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The USCT and the Battle of Plymouth

Young African-American Civil War soldierThe United States War Department issued General Order Number 143 on May 22, 1863, establishing a "Bureau of Colored Troops" to facilitate the recruitment of African-American soldiers to fight for the Union Army. Regiments, including infantry, cavalry, light artillery, and heavy artillery units, were recruited from all states of the Union and became known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Approximately 175 regiments of over 178,000 free blacks and freed slaves served during the last two years of the war, and bolstered the Union war effort at a critical time. By war's end, the USCT were approximately a tenth of all Union troops. There were 2,751 USCT combat casualties during the war, and 68,178 losses from all causes.

In total, North Carolina had 5,035 USCT participants. Around 3000 were mustered in from around the Plymouth area. The Battle of Plymouth included detachments from the following USCT regiments:

  • 10th US Colored Infantry- A detachment at Plymouth, N. C., November 26, 1863, to April 20, 1864, participated in the siege of Plymouth April 17-20, 1864, and surrender April 20, 1864.
  • 37th US Colored Infantry- (re-designated from NORTH CAROLINA VOLUNTEERS- 3rd REGIMENT INFANTRY (AFRICAN DESCENT))- attached to Union Organized at Norfolk, Va., January 30, 1864 and attached to District of Norfolk and Portsmouth, Va., Dept. of Virginia and North Carolina, to February, 1864- at this point the name was changed to the 37th US Colored Infantry.
  • 2nd US Colored Cavalry- Organized at Fort Monroe, Va., December 22, 1863. It was attached to Fort Monroe, Va., Dept. of Virginia and North Carolina, to April, 1864. Reconnaissance duty from Portsmouth to the Blackwater (Plymouth area) April 13-15, 1864.

Prior to the War, Plymouth had strong Union ties with economic reasons for keeping them intact, including the town’s prominence as a port, and the ready access to export markets it provided. Washington County was truly a place where fathers and sons and brothers took sides against one another. In addition to the USCT presence, there were also numerous “Buffalo” soldiers with local origins. The “Buffaloes” were Southern Unionists who joined the volunteer regiments of the Federal army and took up arms against their “homeland”. There were various reasons for doing this, including strong beliefs in preserving the Republic, economic (preserving wealth), and opposition to slavery.

The Port o’ Plymouth Museum and Living History Weekend are unique in that they portray all sides of the conflict, and accurately present both the local sentiments of the time and the practical and economic factors and consequences the conflict had on the area, both then and now. Living History Weekend is fortunate to have African-American re-enactors who participate in the event on a regular basis, and the Museum strives to collect and preserve documents and images relating to the USCT and their role in local events for display and research purposes.