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African American Soldiers in the Civil War
By Hillary Delaney
Enslaved men in the South joined the cause of the Civil War in great numbers. There were several paths taken by the men who became soldiers: recruitment, substitution for those who wouldn’t or couldn’t serve (often a slaveholder) or volunteer enlistment. Military service carried the promise of freedom, and many men were eager to join the cause, both for themselves and their loved ones.
The United States Colored Troops USCT consisted of nearly 180,000 soldiers in 175 regiments, active from mid-1863 until October 1865. Kentucky was represented by over 23,000 soldiers serving in the infantry, cavalry and artillery units of the USCT. Many of these soldiers fought alongside friends and family members with whom they had enlisted, and settled in new communities together after the end of their service.
Numerous USCT veterans from Boone County chose to settle in Oxford, Ohio after the war. Oxford had been welcoming to those seeking their freedom on the Underground Railroad, some of whom were from the same Boone County families as the soldiers who later joined them. The majority of these veterans who settled in Oxford had served in the 117th and 12th USCT regiments together; the bond forged during the war served as a foundation for their new community. After Emancipation, more African American Boone County families joined the Oxford community as well.
In addition to the USCT soldiers, Boone County was represented by a handful of African Americans in Naval service. Though some of these sailors were met by a familiar face from home on board, it was much more common for former bondsmen in the ground troops of the Union Army to serve alongside friends and family. Nevertheless, African Americans represented some twenty-five percent of all U. S. Naval personnel during the Civil War. Those serving in the Mississippi quadrant comprised thirty-four percent, significantly higher than the ten percent of U.S. troops represented by the USCT soldiers.
Many of the men recruited along the inland waterways had experience working on riverboats. It was common practice for enslaved men to be “hired out” to work on the river vessels, many of them similar to the boats used by the Navy along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. As a result, former bondsmen entering naval service with local knowledge and river experience were sought after for service. Though the social structure was unbalanced, many African American sailors held the same jobs as white enlisted men onboard. Unlike the Army, the Navy was not segregated. To date, enlistment, service and pension records have been found for nearly 200 brave African American soldiers and sailors who listed Boone County as either a residence or birth place.