Enslaved people fought for freedom by self-emancipating long before the Civil War began. Assisted by effective escape routes, safe houses, and conductors on what became known as the Underground Railroad, they made their way north. Those who remained behind did what they could to resist, whether through actively rebelling or more passively evading tasks. After the war started, many escaped to Union lines longing to fight for freedom. Authorities created contraband camps, including Freedman’s Village in Arlington County, to shelter families. Before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, African Americans could not enlist as soldiers. The camps became recruiting grounds when United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments were authorized in 1863. About 180,000 African American men—roughly one-tenth of the U.S. Army—served by 1865, with about 20,000 in the U.S. Navy.
Once they enlisted, USCTs found that they had to overcome whites’ doubts about their discipline and courage. Relegated to guarding wagon trains and depots, the men and their white officers demanded to see action. The bravery of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry in the attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863, helped turn the tide. USCT regiments participated in many battles thereafter, especially around Petersburg and Richmond in 1864. They defended Fort Pocahontas, in Charles City County east of Richmond, from attack on May 24. They were badly mauled in the Battle of Crater in Petersburg on July 30, in present-day Petersburg National Battlefield. On September 29, USCT regiments led the successful attack on New Market Heights in the defensive line southeast of Richmond. Again, they suffered heavy casualties, but fourteen soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor. USCT regiments were among the first units to enter Richmond on the morning of April 3, 1865. About 5,000 USCTs fought at Appomattox Court House before Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9.