University of Virginia Research Expands Knowledge of Former Slaves Who Fought for the Union Army

New research conducted at the John L. Nau III Canter for Civil War History at the University of Virginia has uncovered new information about former slaves who served in the Union Army. Using military and pension records, researchers have compiled a list of 240 Black men from Albemarle County who served in the Union Army. The men included former slaves and free Blacks. Many of the former slaves were recruited from areas of the Confederacy that had been liberated by the Union Army. But Army records noted their birth places that enabled the researchers to trace them back to Virginia.

Elizabeth Varon, associate director of the Nau Center and the Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia, said that “this is a very big deal. These men were fighting because of their bonds to fellow soldiers. They had a keen commitment to the nation and they were fighting for their freedom. If the Union survives, they are part of a liberating army. They are entering the circle of liberators. If they win, they are free of the curse of slavery.”

Professor Varon added that “we had always looked at the U.S. Colored Troops based on where most of the soldiers enlisted, such as Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee. Factoring in where soldiers were born gives us a window on the diasporic nature of the slave trade and of slave flight.”

Researchers were also able to determine that of the 240 Black men from Albemarle County, 65 died during the war. But there were very few deaths from combat. Some 90 percent of all death were related to diseases such as diarrhea and dysentery, pneumonia, and smallpox.”

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