(provided by Cameron Art Museum)
When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation effective January 1, 1863, it was a turning point for the war and the fight for freedom by authorizing the engagement of African Americans as soldiers in the Civil War. And on May 22, 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established under General Order No. 143 to coordinate and organize regiments from all parts of the country. This coordination effectively impacted the war through 39 major engagements and more than 400 lesser ones fought by the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) in support of the Union Army.
Twenty-four African American soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor for extraordinary bravery in battle in addition to their white officers. One such event was the Battle of Forks Road which led to the fall of Wilmington, NC, and was fought by 1600 U.S.C.T. alongside other Union soldiers.
In contrast to many Civil War battles, at Forks Road there were white and African American soldiers serving in both the Union and Confederate forces. Three-fifths of all African American troops were former slaves, but they were, nonetheless, on their home ground in Wilmington, NC, as were the white Confederates.
It was at great personal threat to their lives that African American soldiers participated in the Civil War. The Confederate government threatened to execute or sell into slavery any captured U.S.C.T. soldiers–and it was not uncommon for them to carry out such threats. President Lincoln threatened punishment against Confederate prisoners whenever black soldiers were killed or enslaved.
During the war, African American troops battled against discrimination in pay, promotions, and sparse medical care. Blacks were in separate regiments with white officers as their commanders. They received less pay, inferior benefits and food and equipment was lacking. Blacks received just $10 a month–$3 less than whites, out of which $3 was deducted for clothing—while whites enjoyed a $3.50 clothing allowance and the black soldiers were refused enlistment bonuses, common to white soldiers.
There were African American soldiers, too, who had been sent, as slaves, to serve in their owner’s place, throughout the Confederate army. These men, along with other Union troops, were victorious at Forks Road, defeating the Confederate forces, taking control of Wilmington, and hastening the end of the war. The U.S.C.T. emerged from the war as heroes, viewed by former slaves and freemen alike as liberators of their people. Very soon after the end of the war Wilmington’s population shifted from a majority white population to a majority African American population; an effect that some have attributed to the influence of the soldiers who remained to make Wilmington their home. The cultural and political effects of that population shift were profound and are still reflected in the social and political life of the region.