On March 5, 1864, a crowd of over 10,000 New Yorkers watched in awe as 1,000 well-disciplined Union army troops left Rikers Island and marched west to the Hudson River, their dark blue uniforms and crisp white gloves and white leggings glistening in the sunlight.
What made this event so unusual was that the soldiers were black.
The 20th Colored Regiment was formed by the New York Union League, who hoped to present the black troops as part of the New Society that would take place once the South was defeated and the country united. George Bliss, a prominent member of the Union League who later became the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York City, led the effort to raise money for the formation of New York’s three black regiments.
The troops received their training at Rikers Island before being sent to Louisiana. The 20th and the 26th Regiments were part of the 180,000 black soldiers and sailors who served the Union cause. These troops were paid less than half of their white counterparts’ salaries, received inferior equipment, and lived in poor conditions.
Near the end of 1864, Rikers Island was transformed from a camp where soldiers were sent for temporary duty and training to a prisoner of war facility for Confederate soldiers.
The city of New York purchased the island in 1884 from the Riker family, who had settled it in 1638. Today it is New York City’s largest jail facility.
This entry contributed by Curriculum Concepts International