[February 15, 2019] I’m no historian, and the subject of history was one I hated in school. Only later in life did I realize that the proper study of our history can teach valuable lessons long after an event occurred. Two years ago I moved to Southern New Jersey. Driving around the rural part of the state, only a few miles from my home, I found what appeared to be an abandoned U.S. Civil War cemetery with grave markers indicating Co. B, 25th Rgt. Col. Troops.
A small cemetery, with about a dozen graves, is at the corner of two roads; near the Garden State Parkway. Local veterans’ clubs and community groups have put time and money into the cemetery to keep the weeds out and to show some respect for those buried in those graves.1 Still, it was a surprise to me, as I passed by yesterday for probably the 100th time that the grave markers indicate these were soldiers in Co. B (Company B), 25th U.S. Colored Troops (USCT).2
What little we know about this regiment was that it was created in Philadelphia because the state of New Jersey had no “colored” units. Early in 1864, when the unit was created, the outcome of the war was still undecided. Would the U.S. split into two parts; a southern, slave-owning country and separate from the north? Or would the “united states” remain as one?
Creation of “colored” units in the U.S. Army began in January 1863, after President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. In his proclamation, all slaves in rebellious areas would be free as of January 1, 1863. The U.S. War Department issued a General Order on May 22, 1863, establishing the Bureau of Colored Troops to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers to fight for the Union Army.3
What I did not know was that approximately 175 colored regiments made up more than 178,000 free blacks and freedmen serving the last two years of the war. This effort bolstered the Union forces and by the end of the war, “colored” units made up nearly one-tenth of all Union troops.
While disease caused most fatalities during the war, I found it amazing that almost 20% of all African-American troops enrolled in the Army lost their lives. This is especially notable, given that this is a casualty rate far below white soldiers.
Causes of the U.S. Civil War are complex. But these soldiers and sailors fought in America’s greatest struggle against slavery. They are honored for their sacrifice and devotion to a moral cause; one that no one should ever forget. The men of the 25th Rgt were a part of this great effort.