The start of the Civil War in 1861 and Abraham Lincoln’s
decision to release the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 dramatically
changed the lives and family histories of African Americans. By its language the
proclamation removed any obstacles to the recruitment of African Americans into
the armed forces. Over 200,000 African Americans, both men and women, served
in the Union Army and Navy during the Civil War. Approximately 7,850 were
residents of New England when they joined the Union cause. In addition, many
African Americans from regions other than New England chose to join black
regiments in New England that were formed in the early days of recruitment.
Approximately 6,956 African Americans volunteered from New England states as
Before starting to research your ancestor in Civil War resources, it is
important to gather some specific information about him or her. The more
information you have the easier it will be to trace the right person through the
records.Names with alternative spellings Consider the
different spellings that may have been used for a name (for instance, Hasbrook
can also be spelled Hasbrouck). The index for the New England Historical and
Genealogical Register lists many alternate spellings of
surnames.Date of birthCalculate the person’s age between the
dates 1861 and 1865. If they are under 13 or over 70 it is unlikely they served
in the war.
Names of spouses and childrenThis information is important for
tracking down pension records.
Place of residence both before and after the warIf you think you
know this information, consult the census records for 1860 and 1870 to confirm.
Check town histories of these places for information.
Burial informationWhere is the individual buried? What does the
tombstone say? Internet sites are rapidly adding information on Civil War burial
locations. CyndisList.com is
a great place to find such sites. Look under their Military category, and then
the U.S. Civil War subcategory. Also check the website Resting Places of
U.S. Colored Troops. There are a number of broken links on this site, but
you can re-enter the cemetery name in the search engine and reach the
Personal papers, memories, affiliationsDid your ancestor leave any
personal papers about his Civil War service? Do any living relatives recall
stories or details? Did the ancestor belong to a veterans’ association? The
tombstone may reveal the answer to the last question.
Secondary sources such as town histories or books on local African
American historyMany town histories were written in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries, so the Civil War involvement of the town and its
residents is recorded. James Avery Smith’s The History of the Black
Population of Amherst, Massachusetts 1728-1870 (Boston: New England
Historic Genealogical Society, 1999) and James Fuller’s Men of Color, To
Arms! Vermont African Americans in the Civil War (iUniverse.com, 2001) are
two sources to examine.If you have some information about a family
member’s regiment or military career be prepared to keep an open mind! There
were 182 African American regiments during the Civil War, some of which were
merged or renamed. The majority of these troops were called the United States
Colored Troops or USCT. Keep in mind that the veteran may not have resided in
New England before volunteering. Conversely, many black New Englanders joined
USCT regiments.To find listings of African American Civil War soldiers
or sailors first consult the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and
Sailors website. This contains regimental descriptions, pedigrees, battle
lists, troop lists, and a searchable database, from which you can search for
names of soldiers and sailors, state (or origin), unit number (or ordinal),
function (infantry, cavalry, etc), and Union or Confederate. This database is
drawn from the general index cards in the Compiled Military Service Records at
the National Archives. Under each soldier’s name it gives name, rank, regiment,
company and the microfilm roll associated with that soldier. The names of
235,000 African American Union soldiers have been entered. Be cautious when
searching this site. You must enter the exact spelling of the name as it was
listed on the muster roll. If you cannot find your ancestor you should try
different spellings. You may find multiple listings for the same name as some
soldiers either moved or re-enlisted into other regiments. If you know their
regiment you may go to the regimental list and page through to see if there are
Also check printed sources including Janet Hewitt’s The Roster of Union
Soldiers, 1861-1865. United States Colored Troops (Wilmington, N.C.:
Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1997) and the statewide listings for regiments
detailed in David Lambert’s recent column on this website, "Finding Your Civil War Ancestor at the NEHGS Research Library."
When you find your subject’ s regiment and service listing in one of these
sources you may then start collecting and reviewing any original documents or
primary source material available through the National Archives Records
Administration (NARA). In many cases there will be a Compiled Military Service
Record, which would include age, birthplace, place of enlistment, date of
enlistment, capture, prisoner information, and parole. There may also be medical
information. For a complete guide to the types of records available and how to
order copies, go to the NARA website. Dee Parmer Woodtor’s Finding a Place Called
Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity (New
York: Random House, 1999) has an excellent chapter on finding and interpreting
pension records. Also consult Jeanette Braxton Secret’s Guide to Tracing Your
African American Civil War Ancestor (Heritage Books, Inc. 1997) and Bertram
Hawthorne Groene's Tracing Your Civil War Ancestor (Winston-Salem, N.C.:
John F. Blair, 1973).
In addition to official records held by the U.S. Government, there are also
records held by state archives and manuscript repositories. These may include
regimental records, papers of white officers, and personal papers of African
American soldiers. The New England states raised six regiments of African
American troops: the 29th and 30th Connecticut Colored
Volunteers, the Massachusetts 5th Calvary and 54th and
55th Infantry, and the 14th Rhode Island Colored Heavy
Artillery. More information about these regiments and their soldiers are
There are several books devoted to this unit: Isaac Hill’s A Sketch of the
29th regiment of Connecticut colored troops (Baltimore:
Daughtery, Maguire & Co., 1867), and Out of the Briars: An Autobiography
and Sketch of the Twenty-ninth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, written by
black veteran Alexander Newton (Miami, FL: Mnemosyne Publishing Co., 1910,
reprint 1969). The Connecticut Historical Society (CHS) has the manuscript
letters of Sergeant Joseph Orin Cross to his wife Abby and a collection compiled
by Jean Fisher of articles on Connecticut’s black Civil War veterans. Some
letters written by white officers of the regiment are also preserved at the CHS.
The 30th Regiment Connecticut Infantry (Colored) was formed in
April of 1864 and was merged into the 31st Regiment, USCT, the
following month, at Hart Island, New York. The CWSS lists 1,881 soldiers and a
loss of 175 men to combat and disease. The African American Collection at CHS
compiled by Jean Fischer includes the story of black veteran Alfred Somers, a
fugitive slave who joined the regiment and later settled in New Haven. Some
veterans of this regiment are buried at Slate Hill Cemetery, Goshen, New
Shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Governor John
Andrew of Massachusetts petitioned the War Department for permission to raise a
regiment of free Northern blacks. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was
organized and mustered in Readville, Massachusetts, on May 13, 1863. This is
probably the most well known Northern black regiment, due to the 1989 film
Glory. Do not assume that a soldier in this regiment was a Massachusetts
resident. There were not sufficient Massachusetts African Americans available to
fill the regiment, so Andrew engaged black recruiters such as Frederick Douglass
and Martin R. Delaney to travel throughout the Northern states to find
soldiers. There are numerous resources about the Massachusetts 54th
The Massachusetts Historical Society has manuscript collections related to
the 54th including regimental records, the research materials of
Edwin Gittleman (for his unfinished book about Robert Gould Shaw, commander of
the first regiment of black troops organized in a Northern state), the Lee
family papers, and the Robert Gould Shaw letters. The New York State Library has
the Hoke Family collection, which contains records and memorabilia of Private C.
Bromley Hoke of the Massachusetts 54th regiment.
The 5th Regiment, Massachusetts Calvary was organized at
Readville, Massachusetts, between January and May of 1864. This regiment sawduty
primarily in Maryland, Virginia, and Texas, and is said to have been one of the
first regiments to enter Richmond. The CWSS lists 1,718 soldiers, of which 123
were lost to combat or disease. The “Fitzgerald Family Papers” at the Library of
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, contain the diaries of African
American Private Robert G. Fitzgerald, which describe life in this regiment.
Amos Webber (1826-1904) also served in the 5th Cavalry and kept
memory books of his life that are chronicled in Nick Salvatore’s We All Got
History: The Memory Books of Amos Webber (New York, Vintage Books,
1997). The Massachusetts Historical Society has the correspondence of one
of the 5th Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry’s white officers, Edward
J. Bartlett. The Maine State Archives has muster in and descriptive rolls for the 5th. For information on
burials (although no references) visit Resting Places of
Soldiers and Veterans of the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry
The 55th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry was mustered in June 22,
1863. This regiment served primarily in South Carolina through to discharge on
September 23, 1865. The CWWS lists 1,335 men and losses of 197 to combat and
disease. As with the 54th, there have been several published
regimental histories and letters, including:
The Massachusetts Historical Society has the papers of Hallowell and Fox;
records of the Association of Officers of the 55th Massachusetts
Volunteer Infantry; the papers of 55th recruiter Edward W. Kinsley;
and correspondence between physician David Thayer and Warren M. Babbit, the
assistant surgeon of the 55th.
The 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (colored) was formed on
August 28, 1863. On April 4, 1864, it was designated the 8th
Regiment, United States Colored Heavy Artillery, and on May 21, 1864, it became
the 11th Regiment, United States Colored Heavy Artillery until
mustered out on October 2, 1865. This unit served primarily in the defenses of
New Orleans, Louisiana. The CWWS lists 2,092 men in the database. William H.
Chenery’s The 14th Regiment Rhode Island Heavy Artillery
(Colored) (Providence: Snow & Farnham, 1898) recounts the history of the
unit. The muster in and descriptive rolls for this regiment can be found at
the Maine State Archives.
The next column on African American genealogy in New England will explore
researching New Englanders who served in United States Colored Troops (USCT),
including a rare manuscript from the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers
owned by NEHGS. Information on researching black sailors and military support
personnel will also be discussed.
 Noah AndreTrudeau, Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War:
1862-1865 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998, pp 18-19).
 Hondon B. Hargrove, Black Union Soldiers in the Civil War.
(Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988).
 Trudeau, p. 417-424.
 Hargrove, p.207.
 Website, Civil War Soldiers and Sailors
 Website, Civil War Soldiers and Sailors
 Joseph Orin Cross, Letters, 1864-1865, and Jean Fisher,
compiler, African American Collection, various dates, Connecticut
 Neil Hogan, “Ex-slave Made Daring Escape, Joined Black Regiment in
State,” New Haven Register, clipping (Jean Fisher Collection),
Connecticut Historical Society.
 Website, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War Department of New York
 Fitzgerald Family Papers, University of North Carolina,
Chapel Hill, N.C., 1864 and 1867-1871.