Following the Militia Act of 1862, the U.S. Army accepted Black troops. They were formed into regiments segregated from white soldiers and known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT). In 1862, approximately 1% of the Northern population was Black. By 1865, however, nearly 12% of U.S. troops were Black. USCT soldiers fought and died in nearly every major campaign between 1863 and 1865. Their soldiers earned a combined 25 Medals of Honor. USCT regiments were the first U.S. troops to enter the defeated cities of Charleston and Richmond.
This knapsack belonged to Private Ezra Brooks of the 8th Infantry USCT. His knapsack is one of 10,000 purchased from France in 1861 to equip several white Massachusetts and Pennsylvania regiments. Among those returned to the Ordnance Department from those regiments, it was re-issued to the 8th USCT. It was not unusual for soldiers of color to receive re-issued or used equipment. Often, these hand-me-downs featured the names of their original white regimental owners. Many Black soldiers lacked basic opportunities for education and were forbidden to learn to read and write under enslavement. As a result, it is rare to connect an object used by a member of the USCT with the soldier who used it.
According to enlistment records, Ezra Brooks entered service in Company H of the 8th United States Colored Troops on October 6, 1863, and was mustered out on November 10, 1865. The 8th was formed and trained at Camp William Penn, near Philadelphia, and fought at the Battle of Olustee in Florida, the siege of Petersburg in Virginia, and other engagements.
Over the past 20 years, Atlanta History Center’s collection of USCT artifacts has steadily grown and includes a canteen, two swords, a rifle, brass drum, knapsack, Bible, veterans’ badge, a Medal of Honor, the 127th Regimental Battle Flag, and more. These items, along with Brooks’s knapsack, are powerful touchstones to the Black Civil War experience.