pensioners, 1923–1925.
Similar documentation of Confederate service may also be found from the Union side, such as a list of slaves impressed for work on the Nashville and North Western Railroad in October 1863.19 These records are of particular importance because they supply the name of the slave owner and residence, and a physical description of the slave. Some of the laborers are included on Confederate Slave Payrolls.
There are many documented instances of African Americans serving in the American Revolution, despite the fact many of the official records were not extant when the National Archives was established in 1934. Most of the official government records of the Revolutionary War were destroyed by a fire on 8 November 1800; others were lost during the War of 1812.
John E. Ernest’s “African-Americans in the American Revolution” documents many instances of blacks filling critical support and active military roles. His essay includes a colony-by-colony summary of the laws and opinions regarding blacks serving. Each colony entry includes the estimated numbers of blacks who served from that colony.
Debra L. Newman compiled List of Black Servicemen Compiled from the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records and Robert Ewell Greene published two dozen biographies and lists of several hundred other blacks in the Revolutionary War.
In 1984, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) began a massive project to identify all blacks, along with other minorities, (women and Native Americans), who served in the Revolutionary War. The DAR hired James Dent Walker, who had previously supervised a military records section at the National Archives and worked there for over thirty years. In 1988, Walker began original research in a variety of records to identify minorities in the Revolution and published a list of those serving from Rhode Island. Walker left the project after the first publication but the series continued, with compiled lists from each of the original thirteen colonies. The project led to the creation of ten booklets, which were updated and consolidated in 2001 into one larger publication: African American and American Indian Patriots of the Revolutionary War.
There were also blacks who fought for the British. Their numbers may have been greater than the number who served the American side. Names of 3,000 blacks (along with their former slave owners) who sided with the British and relocated to Nova Scotia were listed in the Book of Negroes, and published in The Black Loyalist Directory by Graham Russell Hodges.
- General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934, NARA microfilm T288.
- Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900, NARA microfilm T289.
- Irene Schubert and Frank N. Schubert, On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldier II: New and Revised Biographies of African-Americans in the U.S. Army, 1866-1917 (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2004).
- Tony Burroughs, "Researching Buffalo Soldiers for Genealogical and Historical Links," Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society 14 (Summer 1995):136-51.
- The 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored), 55th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored), and 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry. The 29th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry retained its state designation. The 30th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry became the 31st United States Colored Infantry.
- Juanita Patience Moss, The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War (Westminster, Md.: Willow Bend Books, 2004).
- Index to Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops, NARA microfilm M589.
- See "Records of Slave Claims Commissions, 1864-1866" and "Register of Claims, U.S. Colored Troops, 1864-67." Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780s-1917 Record Group 94, NARA, Washington, D.C.
- Index to Compiled Military Service Records," NARA microfilm M589.
- David L. Valuska, The African Americans in the Union Navy, 1861-1865 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993).
- Alexia Jones Helsley, South Carolina's African American Confederate Pensioners, 1923-1925 (Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1998).
- Slave and other payrolls, 1861-65, War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Record Group 109, NARA, Washington, D.C.
- Debra L. Newman, comp., List of Black Servicemen Compiled from the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, Special List 36 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Service, 1974). For Robert Ewell Greene, see especially Black Courage 1775-1783: Documentation of Black Participation in the American Revolution (Washington, D.C.: National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, 1984).
- African American and American Indian Patriots of the Revolutionary War (Washington, D.C.: National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, 1984).
- The "Book of Negroes" was actually a list compiled in 1783 by Sir Guy Carleton, on behalf of the British, of former slaves and free blacks that served with the British, of former slaves and free blacks that served with the British or came to the British side during the Revolutionary War and were evacuated to Nova Scotia. The list was compiled to compensate former slave owners who never did receive compensation. Graham Russell Hodges, ed., The Black Loyalist Directory (New York: Garland Publishing in Association with the New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1996 Medicalassistantedu.org).