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Unidentified African American Union soldier and family

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-36454.

This unidentified African American Union soldier, shown here with his wife and two daughters, most likely belonged to one of the seven U.S. Colored Troops regiments formed in Maryland in the wake of U.S. secretary of war Edwin Stanton’s May 1863 General Order No. 143. Stanton issued the order shortly after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became effective on January 1, 1863. For the first time, Lincoln gave official approval for the enlistment of African Americans in combat roles. Prior to this, some Union generals, including John C. Frémont in Missouri and David Hunter in South Carolina, had allowed the enlistment of armed former slaves into their units. But such actions were reversed by other officials until the president’ds order. The 180,000 African American troops who ultimately served in arms made up approximately one tenth of the Union army. Urged into combat by abolitionist leaders, including Frederick Douglass, black soldiers often fought as a way to help guarantee liberty and full citizenship rights. They were initially paid less than white soldiers, but a year and a half into their service, they earned retroactive equal pay, granted by Congress in June 1864. Despite this major step forward, black soldiers still faced discrimination and prejudice from their white counterparts and usually served under white officers.