In late May of 1863, nearly six months after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared that all black men and women in slave-holding Confederate states were free, the Federal government created the Bureau of Colored Troops, effectively authorizing the use of black troops throughout the Union Army.
While some Northern states quickly raised their own “colored regiments,” it took Connecticut several additional months to muster up enough political and popular willpower to create one of its own. In November 1863, the General Assembly held a special session in which legislators argued the pros and cons of creating a new regiment of black infantrymen. Opponents of the measure often resorted to blatantly racist arguments, describing black soldiers as mentally and physically unprepared for battle, and predicting displays of mutiny and cowardice in the midst of battle. Nevertheless, the supporters won the day — likely aided by the harsh realities of declining enlistments and war-weariness two years into the bloodiest war the United States had ever seen.
On November 23, 1862, Governor William Buckingham signed a bill into law creating the 29th Regiment of Connecticut Infantry, which would be composed entirely of African-American volunteers. The response to the bill was immediate and overwhelming, as black volunteers poured in from every corner of the state. By January 1864, so many African-American men (over 1,500 in tota) had pledged to enlist that the state needed to create a second regiment of colored volunteers — the 20th Connecticut Infantry — in order to accommodate them all.
Later that month, the two regiments were visited by the famous abolitionist and speaker Frederick Douglass, who told them: “You are pioneers of the liberty of your race. With the United States cap on your head, the United States eagle on your belt, the United States musket on your shoulder, not all the powers of darkness can prevent you from becoming American citizens. …You are pioneers; on you depends the destiny of four millions of the colored race in this country. If you rise and flourish, we shall rise and flourish. If you win freedom and citizenship, we shall share your freedom and citizenship.”
In March of 1864, the 29th Connecticut Regiment set sail from New Haven to Maryland and eventually South Carolina, beginning a tour of duty that saw the troops serve with distinction at the Siege of Petersburg, the Battle of Fair Oaks, and several other engagements. In April of 1865, the 29th was one of the first Union regiments to proudly march into the Confederate capital city of Richmond after it fell to Union forces. The 29th Regiment returned to Hartford in November 1865, almost two years to the day after it was first created, to be formally mustered out of service amid a public display of patriotism and gratitude, including a speech by Governor Buckingham himself. In 2008, a monument was erected to honor the 29th Regiment in New Haven’s Criscuolo Park, where the original regiment had once camped while awaiting their order to deploy. It stands as part of Connecticut’s Freedom Trail and was the state’s first monument to black soldiers.
Todd Jones, “29th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers Fought More than One War,” connecticuthistory.org
Charles (Ben) Hawley, “Connecticut’s Black Civil War Regiment,” Connecticut Explored
J. J. Hill, “A Sketch of the 29th Regiment Connecticut Colored Troops,” archive.org