On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In addition to freeing the slaves living in the Confederacy’s territories, it authorized the U.S. military to enlist African-American men as soldiers and sailors. A few African Americans had served in the Union Army before this time, but thereafter the number of volunteers for military service increased markedly, resulting in the creation of segregated regiments whose members were collectively referred to as the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT).
The holdings of the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture include a small collection of military records for the 2nd Regiment USCT Cavalry. This regiment was organized on December 22, 1863, in Fort Monroe, Virginia, and its soldiers included many former slaves. The 2nd Regiment participated in a number of actions within Virginia, including the capture of Bermuda Hundred in May 1864 and the sieges of Petersburg and Richmond in June 1864. The regiment mustered out in February 1866.
The materials in the collection offer an intimate glimpse inside the daily life of the regiment. They document the regiment’s movements, the number of men available to fight, and details of staff appointments, promotions, and disciplinary actions. Of particular note are the company orders, which include the policies and rules of the regiment. In January 1864, the following policy was written: “No officers will be permitted under any circumstances to use an enlisted man as a servant, nor will he be permitted to draw pay for a servant unless he has one actually employed.”
In January 2012, the Special Collections Library will present an exhibition on the Civil War that will include additional materials related to the USCT.
—Kimberly Sims, Technical Services Archivist