“U.S. Colored Troops” (USCT) and the VAPosted: February 12, 2014
Roughly 200,000 African Americans—many of them former slaves–served as temporary “volunteers” with the Union military forces during the American Civil War. At the time, the Army segregated African Americans into units designated as the “U.S. Colored Troops” (USCT), while the Navy integrated them into existing forces. After July 1862 African Americans could officially enlist and serve in the U.S. military, which made them eligible for the same Federal benefits including disability pensions, prosthetics, burial in a national cemetery, and medical or domiciliary care at the National Asylum (later Home) for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (VHA’s origins).
In 1866, the National Asylum (Home) for Disabled for Volunteer Soldiers opened its first hospital-domiciliary facility opened near Augusta, Maine, and two new branches opened the following year in Milwaukee and Dayton, Ohio. The first African American veterans were admitted to the Central branch in Ohio in March 1867, but no great influx of USCT followed and by January 1870 only 42 former USCT were present system-wide in the three facilities.
In March 1870, General Benjamin F. Butler, President of the National Asylum (later Home) for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, reported that the Freedmen’s Bureau had informed him that “hundreds of colored soldiers, disabled in the Union service during the late war [Civil War], are in a helpless, suffering condition, and yet, because of climate and association, cannot be induced to go to either of the existing Asylums.” He added that “the Asylums at Augusta, Dayton, and Milwaukee will be full during the coming winter without these colored men,” and that “the Legislature of North Carolina has, by resolution, asked the Board to locate a Branch Asylum in one of the Southern States. . .and the Legislature of Virginia has, with a view of such location, ceded jurisdiction to the United States of 500 acres of land in that State for this purpose. . ..” So the need for another branch–the first one located in the South—was quickly proven and the Board agreed to find a suitable location near Fortress Monroe, one of Butler’s former command posts during the war.
By October 1870, the Chesapeake Female College in Hampton, Virginia, had been purchased as the fourth National Home facility and designated as the Southern Branch. It was the first established “for special benefit of colored soldiers and other invalid soldiers requiring a warmer climate.” [BOM March 17, 1870, p. 63] According to the 1871 annual report: “The experiment of establishing a branch of the institution, known as the Southern branch, at Hampton, has been a very complete success. . .and although it was supposed that this branch would be devoted almost to the exclusive use of the colored soldier, yet it has shown itself one of the most popular branches of our institution to the white soldier, and the problem of colored and white soldiers being equally treated and living together on friendly terms, without compulsion, or without thought of each other except as soldiers disabled in the cause of a common country, has been there fully exemplified and carried out.” [1871 annual report, p. 2]
Although Hampton was founded specifically for African American veterans of the Union Army, it was never an all-black facility. However, after the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case, racial segregation in “separate, but equal” facilities became commonplace, especially in the American South. In 1900 the National Home in Hampton instituted segregated religious services and reported “the regular weekly [religious] service for the special benefit of the colored members of the Home is a new feature introduced this year and has been much appreciated by them.” An all-black chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic was established at Hampton and boasted 26 members in 1900.
Ironically, African American veterans preferred the Central Branch in Dayton (now Dayton VAMC) until World War I, when an all-black hospital was established in 1923.
The peak year for all Civil War veterans at the National Homes was 1905; that year over 1,200 USCT were residents at the National Homes and here is the breakdown:
Central Branch (Dayton) 258 USCT out of 6,974 total
Northwest (Milwaukee) 30 USCT out of 3,070
Eastern (Togus) 20 USCT out of 3,093
Southern (Hampton) 291 USCT out of 4,224
Western (Leavenworth) 183 USCT out of 5,300
Pacific (West L.A.) 12 USCT out of 3,855
Marion 125 USCT out of 2,991
Danville (IL) 238 USCT out of 4,310
Mountain (Mtn. Home) 53 USCT out of 2,037
Here is the roster of USCT veterans present at the National Homes in 1900 (35 years after the Civil War ended).
Start of Jim Crow through Plessy v. Ferguson: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_plessy.html
Historian, Veterans Health Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Washington, D.C. 20420
“We don’t want a vast net-work of soldiers’ poor-houses scattered through the land, in which these brave fellows will languish away dull and wretched lives. Nor do we want petty State asylums, to be quarreled about and made the subject of party politics. We want to economize our battered heroes, and take care of them in such a way as to maintain the military spirit and the national pride, to nurse the memories of war, and to keep in the eye of the Nation the price of its liberties.” Rev. Henry Bellows, U.S. Sanitary Commission, Report No. 67, 1863.