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February 01, 2023

Connecting With Black Civil War Ancestors

By Jessica Layman, Local History and Genealogy Librarian


Are you interested in the Civil War?

Does your genealogy journey include Civil War ancestors?

Are you interested in African American history?

In the Indiana Room, we make the effort to offer resources and classes that allow researchers at any skill level to make a breakthrough in their history and genealogy research. Our upcoming program on February 25, “Using US Civil War Colored Troops Pension Files” looks to experienced researchers to show patrons the benefits and strategies to using these types of records.

Presenters Kamia Jackson and Edan Evans from the Indiana African American Genealogy Group will discuss what these records are, how they can be used by researchers, and some real-world examples they have come across in their own family genealogy. While Black History Month is not the only time to do research on Black ancestors, it is a good time to get a head start and appreciate their legacy, and it can be an interesting way to learn more about the Civil War.

Dutch Gap, Virginia. Picket station of Black troops near Dutch Gap canal

Dutch Gap, Virginia. Picket station of Black troops near Dutch Gap canal.

During the Civil War (1861-1865), free people of color, who either were born free or became free, served in the Union Army. After the Emancipation Proclamation passed in 1863, freeing all enslaved people in states that seceded from the Union, these regiments of troops were organized as the United States Colored Troops. Eventually comprising almost 10% of the Union Army by the end of the war, USCT soldiers made an important impact on the war, participating in many ways.

In the South, even though the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863, there were still extremely difficult times for African Americans who were freed. Some enslaved people were forced to serve with their enslavers but not often in soldier roles and more often in support roles.

African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters

African American Union soldier with his family.

During and after the Civil War, Union troops, including USCT soldiers, were entitled to pensions, benefits that they or their widows received if disabled because of their service. Some Southern states provided pensions for Confederate soldiers and widows, but it was up to those governments to administer them. Only two states allowed Black Confederate participants to apply for pensions and only some decades after the Civil War. This shows that the USCT pension records will be useful to those with Northern Black ancestors but likely will exclude those who were forced to serve for the South.

Alfred Scott, Hamilton County USCT 28th Regiment soldier

Alfred Scott, Hamilton County USCT 28th Regiment soldier.

While the speakers at our program will showcase how these pension files directly relate to their genealogy journey, the lessons learned can apply to people without USCT ancestors as well. Civil War pensions reveal a lot of information that can be used to make connections elsewhere. In Hamilton County, there were around 45 Black Civil War veterans, who are included in a list recently updated with the help of our County Historian David Heighway and other researchers, including Lezli Davis. Utilizing genealogy strategies like the FAN method (researching family, associates, and neighbors) could show a connection to a Hamilton County local with a USCT pension file that gives you clues about your own ancestors, whether they were a part of the Civil War or not.

To learn more about this aspect of the Civil War, come to the Noblesville location of HEPL on February 25, 2023 at 11am to discover more about USCT soldiers, the pensions they received, and how these records can lead to a deeper understanding of your ancestors. Sign up for the program here!

Photo attribution: Alfred Scott, Hamilton County USCT 28th Regiment soldier, courtesy of Dana Hughes, Indiana Historical Society, Black Hamilton County #1 Photographs, Documents and Papers, ca. 1849-2020 Collection.

Check out these recommended resources to explore more on this topic!

searching for black confederates by Kevin Levin



Thunder at the gates : the black Civil War regiments that redeemed America by Douglas R. Egerton