For more than a century, historians have known that tens of thousands of black men fought for their freedom with the Union Army during the Civil War. Pieces of this history have been filled in over time: names and ranks, enlistment dates and locations, dates and place of death.
New research conducted at the University of Virginia’s John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History reveals a new layer of detail in the story of slaves fighting as liberators.
Using military and pension records and combining information in public databases, Nau Center researchers discovered that at least 240 black men born in Albemarle County fought with the Union Army. The men were former slaves and free blacks who served in the United States Colored Troops, a branch of the U.S. Army founded to recruit and oversee African-Americans in the Army.
“This is a very big deal,” said Elizabeth Varon, associate director of the Nau Center and Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History. “These men were fighting because of their bonds to fellow soldiers. They had a keen commitment to the nation and they were fighting for their freedom. If the Union survives, they are part of a liberating army. They are entering the circle of liberators. If they win, they are free of the curse of slavery.”
The former slaves were recruited by the Union Army in places such as Missouri and Louisiana, where they had been brought as slaves. But Army records noted their birthplaces, so with those records in hand, modern researchers were able to trace them back to Albemarle County.
It is the first time historians have quantified the number of African-Americans from Albemarle County who fought for the Union, and the research opens a new window on a part of Civil War history with relatively few details.
About 180,000 black troops enlisted in the Union Army, spread over about 160 regiments, and while historians have been aware of the contributions of the U.S. Colored Troops, the soldiers were usually tracked from where they were recruited, not where they were born.
“We had always looked at the USCT based on where most of the soldiers enlisted, such as Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee,” Varon said. “Factoring in where soldiers were born gives us a window on the diasporic nature of the slave trade and of slave flight.”
For example, 77 blacks from Albemarle County enlisted into Union forces in Missouri. Some traveled there with their masters, while others were sold to slaveholders in those areas. Slaves seeking to reach Union Army recruiting stations during the war had to weigh the risk of being captured by armed patrols of slave hunters; fugitive slaves who were tracked down by such patrols were whipped and returned to their masters, or shot in cold blood.
Varon was studying some Colored Troops enlistment records that the state of Missouri had posted online when she noticed several enlistees reported they had been born in Albemarle County. Inspired by this new insight, historians at the center pored through Union Army records, including enlistment and pension records, as well as genealogical databases, to determine from where the black soldiers came.
William Kurtz, managing director and digital historian at the Nau Center, further developed the project.
“Albemarle County was considered to be exclusively Confederate territory. Before this, no one had a Union perspective on the area,” Kurtz said. “And then we found all these men.”
William Kurtz, managing director and digital historian at the Nau Center, was heavily involved in the research. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)