U. S. Colored Troops: The First Freedom Fighters

4th_United_States_Colored_Infantry cropped

On a brisk October morning, I gathered my husband and two daughters for a trip to nearby Washington, DC. It was unseasonably cool and uncomfortably close to nap time for my younger daughter, but I wanted my entire family, particularly my older daughter, to experience this visit. A short time later, we arrived. I stepped out of the car, climbed onto my motorized scooter, and, along with my family, entered the African American Civil War Museum.

IMG_0077Opened in 1999, the museum honors the often untold history of the United States Colored Troops, African Americans who fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. Many people are not aware that there is such a museum. Located in the historically African American “U” Street District, the museum is situated outside of walking distance of the Smithsonian museums located on the National Mall. Even I was not aware of the museum as recently as a few years ago.

But when I began research to write a book-length biography about my grandfather, Bishop Joseph A. Johnson, Jr., I soon discovered that to tell his story, I would have to go back a few generations. I grew up knowing that my grandfather was the first African American to attend and to graduate from Vanderbilt University. But to understand his motivation, to understand the courage and boldness required for him to even attempt such a feat, I would have to tell the story of his grandfather, Bowman Henry Johnson.


Family Reunion t-shirt featuring image of Bowman Henry Johnson

Family Reunion t-shirt featuring image of Bowman Henry Johnson

Bowman Henry Johnson was born a slave on a plantation in Bayou Sara, Louisiana. He was the son of a slave named Eliza and the son of the slave owner. In that sordid history that characterized American slavery, Bowman’s father was also his master. As a mulatto, Bowman Henry must have enjoyed certain privileges not available to other slaves. Family oral history records that his elder, white half-sister educated him teaching him how to read and write. To educate a slave in the antebellum south was not only illegal, but also dangerous for both Bowman and his sister. Whatever privilege or even affection he experienced on the plantation, it was not enough to keep him in bondage when the opportunity for freedom came.

Family oral history recounts that Bowman Henry escaped slavery, swam across the Mississippi River to avoid detection, and enlisted in the United States Colored Troops. Historical documents show that he traveled south to Baton Rouge, where he enlisted in the 80th infantry regiment. He was stationed at Port Hudson, Louisiana and helped defend that instillation after the Union Army gained control of the Mississippi. Family oral history records that he fought in the Red River campaign, where on a gun boat, he suffered a gunshot wound. His Army pension records indicate that after the war, he suffered from an often disabling cough due to a lung injury from the war.

After the war, Bowman Henry made good on his elder sister’s efforts to educate him. He served as a teacher and clergyman. Bowman Henry married a woman named Martha, and they had nine children. Five of his sons became ordained ministers in Methodist denominations, including Rev. Joseph A. Johnson, Sr. of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the father of Bishop Joseph A. Johnson, Jr.


A portion of the 127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, later re-designated the 5th USCT, in Delaware, Ohio - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A127th_Ohio_Volunteer_Infantry.jpg

A portion of the 127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, later re-designated the 5th USCT, in Delaware, Ohio, Ohio Historical Society

Bowman Henry was far from alone in his decision to fight for freedom. While President Lincoln and others debated the principles of states’ rights versus the importance of preserving the Union, many African Americans, both slave and free, as well as many whites viewed the war as a fight over slavery. In 1861, Frederick Douglass described slavery as the “primal cause” of the war. He would later give a speech called “Men of Color, To Arms,” in which he exhorted, “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.” This belief led to numerous calls for emancipation and enlistment of colored troops, calls that went unheeded in the first two years of the war.

On January 1, 1863, when the President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect, it threatened to be of little consequence. The Proclamation only emancipated slaves within states in rebellion, states that did not recognize President Lincoln’s authority. However, the Proclamation’s most powerful clause is found further in the document: “And I further declare and make known, that such persons [former slaves] of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States….” Thus began a long process of self-emancipation and emancipation by enlistment, in which blacks escaped slavery in order to reach the Union Army, either following behind the regiments or enlisting to fight in the war.

Thus, on May 22, 1863, the War Department issued General Order #143 establishing the United States Colored Troops. Eighty-five percent of eligible black males enlisted in the Colored Troops of the Union Army. Approximately 180,000 fought in the Civil War, including free blacks and runaway slaves. As many as 40,000 gave their lives in the cause for freedom. Although African Americans only comprised 1 percent of the northern populations, they comprised 10 percent of the Union Army and 25 percent of the Union Navy.

In sum, the Colored Troops fought for freedom.  They are the ancestors of the generations that fought in anti-lynching campaigns of the 1930’s and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Thus, the United States Colored Troops, along with the early abolitionists and others, should be counted among the first freedom fighters in the struggle for equal rights in America.



African American Civil War Museum, Washington, DC

On that cool October morning, we were greeted at the museum door by a docent dressed in period costume as a Union soldier. We received a tour and a lecture about the historic, but often untold story of the self-emancipation of most American slaves, aided by Lincoln’s Proclamation and the Union Army, including the Colored Troops.

When my younger daughter’s fussiness began to overtake the visit, we climbed back into the car to return home for her nap. As we drove away, I exclaimed, “Oh, I forgot to take a picture of the memorial in front of the museum.” My husband obligingly turned the car around and parked near the bronze sculpture located across the street from the museum. It was too cold to reassemble the scooter, so he went to take a picture for me. From the window, I saw him running back to the car.


African American Civil War Memorial, Washington, DC

“Which regiment was your ancestor in?”

“The 80th infantry,” I replied. “Why?”

“I’ll be back,” he exclaimed.

When he returned, he handed me the camera, and I saw the photo of the sculpture as expected. As I continued to scroll through the photos, I saw an image with numerous names, etched on a Wall of Honor, preserved in history.

I gasped as I enlarged the image and read the name, Bowman H. Johnson.



Wall of Honor at the African American Civil War Memorial, Washington, DC


Blight, David. “They Knew What Time It Was: African Americans and the Coming of the Civil War.” Why the Civil War Came. Ed. Gabor Boritt. Oxford University Press, 1996.

“Memorial & Museum History.” African American Civil War Museum and Memorial. 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. <http://www.afroamcivilwar.org.>.

Smith, John David. Lincoln and the U.S. Colored Troops. Southern Illinois University Press, 2013.

Williams, David. I Freed Myself: African American Self-emancipation in the Civil War Era. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

“United States Colored Troops.” Civil War Trust. 2014. Web. 4 Nov. 2015. <http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/usct/usct-united-states-colored.html.>.


The Bishop Joseph Johnson History Project is grateful for funding from the Lily Endowment (via the Louisville Institute), Vanderbilt University, and Friends of the Bishop Joseph Johnson History Project.


Spread the word. Share this post!

1 comment on “U. S. Colored Troops: The First Freedom Fighters”

  1. Dottie Rogerson Reply

    Thanks, Cynthia, for this read. I can’t wait to read the finished book on your grandfather.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *