Over 8,000 African Americans from Missouri – mostly former enslaved – volunteered to fight for freedom in the Union Army in 1862 with the Confiscation Acts. Not until the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 did the Government approve of the mass mobilization of all-Black units for combat in the infantry, cavalry, and artillery. On May 22, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established by the War Department to handle the recruitment and mobilization of United States Colored Troops units. From that day forth, all African American units were to be designated as such. In total, about 190,000 joined the USCTs, making up for one-tenth of the entire Union Army by 1865.
1 Sgt. William Messley of the 62nd USCTs. Courtesy of Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield
Below, I have compiled a list of the USCT units that were organized in Missouri during the war. The 8,000 men from Missouri that enlisted in these units joined mostly out of determination to achieve freedom from bondage, not necessarily to fight for country and union. Pay, stability, manhood, and the ability to finally independently care for their wives and children were many of the driving factors that encouraged their enlistment. For former Missouri slaves who fled to free territory in Kansas, where ardent abolitionists welcomed them, the stakes for freedom were even greater. These same troops would deploy into slave territory to fight the men who kept them and their families in bondage. Though many white soldiers and officers doubted whether they could actually fight in combat, these troops repeatedly proved their courage at battles such as Island Mound, Cabin Creek, Honey Springs, and Fort Blakely. Island Mound in Bates County, Missouri was the first known engagement where the Union Army deployed African Americans in combat in October 1862, even before the Emancipation Proclamation. Continue reading
As a slave state in the Upper South, Missouri and her citizens had a dynamic relationship with the “peculiar institution.” The average Missouri slaveholder owned five slaves, while medium sized slave owners in the Deep South owned between 15 and 50 slaves. The largest slave owner owned just under 200 slaves. In 1860, slaves made up 10% of the Missouri population.
To give a better glimpse into the nature of slavery in Missouri, acclaimed Missouri Civil War historian Dianne Mutti Burke provided an insightful quote from Kansas abolitionist and architect John Gideon Haskell:
“Slavey in Missouri was like slavery in northern Kentucky – much more a domestic than commercial institution. Family servants constituted the bulk of ownership, and few white families owned more than one family of blacks. The social habits were those of the farm and not the plantation . . . The negroes were members of the family; the blights of ownership were at a minimum.”
Slavery in Missouri, and the upper Mississippi River Valley, was quite different than the nature of slavery in the Deep South, but also had many similarities. Slavery was permitted in the Louisiana Territory under French control since the early 18th century, when trader Philippe Francois Renault brought 500 slaves to work in the lead mines. Just prior to 1800, one-third of St. Louis’ population were Native American or Black house servants. Once the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803 from the French Empire, slave codes were immediately enacted in the Missouri region to suppress slaves’ abilities to revolt or assimilate with the white population. These slave codes prohibited and severely punished slaves for the use of weapons by slaves, protest and assembly, selling alcoholic beverages to fellow slaves, disobedience to masters, education, and sexual assault against a white female. These slave codes appeared in the Missouri State Constitution when the territory officially entered the Union.
Missouri slave Louisa holding infant Harry Hayward in 1858. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.
When Missouri became the 24th state in the Union in 1821, migrants from the Upper South, such as Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina, poured into the new state to capitalize on the fertile land and invest in cheaper property. Slave owners brought their slaves west to Missouri, which uprooted their ties with surrounding African American communities in their former states. In the decades prior to the Civil War, Missouri was steadily growing in both population and its reliance upon the “peculiar institution.” In 1860, there were over 114,000 slaves in Missouri, equating to roughly 10% of the state’s population.  2,800 slaves were in western St. Louis County in 1860. Roughly 1,800 African Americans in St. Louis were free.  Continue reading