Company of the 4th USCT MSA SC 2432-1-12

USCT Pension Records Overview

The history of the United States Colored Troops remains a fascinating topic as their contributions in the Civil War marked a turning point within the country. Without their service the Union may have faltered in their movement against the Confederacy. After the first two years of the war, President Abraham Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, thus paving the way for colored recruits to join the United States Army. It was in 1863 that the federal government began actively pursuing the recruitment of free and enslaved African-Americans. Lincoln stated that emancipation was a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. The slaves were undeniably an element of strength to those who had their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us. 1 In the fall of 1863, the War Department authorized the systematic enlistment of slave men in Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware, including slaves owned by loyal masters. 2 According to General Order 329, it promised freedom to the recruits and compensation to loyal owners. 3 This act, along with the military conscription act of 1863, allowed for the emancipation of slaves. It was overwhelmingly answered by thousands of African-Americans who seized the opportunity to join the war.

In Maryland, there are 208 U.S. Colored Troops pension records from the Civil War that have been available for processing via the National Archives and Records Administration. Of the 208 pension records, 49 soldiers had some known affiliation with the five counties of focus for the Legacy of Slavery Project. These counties located on Maryland's Eastern Shore are Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne's, and Talbot. The photocopied images within this collection contain death records, marriage records, medical reports, questionnaires, and affidavits from various acquaintances confirming their identities. The amount and combination of records it takes to prove their identities makes for a great source when creating case studies. Many of these sources are firsthand accounts that offer insight into slavery, military service, emancipation, and postwar civilian life. These sources are intricate enough to provide information before, during, and after the war from the perspective of African-Americans.

The pension record of Horace Gibson provides significant information about his experiences as a slave, his military service, and his postwar life. As a slave, Gibson worked as a farm hand for one of the largest slave holders in Maryland, Colonel Edward Lloyd. He worked on a plantation known as Wye Farm in Talbot County, Maryland. According to an affidavit provided by Ennels Clayton, Gibson ran off from his master and entered the Union army. Based on that statement, one can insinuate that Gibson ran away from his owner. To further that assumption, Colonel Edward Lloyd was known to be against the recruitment of slaves into the Union army because it took away a substantial profit from him. During Gibson's military service, he was able to attain the rank of Corporal since he had earned the respect of his officers. Neighborhood connections or slave communities are another element that becomes evident in Gibson's pension record, as in many. Three soldiers who are also pensioners within this collection were either mentioned or gave depositions in defense of Gibson.

The experiences of slaves were highlighted by former slaves themselves through affidavits. One example of the slave experience comes from the pension file of John Johnson. His wife, along with other women on the plantation persuaded their husbands and able-bodied men to join the war effort because their liberty would grow out of it. Being slaves on Colonel Edward Lloyd's plantation proved to be a rough experience. Harriet Johnson explains her experience by stating that their persuasion had caused them to be "tied up and flogged," along with experiencing increased labor tasks. Affidavits effectively become primary sources and help to illuminate the experiences of the former slave.

The postwar lives for former slaves ultimately led to an increase in mobility. Because former slaves were confined to one farm or plantation for the duration of their bondage, many sought to explore their opportunities elsewhere. Mainly, it was an economic motivation because employment opportunities were greater in urban areas. The city of Baltimore was the urban center that attracted former slaves from Maryland's Eastern Shore in great numbers. Statistically, of the 49 soldiers from the five counties of focus, 35 moved to Baltimore after the war. The overwhelming theme for relocating after the war appeared to be opportunity.

The U.S.C.T. pension records provide a treasure trove of information as it pertains to former slaves and free African-Americans. However, many were faced with obstacles as they sought to obtain a pension. The veterans often dealt with a lack of documentary evidence, which created problems with factual information being needed. Keeping birth and marriage records was difficult because of the institution of slavery and illiteracy issues. If proper documentation could not be provided, then their pension benefits would substantially decrease. Another challenge was overcoming racism with their applications being heavily scrutinized. Despite these issues, many were able to still achieve a pension. By using these records, one can recreate the past and show the mostly difficult and arduous process the U.S.C.T. veterans went through when attempting to gain a pension.


1. James M. McPherson. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 504.

2. Ira Berlin. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation 1861-1867, Series 1, Volume 1, The Destruction of Slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 46-47.

3. Ibid., 47.