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From North Carolina Slaves to Union Soldiers

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From North Carolina Slaves to Union Soldiers

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Historian David Williams relays that “roughly 200,000 blacks, most of them refugees from slavery, served in the Union armed forces." (Williams 2014, 5) Though many people may not know this fact, runaway slaves' participation in the Union army is significant to the narrative of the Civil War as a whole. When one peruses the Civil War Service Records on Fold3.com, particularly the records of the 35th USCT, one will notice how the records all have the former occupation of the soldier listed. When one knows that many of the colored troops that formed in New Bern were former slaves, one can see how many of the soldiers had “slave” listed as their former occupation.

Interestingly enough, though, none of the 35th USCT were listed as former slaves; instead, many were listed as "farmers." An example of this can be seen in the service record of 35th USCT soldier Charles Jones in the attached file. James K. Bryant’s book on the 36th USCT sheds light on this mystery by explaining that the “majority of the enlisted men had been slaves prior to the beginning of the war, therefore it seemed to have been agreed upon among the regiment’s recruiting officers to list their occupations as ‘Farmers’ rather than as ‘Slaves.’ This gave them some level of dignity." (Bryant 2012, 134)

Although the switch in terminology can be seen as a way to give someone a sense of “dignity” like Bryant claims, it can also be a way to ignore the fact that these hard-working men who were now gallantly serving as soldiers in the Union army, had previously been treated like animals when they were slaves. Either way one looks at it, however, this interesting fact about the Civil War Service Records sheds light on just how many of these black Union soldiers were former slaves. It also reveals that the problem of whether or not to list these men as former slaves was thought about at the time.

References:

Bryant, James K., II.  The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War: A History and Roster.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012.

Jones, Charles. Record 73. Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers who Served in Organizations From the State of North Carolina (NARA Microfilm Publication M401); Records of  the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, Record Group 94; National Archives, Washington, DC. www.Fold3.com.

Williams, David. I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation Civil War Era. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

 

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Danielle Brinton

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Danielle Brinton, From North Carolina Slaves to Union Soldiers, Civil War Era NC, accessed November 22, 2019, https://cwnc.omeka.chass.ncsu.edu/items/show/956.