African Americans have served in every modern conflict since the Revolutionary War. For those seeking information on their African American soldier ancestors, military records can be a treasure trove. Record collections on FamilySearch and other sites offer specific records for African American soldier units in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, biographies and Army Cavalry “Buffalo Soldiers” of the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II.
Each conflict shaped the future, but perhaps none was as far-reaching for the future of African Americans than the American Civil War. FamilySearch holds records related to the more than 180,000 African American troops, comprising 163 units who served in the Union Army and more who served in the Union Navy. Free African Americans enlisted, and many enslaved people escaped captivity to answer the call. Many of these brave men joined regiments called the “United States Colored Troops”.
Some African American troops joined the Confederates as enslaved people who accompanied their owners or as members of at least two known units that formed in Richmond, Virginia. Some Confederate African American soldier records are available on FamilySearch.
Genealogical records for the African American population of the United States before 1870 aren’t readily available, but Civil War Service Records for Union Colored Troops and U.S., Colored Troops Military Service Records, 1863-1865 on FamilySearch could open the door to the past. Ancestry.com also has compiled black service record packets for Volunteer Union Soldiers created by the National Archives. These records often contain a treasure-trove of information for family history enthusiasts.
Military records contain vestiges of life in the camps for the troop. They include muster calls, soldier records, advancements, disciplinary actions, medals and more. Find out how they looked and where they were from with U.S. Descriptive Lists of Colored Volunteer Army Soldiers.
Many who joined the battle gave their all, never to return home. The military created records and notified their kin. A U.S., Register of Colored Troop Deaths During the Civil War, can be searched online. African American Newspapers may have provided obituaries or stories from home or the battle front.
Military information doesn’t stop at war’s end. A cash-poor, land-rich government paid soldiers with land—this generated records. After the war, African Americans were to be rewarded with free land (40 acres) and a mule.
Many African Americans took advantage of the offer. Their land stories can be found in Freedmen’s Bureau Records and Federal Land Patent Awards, surveys, status records, tract books, and more. The BLM-GLO Land Patent search index only lists people who were actually granted a federal land patent, but it also includes indexes of those who applied.
Even homesteaders who didn’t complete the process would have applications still on file – if you know what land they started to homestead. Deeds and probate records could provide clues to land ownership while shedding light on the former slaves’ lives.
After the war, the soldiers returned to a civilian life—sometimes injured—and challenged with hard work. The U.S. Government established military pension programs to provide some financial assistance for veterans, their widows, and dependents. FamilySearch has indexes of soldiers’ pension records from the Civil War and later wars and widows pensions. Collections with images are also available on Fold3 for those pensions that helped the veterans, their wives, widows, and dependents.
Law changes through the years expanded the criteria to claim benefits from the Civil War which extended later applications into the early twentieth century. Solid proofs were needed. Files might contain well-documented name, marriage, birth and death details for an entire family or even an extended family. Sometimes original certificates and photographs, along with testimonials of witnesses, are included as well.
The records of African American soldiers who fought in various conflicts will help the present generation find their past.
If you know of an ancestor who might have served during the Civil War, type his or her name into the search box below. You may find more about them and their service!