Greater gallantry than was shown by officers and men could hardly be desired. The (troops) were burning with an impulse to do honor to their race, and rushed forward with intense enthusiasm, in face of a terrible fire."
Brig. Gen. Christopher Columbus Andrews
History and Organization of the USCT
The U.S. War Department began the recruitment of African-American soldiers in 1863, forming what eventually became known as the "United States Colored Troops." By the end of the war approximately 200,000 former slaves and free blacks had served in Federal army ranks. Per army regulations, USCT units were led by white officers. USCT units fought in several battles during the Civil War notably including at Port Hudson, Louisiana; Petersburg, Virginia; and Nashville in addition to Blakeley.
The Battle of Fort Blakeley featured one of the largest concentrations of African-American soldiers anywhere during the Civil War. Approximately 4,000 troops from nine different regiments—about a quarter
of the entire Union force at Blakeley took part in the siege and assault.
At Blakeley, USCT units including the 47th, 48th, 50th, 51st, 68th, 73rd, 76th, 82nd and 86th Infantries were organized into one division under the overall command of Brig. Gen. John P. Hawkins. The majority of these men enlisted in Louisiana, with one unit having formed in Missouri. The USCT division was positioned on the right flank of the Union army at Blakeley, fronting Redoubts 1 and 2, (north of here and not currently publicly accessible). Hawkins' men probed the Confederate left on.the afternoon of April 9, 1865, becoming involved in heavy skirmishing hours before the general assault on the rebel lines at 5:30 PM. During the battle USCT units captured over 200 men and several pieces of artillery, but they sustained some of the heaviest casualties of any unit engaged, over 30 killed and nearly 150 wounded in the battle and nearly 400 casualties during the entirety of operations.
The 73rd Regiment of the USCT
The first USCT unit to reach the Confederate line during the assault
on Fort Blakeley was the 73rd Regiment. Composed of men largely from New Orleans who had been among the first black troops to be accepted into the Union army, the 73rd traced its origins to a free black militia unit which had actually offered itself for Confederate service at the beginning of the war but been denied on account of race. Officers Lt. Col. Henry C. Merriam and Capt. Henry C. Nichols were both awarded the Medal of Honor for volunteering to lead their men in the reconnaissance of the Confederate lines in advance of the assault.
Rumors of Misconduct
While the overwhelming majority of USCT units rendered admirable service at Blakeley, rumors of the murder of Confederate prisoners by the men of Hawkins' division have swirled virtually since the last shots of the battle were fired. Although oral history has exaggerated the incident, available evidence does suggest that a few renegade individuals from USCT ranks attempted to shoot down some soldiers in the act of surrendering during the chaotic last moments of the fight. Official reports and recorded memories
of both Union and Confederate soldiers indicate a small number of Confederates were killed after surrendering to USCT forces. One Union officer was killed and another wounded by their own men as they attempted to prevent additional shootings. Order was quickly restored, however, and there was no coordinated or sanctioned massacre as some have later alleged.
Left: USCT recruiting poster
Right portrait: Postwar image of Lt. Col. Merriman