October 31, 2014, by Michael Jennings
To the Colours! Regimental Flags of the United States Colored Troops
In this blog post, MRes student James Brookes marks both Black History Month and the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War by examining the visual culture of black troops.
A Civil War regiment would typically carry two flags into battle, the national standard and the regimental colours. Amongst regiments of white Federal soldiers, the regimental colours were visual symbols of the state or home locality from which the men had volunteered. Regulations called for regimental colours to be dark blue, bearing the coat of arms of the U.S., with a red scroll displaying the unit designation. However, the patriotic groups that made flags for departing volunteers complied with these regulations to differing degrees. Conversely, the United States Colored Troops, first formed in 1863, were not raised from such concentrated home communities; being made up of less concentrated populations of free men of colour in Northern states, as well as runaway slaves and captured ‘contraband’. Paraphrasing an African American veteran of the Civil War, historian Herbert Aptheker stated “it was a common practice for Negro units to fail to report deaths, but rather to enlist other Negroes, assign them the names of the deceased, and carry on as before.”
One can determine that the regiments of the U.S.C.T., rather than representing a specific community or state (the designation “United States Colored Troops” denies a level of affiliation to a particular state, unlike white volunteer regiments), were representative of the entire African American population, whether free and enslaved. As a result, their regimental colours took on a visual symbolism that embodied various themes relating to the entire African American experience in this period. These included the desire for full emancipation and equality, the attainment of citizenship, and, unsurprisingly, to avenge the blood drawn from the slaveholder’s lash.
Colours of the 24th U.S.C.T., designed by David Bustill Bowser
The 24th U.S.C.T. were principally recruited in the eastern section of Pennsylvania in the final months of the war. The regiment was placed in camp south of Washington, D.C., before proceeding to Point Lookout, Maryland, where it was employed in guarding imprisoned Confederates. Approximately a month and a half later, the unit was assigned to duty in the Roanoke region of Virginia, where it preserved order and distributed supplies to needy inhabitants. One can conceive of how destitute white southerners viewed the occupation of their territory by African Americans in Federal military uniform, when in the antebellum period slave patrols and white militias kept public order. David B. Bowser, an African American artist commissioned to design several regimental banners (including the 24th’s) during the Civil War also painted portraits of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, exhibiting his sympathies towards figures tied to the abolition movement. The colours of the 24th feature an image of an African American soldier atop a hill littered with the debris of battle with his hands raised in the air in a fashion extremely reminiscent of the enslaved African in Josiah Wedgwood’s famous anti-slavery medallion. The slogan “Am I not a man and a brother?” that accompanied Wedgwood’s medallion of the chained bondsman begs the question of equality between whites and blacks. The flag of the 24th bears the script “Let soldiers in war, be citizens in peace.” The message “Fiat Justitia” which the soldier is reaching up to is a Latin phrase meaning “Let justice be done.” This expression was adopted by Frederick Douglass and other black abolitionists and originates from a 1772 British legal case regarding slavery. The flag thus symbolises the desire of the African Americans to have their military service appraised fairly by whites in a transformative process that would confirm their freedom and right to full citizenship with the war’s close. Over 130 regiments of the U.S.C.T. existed during the Civil War, composed of approximately 180,000 African Americans. The full spectrum of these unique objects of self-representation holds much potential for interpreting how these soldiers viewed their military service as a means to attain liberty, equality and citizenship in the United States.
Henry Woodhead, ed. Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Union, (New York: The Time Inc. Book Company, 1991)
Herbert Aptheker, ‘Negro Casualties in the Civil War’, The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 32, No. 1. (January, 1947)
Samuel P. Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5, (Harrisburg: B. Singerly, 1871)
James Brookes is a postgraduate student in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham, where he is writing a dissertation on American Civil War photography.