Third Arkansas Infantry Regiment (African Descent)
aka: Fifty-Sixth United States Colored Troops
The recruiting of African American military units to serve in the Union army was approved with the creation of the U.S. War Department’s Bureau of Colored Troops on May 22, 1863. Officers of the units were white, but Black men could serve as non-commissioned officers. At least seven regiments of Black troops and two Black artillery batteries served in Arkansas.
The Third Arkansas Infantry Regiment (African Descent) was organized at St. Louis, Missouri, on August 12, 1863, though Company H was recruited at Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The “companies [were] forwarded to Helena as fast as mustered into service.” Much of their time initially was spent doing manual labor, leading an officer to despair in November 1863 that the “companies have been employed on fatigue duty at the post to the almost entire exclusion of drill.”
Men of the Third Arkansas did see some field activity. In October 1863, Captain John W. Robinson led Companies A, B, and C to Camp Buford about five miles from Helena, and the soldiers made “two scouts of twenty miles each, during which the men fully sustained their reputation for the endurance of fatigue and other soldierly qualities.” Other Third Arkansas men participated in the expedition from Helena up the White River on February 4–8, 1864, and the February 13–14, 1864, expedition up the St. Francis River.
The Third Arkansas Infantry Regiment (African Descent) had its designation changed to the Fifty-Sixth United States Colored Troops (USCT) on March 11, 1864. Soldiers from the Fifty-Sixth fought in the Action at Indian Bay on April 13 and the Skirmish at Muffleton’s Lodge on June 29, 1864. They were involved in operations around Helena in July 1864, and Companies D, E, F, and K fought in the July 26, 1864, Action at Wallace’s Ferry, losing two officers and eleven men killed, two officers and twenty-four men wounded, and three men missing. Their conduct at Wallace’s Ferry led Brigadier General Napoleon Buford to report, “Will they fight? Ask the enemy.” Fifty-Sixth USCT men also participated in the August 29–September 2, 1864, expedition from Helena up the White River.
As the war wore on, the Fifty-Sixth USCT spent time guarding government stores, corrals, and contraband camps, with various companies spending time stationed at the contraband camp at Fort Pinney southeast of Helena. Other companies rotated guarding the government wood cutters on Island No. 63 in the Mississippi River.
Companies C, D, G, and K took part in the scouting expedition to Friar’s Point (usually spelled Friars Point), Mississippi, on February 19–22, 1865, and Companies C, D, E, and F manned the batteries surrounding Helena from April to June 1865. The regiment remained on duty at Helena “and other points in Arkansas” until mustering out on September 15, 1866.
The Third Arkansas Infantry Regiment (African Descent)/Fifty-Sixth USCT lost twenty-five officers and men killed or mortally wounded and 649 to disease during its service.
For additional information:
Dyer, Frederick. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion. Des Moines, IA: Dyer Publishing Co., 1908, pp. 1000, 1732–1733.
Hewett, Janet B., et al., eds. Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Vol. 78. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Co., 1998, pp. 306–321.
Robertson, Brian K. “‘Will They Fight? Ask the Enemy’: United States Colored Troops at Big Creek, Arkansas, July 26, 1864.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 66 (Autumn 2007): 320–332.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. 41, part 1, pp. 18, 20; Vol. 48, part 1, pp. 120–121. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1891.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
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