Originally called 3rd Tennessee Volunteers (African Descent):
also called 1st U.S. Infantry Regiment (Colored)
Organized in Tennessee, 1863.
Dyer’s Compendium says this regiment was organized in Tennessee at large from July 24 to August 14, 1863. A report from Colonel R. D. Mussey, Commissioner for the Organization of Colored Troops, dated at Nashville, October 10, 1864, stated the regiment had already been raised in July, 1863, when he took over the duty; was originally the 2nd Alabama, and was composed largely of the laborers upon the fortifications about Nashville, the remnants of the large force impressed in 1862 for that purpose.
On August 27, 1863, Major General W. S. Rosecrans advised Brigadier General Andrew Johnson, Military Governor of Tennessee: “I wish to place under your orders the building of the Northwestern Railroad. * * * It is probable that we can spare you Colonel Thompson, and the 1st and 2nd Regiments Colored Troops to be employed on the line.”
On September 2, 1863 the regiment, under Colonel Charles R. Thompson, was at the Elk River Bridge, near Decherd, and orders were issued that the regiment should be left together as much as possible, and never divided so that less than one third should be by itself, until Colonel Thompson had time to thoroughly organize it. On September 14, he suggested the Elk River Bridge would be a good place for the regiment to be concentrated for drill and instruction, and that it could, at the same time, act as guards for the bridge. The regiment remained at the Elk River Bridge until November, 1863. On September 20, it reported 14 officers, 301 men present for duty, 390 present, 949 present and absent, in the Army of the Cumberland. On October 6, two companies were detached to Lieutenant Colonel K. A. Hunton, Commanding Engineer Corps. On October 13, the regiment, 800 strong, was reported as part of the forces at the Elk River Bridge under Colonel W. Hawley. On October 31, as the 3rd Tennessee Volunteers (African Descent) Assistant Adjutant General C. W. Foster listed it with 976 men.
On November 3, the regiment was ordered to report to Brigadier General Alvan C. Gillem, at Nashville, for duty on the Northwestern Railroad, also called the Nashville and Northwestern, which was then being extended by the Federal forces to connect their main depot, at Nashville, with Johnsonville, on the Tennessee River, so that supplies could be shipped up the river to Johnsonville, and thence by rail to Nashville. According to a report by Chief of Engineers W. W. Wright, construction was completed May 10, 1864, and in a tabulation of the work done by soldiers he stated that an average of 200 men from the 12th U. S. Colored Infantry were employed from November 15, 1863 until they were relieved April 23, 1864. Meanwhile, the rest of the regiment was engaged in guard duty along the line of construction.
On August 1, 1864, General Gillem was transferred to East Tennessee, and Colonel Thompson was given command of all the troops assigned to the Nashville and Northwestern Railroad, with Lieutenant Colonel William R. Sellon in command of the regiment. On October 21, Major General George H. Thomas, in a report to General William T. Sherman on the forces in his command, listed the 12th and 13th U. S. Colored Regiments, on the Northwestern Railroad, numbering 1200 men.
About two weeks later, at the time of General Nathan B. Forrest’s attack on Johnsonville, Colonel Thompson was in command of the forces there, and the 12th was part of his command. On November 29, the regiment was reported at Kingston Springs, and Lieutenant Colonel Sellon reported on a scouting trip made by Captain Everett, “with my mounted companies,” so at least a part of the regiment was serving as Mounted Infantry at this time.
On November 30, General Thomas, concentrating his forces at Nashville to meet General John B. Hood’s invasion, ordered Colonel Sellon to wait until the last trains from Johnsonville had moved, and follow them to Nashville. Here Colonel Thompson’s 2nd Colored Brigade was placed in a Provisional Division commanded by Brigadier General Charles Cruft, which was a part of a Detachment from the District of the Etowah, commanded by Major General James B. Steedman. As such, the 12th took part in the fighting around Nashville, culminating in the battle of Nashville December 15-16, 1864. General Steedman’s report stated that about 8:00 A.M. on the 15th, Colonel Thompson’s command moved across Brown’s Creek, between the Nolensville and Murfreesboro Pikes, and attacked and carried the left of the front line of the enemy works resting on the Nolensville Pike, and held the position until the morning of the 16th. On the morning of the 16th, they made the bloody assault on Overton’s Hill, which was unsuccessful, but “the troops exhibited a courage and steadiness that challenged the admiration of all who witnessed the charge.” In this charge, the 12th lost about a fourth of their number in casual-. ties, including Major A. I. Finch, who was severely wounded. The command of the regiment devolved upon Captain Henry Hegner. While Thompson’s Brigade was reforming to renew the attack, the Confederate line was broken beyond Overton’s Hill, and the rout of the Confederate Army began.
The regiment joined in the pursuit through Brentwood and Franklin, and concentrated at Murfreesboro on December 18. From here it moved to Decatur, Alabama, and was the first regiment to cross the river at Decatur on December 27, where a sharp engagement took place. It returned to Nashville on January 9, 1865, having lost three officers and 10 men killed, three officers and 99 men wounded. The officers killed were Captain Robert Headen and Lieutenants Dennis Dease and D. G. Cooke.
The regiment again took up its guard duty on the line of railroad. On April 30, Colonel Thompson had become a brevet brigadier general in command of the 3rd Sub-District, District of Middle Tennessee under Major General Lovell H. Rousseau. The regiment was commanded by Major Amasa I. Finch, who had recovered from his wounds. It continued in this service until mustered out of service December 11, 1865.