War Department General Order 143 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Halfway through the Civil War, Union Army officials began to explore the possibility of enlisting black soldiers. Its ranks, which consisted only of white troops, had been thinned by casualties. In addition, the army’s battlefield successes created a growing number of former slaves–freed according to the Emancipation Proclamation–able to fight for the Union. With the strong advocacy of African American activist Frederick Douglass, more black men came forward to enlist in the Union Army. In May 1863, the War Department, through War Department General Order 143, established the Bureau of Colored Troops. The bureau would be used to enlist and assign the growing number of black volunteers to established military units.

Summary Overview

Halfway through the Civil War, Union Army officials began to explore the possibility of enlisting black soldiers. Its ranks, which consisted only of white troops, had been thinned by casualties. In addition, the army’s battlefield successes created a growing number of former slaves–freed according to the Emancipation Proclamation–able to fight for the Union. With the strong advocacy of African American activist Frederick Douglass, more black men came forward to enlist in the Union Army. In May 1863, the War Department, through War Department General Order 143, established the Bureau of Colored Troops. The bureau would be used to enlist and assign the growing number of black volunteers to established military units.

Defining Moment

In 1861, when Confederate forces captured Fort Sumter in South Carolina–effectively starting the Civil War–former slaves and other black Americans alike expressed their willingness to join the Union Army. As the war progressed, the number of additional white army volunteers began to dwindle. However, despite the benefit of increased manpower to the Union Army, the policy of enlisting black men was politically risky. President Lincoln understood that such a policy would enrage many public officials in states along the North-South border and upset white voters elsewhere in the Union. Nevertheless, the overwhelming number of available black volunteers would, in the minds of Lincoln, his military leaders, and Congress, help offset the declining number of white soldiers.

On July 17, 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act. The legislation freed slaves whose owners were members of the Confederate Army. The law also created an avenue whereby slaves–once the property of individuals who were now the enemies of the Union–could join the Union Army. Shortly thereafter, Lincoln unveiled his Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves living in the Confederacy.

With the question of accepting black troops into the Union Army answered, the Union next turned to the recruitment, training, and assignment of black troops. This was a challenging process involving a great deal of administrative work and organizational management. Newly emancipated former slaves from the South, for example, would need to be treated differently than white volunteers. Union officers would need to take these differences into account when forming, training, and deploying regiments of black soldiers. Meanwhile, civil rights advocates such as Frederick Douglass pushed both the state and federal governments to accommodate black volunteers while calling upon more black people to join the Union Army.

This situation led the War Department to create a single office under the umbrella of the Adjutant General, the chief administrative officer of the army. Under the auspice of War Department General Order 143 and the orders of the secretary of war, the office became known as the Bureau of Colored Troops. The bureau was responsible for recruiting black soldiers, organizing their units, and securing white officers to oversee these units. The bureau, which at its height oversaw the activities of 180,000 troops, also served as a clearinghouse for information about the battlefield performance of these newly formed units.

Author Biography

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton drafted and disseminated War Department General Order 143. Stanton was born on December 19, 1814 in Steubenville, Ohio. His parents were physician David Stanton and Lucy Norman Stanton. An avid reader, he served as an apprentice to a local bookseller as a teenager. Stanton later attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, but financial limitations forced him to depart the college after only two years.

After returning to Steubenville, Stanton began practicing law at the office of a family friend. In 1835, he was admitted to the Ohio bar. By his early twenties, Stanton had established a reputation as an exceptional lawyer and become interested in politics. In 1837, while arguing before the Supreme Court on a patent issue regarding Cyrus Hall McCormick’s mechanical grain reaper, he met Abraham Lincoln. In 1859, Stanton became the first attorney in United States history to use temporary insanity as a legal defense, using the argument while defending Daniel Sickles, who had been charged with murdering his wife’s lover.

In 1860, President James Buchanan–whose administration was marred by corruption charges and the threat of Southern secession–tapped Stanton to be his attorney general. Stanton, a staunch antislavery activist, assailed the secessionist threat and successfully encouraged President Buchanan not to surrender at Fort Sumter in January 1861. When Lincoln became president in March, Stanton returned to his private legal practice, although he would continue to provide counsel for a number of Union officials, including Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Cameron’s frequent missteps led Lincoln to move him to a different post in his administration. Lincoln, a Republican, turned to Stanton to take Cameron’s place, despite the fact that Stanton was a Democrat.

Although he was often combative, outspoken, and stubborn as a cabinet official, Stanton became a close ally of Lincoln’s, particularly on the issue of emancipation and recruiting former slaves into the Union Army. After Lincoln was assassinated, it was Stanton who uttered the famous words, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Stanton remained in the cabinet of President Andrew Johnson after Lincoln’s death, but their relationship was tumultuous. Johnson repeatedly attempted to remove Stanton from his post, but he was rebuffed by Congress, which was responsible for removing government officials. Stanton eventually left his post in a compromise deal, returning to his private practice in 1869. However, that same year, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him to the Supreme Court.

Before he was able to assume his position on the court, Stanton died from respiratory failure on December 4, 1869. He was survived by several children and his second wife, Ellen Hutchinson. Stanton is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, DC.

Document Analysis

War Department General Order 143 sought to bolster the Union Army’s troop numbers by recruiting black volunteers. The order established the Bureau of Colored Troops, a special office that was dedicated to organizing and managing the influx of black volunteers. The bureau was created to oversee the recruitment, training, and assignment of black troops in the Union Army. After the bureau was founded, it recruited soldiers according to Northern state designations. Outside of the free North, however, black volunteers were typically former slaves who required military training. The Bureau of Colored Troops, through the guidelines of War Department General Order 143, provided training, uniforms, and equipment for the Union Army’s black regiments.

The recruitment and training of black troops under the bureau’s management was considerably different from the Union Army’s recruitment protocols for white volunteers. White Union Army recruits were organized through quotas. Recruiting stations were opened in cities and towns throughout the North. As the need for more troops arose during the war, the number of such stations increased, particularly in more populated municipal centers. White recruits could enlist in existing regiments at recruitment stations, or they could join new regiments that had not yet been deployed. Typically, the officers working at stations recruiting for already-formed regiments were themselves combat veterans. Newly forming regiments were often recruited by recently commissioned, less experienced officers.

For black Union recruits, the War Department deemed it necessary to create a single system of administration. Officers in charge of all aspects of the process, from recruitment to assignment, were required to adhere to a strict set of guidelines established by the Bureau of Colored Troops. Although the army (and indeed, its commander in chief, President Lincoln) believed in the value of recruiting black troops, the process was influenced by political forces and systemized racial prejudice. Black troops represented a boon for the Union Army’s numbers, but many in North were reluctant, if not outwardly opposed, to accepting them. Once a recruitment policy was approved, it was critical that the army adhere to its strict protocols. The order was thus focused in such a way that only the entities and individuals assigned by the government could manage any part of the large recruitment operation.

The order calls for the establishment of the bureau within the adjutant general’s office. The adjutant general served as the Union Army’s chief administrative officer, managing all operations, supplies, and policies within its system. The centrality of the adjutant general ensured that all of the Union’s operations were standardized and uniform. The Bureau of Colored Troops was incorporated into the overall purview of the army’s central administrative office. The recruitment of black volunteers was handled by the federal government, without the participation of state governments.

Following the bureau’s establishment, Major Charles W. Foster of Ohio was appointed commanding officer of administration by Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas. Various field officers were appointed to oversee the organization and assignments of the Union Army’s black recruits. Furthermore, several boards were convened to review the applications of white officers seeking command posts in black regiments and units.

The order manifests an acknowledgement of the fact that black soldier recruitment requires a specialized approach. Many of the protocols used for white soldiers were not applied to this group of soldiers. Many black soldiers hailed from the same regions as their white counterparts. However, a much larger number were former slaves who lacked formal education. The order clearly distinguishes black soldiers, not only as separate from white soldiers, but as a single, uniform group.

The boards established in section 3 of the order played a pivotal role in the selection of officers. The expansion of the Union Army to include black regiments created opportunities for officers seeking command positions (and the pay increases that came with such posts). Army officials maintained that commanding officers assigned to black regiments should possess certain leadership qualities. The prevalent racial prejudices of the period gave rise to the notion that black soldiers should be trained differently from white troops, especially in light of the fact that so many black recruits were former slaves.

The board also served as the primary authority on who would be able to recruit these black troops. According to Order 143, the board established within the Bureau of Colored Troops would be solely responsible examining, approving, and denying those individuals who would recruit troops from the increasing number of black volunteers. Even if approved by the board, these recruiters would be limited in terms of the number of troops they recruited. The order states that a board-authorized army recruiter would only be allowed to raise one regiment’s worth of men. A regiment consisted of about ten companies, each of which consisted of about one hundred men, including officers.

Under the guidelines of the order, troops recruited within the Bureau of Colored Troops system would first be assigned to companies. Those companies would be consolidated into either regiments or battalions (which consisted of between four and eight companies), a procedure administered by the Adjutant General. The regiments and battalions would then be ordered one after another (“seriatim”) according to the chronological order by which they were raised. Each regiment and battalion would be given a special designation, identifying the grouping by its racial composition: Regiment of US Colored Troops.

Keeping in line with the strict protocols for the recruitment and assignment of black volunteers, the order states that the adjutant general would establish specialized recruiting stations and depots for this purpose. Each such depot and station would be managed by well-trained and government-sanctioned officers who would be responsible for mustering (formally gathering and organizing) and inspecting these troops as they came through the facility. This policy would facilitate the uniform application of army policies and practices.

A major theme found in the order focuses on the (white) officers. These individuals were responsible for the organization, training, assignment, and deployment of the newest members of the Union Army. It was critical, therefore, that the officers assigned to this duty were carefully screened and managed in order ensure the troops’ top performance. The officers’ ranks were of two kinds, noncommissioned and commissioned. The former–such as corporals and sergeants–were men given authority by commissioned officers (sometimes while in the field), often as a reward for their demonstrated leadership qualities. Commissioned officers were trained to become officers and included graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point. This group received their commissions and promotions by sanction of the federal government.

The War Department did not see a reason to change the protocols for promoting those officers who were assigned to work with black regiments. As they were already officially screened by the Adjutant General and the aforementioned board within the Bureau of Colored Troops, the officers would continue to see promotions based on merit and valor. According to section 8 of Order 143, noncommissioned officers would continue to be rewarded with promotions based on their distinguishing character and actions. Likewise, commissioned officers would be eligible for promotions based on their own meritorious activity.

There was a difference for officers who received their command over a white regiment as opposed to a black regiment. As mentioned earlier, officers were assigned their command over white regiments according to necessity–an officer who distinguished himself during a battle might, for example, be promoted and reassigned to a command in a similar combat situation. Officers seeking promotion typically would gain the support of their political leaders, such as congressmen or other elected officers. On the other hand, officers who sought to become a part of a black regiment needed to apply for such slots. Most knew no political officials who would lobby the War Department on their behalf. These officers needed to pass an examination, for which they needed to study extensively in order to ensure that they were prepared for any situation as an officer of a black regiment.

An important omission from the order is any protocol permitting the promotion of black soldiers to officer rank. Systemized racism and political sensitivity prevented the promotion of any black man to a rank in which he could be a white man’s superior officer.

There were already black regiments in existence–which included black officers–by the start of the Civil War. Louisiana had in 1861 established the Native Guards to support the Confederacy, but these regiments were not used; any such regiment that was captured by the Union was simply dissolved. By 1863, black men were barred from holding any higher rank, with the rare exception of black medical doctors or chaplains who were given their ranks in title only and without any discernible authority.

Also absent from War Department General Order 143 is any description of the training black troops would receive upon recruitment. The inclusion of such information would have divulged elements of battlefield strategy. Black soldiers in the Union Army were involved in a wide range of activities contributing to the war effort. Many served noncombat roles, working as laborers, medical corps, and chaplains. Others were assigned to artillery and infantry units. In total, the bureau managed nearly 180,000 black troops, organizing them into 120 infantry regiments, twenty-two artillery batteries, and seven cavalry regiments.

In 1863, the Union Army was as reluctant to let black soldiers go into battle as they were to let them join the military at all two year prior. Yet, black regiments of the Union Army fought in forty-one major battles and countless smaller skirmishes during the latter half of the war. According to a wide range of accounts, the regiments performed bravely and heroically. Nevertheless, in comparison to white soldiers, black troops were used in limited fashion on the battlefield; the vast majority of black soldiers who died during the war were killed by disease, not as a result of combat.

War Department General Order 143 is illustrative of the prevailing prejudices and racist ideologies of the Civil War era. President Lincoln and his antislavery supporters in the Republican Party were successful in adopting the Emancipation Proclamation, but this victory did not immediately change America’s deeply ingrained racist culture. The order itself displays racial prejudice, as it presumes black men–in light of a presumed lack of intellect and social skills–would require additional training and education that white men would not. In addition, the order takes pains to remind readers that black troops would only serve–their role was to follow orders and not to issue them.

Essential Themes

The decision to recruit black men into the Union Army was not an overwhelmingly popular one. Despite the fact that slavery was outlawed in the North, racism and prejudice against black people remained prevalent. Nevertheless, the dwindling number of able-bodied white Union soldiers and recruits led the Union to begin recruiting from this sizable population. Because of the large volume of black volunteers seeking to join the army, the Union leadership determined it was important to carefully organize and manage the affairs of black recruits. War Department General Order 143 served as the vehicle for that endeavor.

By establishing the Bureau of Colored Troops and the rules pertaining to the recruitment, processing, and deployment of black soldiers, the order demonstrates that a carefully ordered system, one that was unlike the processes utilized for raising white soldiers, was necessary. The rules governing not just the recruits but the white officers overseeing these troops reflect the racial stereotypes maintained by the North and reflect the strength of political forces opposed to black recruitment altogether. The order’s language is extremely precise on the protocols for black troop recruitment and organization. For example, it ensures that no black man would have authority over a white man, and maintains the compensation and promotion policies afforded to white officers who are assigned to black regiments.

Despite the fact that black volunteers, just like their white counterparts, came from more than one geographic and socioeconomic area, the order assumes each black volunteer to be of a social stratum beneath that of white Americans. All black troops in the Union Army were subject to the same rules and protocols. Furthermore, black regiments, with the exception of the commissioned and noncommissioned officers under whose command they operated, remained separate from white regiments as they went about their wartime duties.

In addition to the adjutant general, recruitment boards served as a secondary administrative authority in the recruitment of black volunteers, overseeing the troops sent through the bureau’s recruitment system. These boards, found at each recruitment post, selected white officers for black regiments. Aspiring officers who looked for a command in a black regiment were required to apply for the position and pass an examination administered by the board. By carefully selecting the officers for each regiment, the boards were responsible for assigning the officers most capable of leading this special brand of Union soldier. They also ensured that officers so assigned would adhere to the strict protocols established by the bureau and enforced by the adjutant general.

  • “Biography: Edwin Stanton.” Freedom: A History of US. Public Broadcasting Service, n.d. Web. 25 Apr 2013.
  • “The Civil War’s Black Soldiers.” National Park Service. US Department of the Interior, 2013. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.
  • “The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War.”National Archives. US National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 25 Apr 2013.
Additional Reading
  • Berlin, Ira. Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.
  • Glatthaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2000. Print.
  • McPherson, James. The Negro’s Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted during the War for the Union. New York: Vintage, 2003. Print.
  • Roberts, Rita. “Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era.” Journal of American History 90.4 (2004): 1455–57. Print.
Categories: History