Speaking to a group of ironworkers about his new $700 billion economic revival plan, Joe Biden on Thursday criticized President Donald Trump over his defense of the Confederate flag and touted the prominent role Pennsylvanians played in the Civil War.
“Three hundred sixty thousand Pennsylvanians fought on the side of the Union to defeat the flag, that Confederate flag, including more Black soldiers coming from Pennsylvania than any other state in the nation,” Biden, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee, said in Dunmore, Pa.
We wondered whether Biden’s telling of the state’s Civil War history was accurate.
Biden is correct that about 360,000 Pennsylvanians fought for the Union Army during the war, according to a Civil War tourism website maintained by Pennsylvania and several history websites dedicated to commemorating the recent 150th anniversary of the war’s end.
He’s also right that more Black soldiers hailed from the Keystone State than any other free state in the Union.
During the war, roughly 185,000 Black men served in what was then known as the United States Colored Troops or the United States Colored Infantry, even though Black men couldn’t serve at all when the war began in 1861. And 8,612 of those men called Pennsylvania home, army records maintained by the National Archives show.
According to those records, the first three Union regiments of Black soldiers formed in New Orleans in the fall of 1862, after the Second Confiscation and Militia Act was signed earlier that summer. But it was not until President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, that the Union Army could use Black soldiers in combat.
Six months later, in June 1863, Camp William Penn in Cheltenham opened as a training facility for Black troops. More than 11,000 Black soldiers trained there. They fought at Fort Wagner, the Battle of Olustee, and the Battle of New Market Heights. Frederick Douglass occasionally visited troops stationed at the camp.
In the end, Pennsylvania had more Black Union soldiers than any other Northern free state, with 8,612.
Kentucky had more Black Union soldiers than any other Union state where slavery was legal, with 23,703. And Louisiana had the largest number of Black Union soldiers among the Confederate states, whose economies depended on the inhumane practice of slavery.
When the Civil War ended, the Union Army snubbed its Black soldiers and declined to invite them to march in a victory parade held in Washington. In fact, some Black soldiers were still standing guard in the South when the parade took place.
But six months later, Pennsylvania officials invited Black soldiers to march through Harrisburg, making Pennsylvania the only state to honor Black troops this way.
Biden said that 360,000 Pennsylvanians fought for the Union Army during the Civil War and that more of the army’s Black soldiers hailed from Pennsylvania than any other state. Those statistics both check out. But Biden failed to explain the distinction between the number of Black Union soldiers who hailed from Union free states where slavery was illegal, the number who hailed from Union states where slavery was legal, and the number who hailed from Confederate states whose economies revolved around enslaving people.
We rate Biden’s statement Mostly True.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Biden promised to build the ‘economy of the future’ and criticized Trump as ‘singularly focused’ on the stock market in a Pa. visit,” July 9, 2020
The New York Times, “Trump Adds to Playbook of Stoking White Fear and Resentment,” July 6, 2020
Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, “The Civil War and Pennsylvania,” accessed on July 9, 2020
Pennsylvania Civil War 150, “Fact and Figures,” accessed on July 9, 2020
The New York Times, “Organizing Black Soldiers,” May 31, 2013
National Archives, “Black Soldiers and the Civil War,” 1997
Pennsylvania Grand Review, “Camp William Penn,” June 11, 2010
York Dispatch, “Black Civil War soldiers honored only in Pennsylvania,” Feb. 18, 2016
PolitiFact is a nonpartisan, fact-checking website operated by the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies.