At the beginning of the Civil War, African Americans were not permitted to serve in the armed forces of the United States. Over the course of the war, the mindset of many politicians changed, and African Americans served in great numbers by the end of the conflict. In July 1862, Congress passed the Confiscation Act and the Militia Act. The former allowed for the freeing of slaves whose owners were fighting against the Union, and the latter allowed Pres. Abraham Lincoln to utilize freed slaves in any capacity in the army. The move towards arming African Americans was strengthened even more in September 1862 and January 1863, with the writing and issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, which claimed that all slaves residing within the rebellious states would then be considered free. This spurred recruitment of African American regiments. Finally, on May 22, 1863 the U.S. War Department issued General Order Number 143, establishing the Bureau of Colored Troops. In the last two years of the war, 175 regiments containing 178,000 African American men saw service.
U.S. Colored Troops were segregated units, commanded by white officers. Initially, they were paid less than white soldiers. Though the vast majority of U.S. Colored Troops served garrison duty at out-of-the-way forts, others distinguished themselves in combat throughout the Confederacy. U.S. Colored Troops participated in a number of battles including the Second Battle of Fort Wagner (July 18, 1863), Battle of Olustee (February 20, 1864), Battle of Fort Pillow (April 12, 1864), Battle of the Crater (July 30, 1864), and Battle of Nashville (December 15-16, 1864). The 41st USCT was present for Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Virginia in April 1865, and other USCT units were among the first soldiers to enter the Confederate capitol of Richmond when it fell. By war's end, USCT casualties numbered over 68,000 troops, over 2,700 of which were combat deaths.
In North Carolina, four regiments of over 5,000 soldiers were raised, including the 35th, 36th, and 37th USCT, as well as the 14th US Colored Heavy Artillery. The 35th and 36th USCT fought well and earned high praise on the battlefield. The 37th USCT saw limited combat and fought poorly when they did. The unit was poorly organized and suffered from internal strife. Like many African American units, the 14th USCHA was sent to garrison coastal fortifications and never saw any action or received any recognition. The US Army's XXV Corps, comprised entirely of USCT regiments, played a major role in the Wilmington Campaign of January-February 1865.