Buried Truth: Black patriots of the Civil War from Orange County

Did you know that dozens of Orange County-born African Americans fought for freedom during the American Civil War? Are you familiar with the acronym USCT? The information is far too vast to share in one column or even two, but I can introduce you to the subject and some fascinating stories about the courageous individuals who were native to Orange County.

Accepting black men into the army as fighting soldiers during the American Civil War was an evolutionary process that came too late for the Confederacy and may have been a significant factor in winning the war for the Union forces.

History documents refugee slaves making their way into Union camps as early as 1861; however Federal policy had no rules on how they should handle the situation. Many of those who reached the supposed safety of a Union camp were returned to their masters. There were so many that attempted refuge at Fort Monroe near Hampton that a new law was hastily devised that categorized those who could prove that they were enslaved by the enemy as “contraband” of war and thus could be claimed as property by the Union Army.

They would work as blacksmiths, teamsters, cooks, laborers and body servants, but not yet as soldiers.

It wasn’t until January 1, 1863, as a portion of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, that the idea of a sanctioned branch of the army specifically for black soldiers was conceived. On May 22, 1863, General Order No. 143 was passed that established the Bureau of Colored Troops later called the United States Colored Troops (USCT), making the recruitment of black men into military service as bona fide soldiers a reality.

It would still take time for their value as fighting men to be fully recognized, but by the end of the war they were fully engaged in combat where needed.

The numbers vary and the regimental records are not nearly as comprehensive as those of the white regiments, nonetheless, the military documents report the names of no less than 178,000 men of color who became soldiers in one of the segregated units. The enlistees constituted 10 percent of the entire Union Army: a much-needed injection of fresh fighters at a time when thousands of soldiers were decidedly war-weary. One might ponder with legitimacy the outcome of this horrific conflict had the freemen and former enslaved persons not chosen to place at risk their physical well-being for the Union cause.

Their risk and those of the white officers who commanded their regiments was far greater than the average soldier. The Confederacy had declared that any black man captured in a Federal uniform or any white man captured as a commander of a black regiment could be executed on site without regard to accepted policy toward prisoners of war.

To date we have identified nearly 100 men who enlisted in the USCT giving their place of birth as Orange County, Virginia. It is high time they were recognized and honored!
Stay tuned for more stories about these men.
Until next week, be well.

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