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The Racial Politics of Demobilizing USCT Regiments


The Racial Politics of Demobilizing USCT Regiments

Company of colored troops, 1865 (Courtesy of the New York Public Library)

On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee (commander of the Confederate States Army) formally surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant (commander of the U.S. Army). The event not only reshaped American history, but it remains a widely depicted historical event for officially recognizing the end of the Civil War. Many people either ignore or remain unaware that numerous United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments, including the Eighth United States Colored Infantry (USCI) and the 127th USCI, assisted in chasing Lee’s forces to Appomattox, Virginia. Some people may not know that those USCT regiments were present at Lee’s surrender. As the recent scholarship of Caroline Janney, Steven Ramold, David Silkenat, and Gregory P. Downs denote, the truce between Lee and Grant did not imply that Confederates, or their sympathizers, would stop fighting to protect slavery and white supremacy. After all, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination occurred on April 14th, five days after Lee’s surrender, and the last surrender of Confederate forces occurred in Liverpool, England, on November 6, 1865. 

As the complicated processes of surrender and potential readmission of ex-Confederates eventually took place, numerous white soldiers (in both armies) began seeing their military service come to an end. Various U.S. Army officers permitted Confederate soldiers, who surrendered and swore an oath of allegiance to the United States, could receive a pardon. Eventually, President Andrew Johnson included an offer of amnesty to ex-Confederates, which would allow them to have their American citizenship returned while absolving their earlier treasonous actions from receiving punishment. Confederate prisoners of war, meanwhile, also received their releases from captivity, primarily in an attempt to close military prison camps and possibly expedite reconstructing the nation. At the same time, the U.S. War Department began mustering out white regiments under the belief that white soldiers “deserved” an accelerated return to civilian life because they served from the war’s…

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