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On May 22, 1863, the War Department issued General Orders 143, establishing a Bureau of Colored Troops in the Adjutant General’s Office to recruit and organize African American soldiers to fight for the Union Army. With this order, all African American regiments were designated as United States Colored Troops (USCT).

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the USCT, and the National Archives is pleased to announce the completion of the USCT Service Records Digitization Project. In partnership with Fold3, the project provides online access to all service records—more than 3.8 million images—of Union volunteers in USCT units.

From May 22 to 31, the digital collection will be free on www.Fold3.com. (All National Archives collections on Fold3.com can always be viewed for free at any National Archives facility nationwide.)

Compiled military service records (CMSRs) are part of Record Group 94, the Records of the Adjutant General’s Office. They contain card abstracts of entries related to an individual soldier such as muster rolls and regimental returns.

Many CMSRs also contain original documents called “personal papers,” which are especially valuable to researchers looking for documentation on former slaves. These papers include enlistment papers, correspondence, orders, prisoner-of-war memorandums, casualty reports, or final statements. Unique to the records of the USCT are deeds of manumission, proofs of slave ownership, and bills of sale.

Starting in October 1863, a slave owner could offer his slave for enlistment in military service and be entitled to compensation up to $300 upon filing a valid deed of manumission and release, and making satisfactory proof of title. These forms offer researchers rare information and document the life of a slave person in the absence of other vital records.

Edmund Delaney was a slave who served in Company E of the 117th USCT Infantry. He was 25 years old when he enlisted in August 1864. Delaney’s owner, Harvey C. Graves of Georgetown, Kentucky, filed a compensation claim for his military service in December 1866. Graves stated that he “purchased [Delaney] at private sale when he was quite a small boy and owned him at the time of his enlistment.”

The claim form was accompanied by a proof of ownership form to which Graves attached a rare “likeness,” or photo of Delaney, and several of Delaney’s letters written to him while serving in Brownsville, Texas. The letters offer us a rare glimpse into his lonely soldier’s life, especially when he laments that no friends have written back to him:
“somehow most of them seem to be very much afraid of their pens and ink.”

The USCT service records also reveal the social issues faced by free blacks, such as the story of Fortune Wright, a soldier of the 96th USCT Infantry. Wright was a free black man before the Civil War began, and he enlisted in Louisiana in July 1862.
On October 23, 1865, a white doctor and another man thought they observed Wright beating a black woman on a street in Jefferson, Louisiana. When they attempted to reprimand Wright, a fight ensued. Wright—fearing for his life—stabbed the doctor, who was beating him with a cane. The doctor died.

Wright pleaded not guilty at his court-martial trial but was found guilty of murder and sentenced “to be hanged by the neck until dead” on January 5, 1866.

The accused offered his explanation while in prison in New Orleans. He stated that he was approached by an “immoral colored woman” who put her hand on his shoulder and was “acting her willingness to prostitute her person.” The woman told him to give her a dime. Wright said that he didn’t have a dime, and that if he did have a dime, he would give it to his wife. Wright stated that he was angry with the woman for her insulting conduct and language. If she repeated her language, Wright told her, he would slap her. She did repeat herself, and Wright slapped her.

The two white men appeared on the scene at this point without knowing how the argument began. As Wright walked away, the doctor followed and struck Wright on the head with a walking cane. Wright reeled around and grabbed the stick while the doctor cursed at him to let go. The doctor grabbed Wright by the collar of his coat and then punched him in the face. The second white man yelled to “kill the damned black yankee [since] there is no law for him.” Wright warned that if they both jumped him, he would cut one with his knife. When he was attacked, Wright stabbed the doctor with his knife.

Wright’s captain and his attorney sent pleas for a postponement of the sentence to Maj. Gen. Edward Canby of the Department of the Gulf. They were hoping for time to appeal to President Andrew Johnson for a pardon based on self-defense.

Several postponements were granted. The series of the documents leading to President Johnson’s final decision reads like the ultimate page-turner. On February 24, 1866, General Canby received a telegram from the War Department in Washington, DC, stating that President Johnson has ordered that “the [death] sentence be duly carried into execution.” A copy of this message on American Telegraph Company letterhead survives in the service record.

Wright was not notified of his fate until the evening before his hanging. A week earlier, Provost Marshal A.M. Jackson was warned in a letter from Eastern District headquarters in Louisiana that “Precaution must be taken that the office of hangman be confided to a capable person so that no disagreeable results may ensue, and that the body be not disturbed until the hangman has pronounced life to be entirely extinct.”

Jackson’s report of the execution dated the next day describes quite a different scene.

The knot on the rope was not soaped properly and the knot slipped as Wright fell from the platform. Though he was suspended, his neck was not broken and he could still breathe. Wright was taken down and put on the platform a second time. It took fifteen more minutes of strangulation before death took Fortune Wright. Jackson claimed that though the circumstance was “unpleasant,” Wright did not suffer “as he remained insensible from the time of the first fall.”

The stories of the USCT soldiers will be available free to non-subscribers on www.Fold3.com from May 22 to 31, and can be accessed for free at any time on computers at the National Archives.