This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead: Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.
Pictured here are three corps badges for the Union XXV Corps. Beginning in 1863, most corps in the Union Army adopted symbols so it would be easier to distinguish different commands from each other during the height of battle. In addition to the symbol distinguishing what corps a soldier belonged to, badges were also color-coded to denote divisions. Generally, red would mark the first division, white the second, and blue the third. The XXV Corps adopted this shape, sometimes worn as a square, although usually seen pinned on as a diamond.
The XXV Corps was unique amongst Union corps as it was formed entirely from the USCT regiments from other commands. It was the only entirely African American corps in the Union Army. Its men served in the trenches during the final days of the Petersburg and Richmond campaigns and distinguished themselves as being some of the first Federal troops to march into both cities on the morning of April 3, 1865. The majority of the corps was left to assist in the recovery of Petersburg, as fleeing Confederates had set sections of the city on fire, but two of its brigades pursued the Confederate Army out of the city. At times, the men marched thirty miles in less than twenty hours.
On April 9, soldiers of the corps earned further distinction by fighting Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. Southern troops attempted to continue westward, but the fast-paced march of the XXV Corps and their sister corps, the all-white XXIV Corps, were directly in the way. Advancing together, these white and black forces were described as a “checkerboard” that moved down the ridge and blocked the Confederate advance. With no way out and more Union forces on the way, General Lee surrendered his army that afternoon, having been halted in part by men of the XXV Corps.
After the surrender, the corps regrouped near Petersburg. They spent a month occupying the area surrounding Richmond, but were then ordered to Texas. Having enlisted later than most white units, USCT regiments often found themselves assigned to occupation duty in the post-war South—to the fury of former Confederates—simply because they had more time left in their enlistment. The corps spent the remainder of 1865 stationed in Texas, guarding the border with Mexico as well as watching for resurgent Confederate activity. This proved to be a miserable, disease-ridden assignment, killing hundreds of soldiers who had witnessed the surrender at Appomattox. The regiments began to muster out of service in late 1865, but the last would not return home until early 1867. Despite an uncertain future for their freedom, the soldiers of the XXV Corps had fought hard and been present at one of the greatest triumphs in American history, earning the right to be proud of their service.
Calkins, Chris. The Appomattox Campaign. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 2008.
United States Colored Troops at Appomattox. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. Pamphlet, 2016.