Personally I shrink from danger, and most decidedly prefer a safe corner at my own fireside to an exposed place in the face of the enemy on the battlefield, but so strongly was I persuaded of the importance of giving colored troops a fair field and full opportunity to show of what mettle they were made, that I lost no chance of insisting upon our right to be ordered into the field.
(Lt Col Thomas J. Morgan, 14th LJSCI)
One of the key questions whites had about black troops was their willingness to fight. Thomas Morgan's first battle convinced his superiors that, given a chance, his black soldiers would fight. Morgan wrote about Gen George Thomas's doubts, "He [Thomas] asked me one day, soon after my regiment was organized, if I thought my men would fight. I replied that they would. He said, 'they might behind breastworks.' I said that they would fight in the open field. He thought not."
But the black soldiers would not just fight, they would fight ferociously, even if half-trained. On June 7, 1863, at Milliken's Bend, a supply depot that had been converted to a training camp for African American regiments, three understrength black regiments beginning the process of learning to be soldiers were attacked by a brigade of Texas infantry. The Confederates, acting on outdated information, thought the camp was still Grant's main supply depot for the army besieging Vicksburg. Instead, they encountered black troops - the first that most Confederate soldiers would have met in battle. The resulting battle was a ferocious midnight brawl, with quarter neither asked nor given by either side fighting at the breastworks.
Gaqt M. M. Miller of the 9th Louisiana (African Descent"), foue$iiL'\ii the battle. Afterwards, he wrote a letter to a friend describing it:
I never more wish to hear the expression, "The niggers won't fight." Come with me, a hundred yards from where I sit, and I can show you the wounds that cover the bodies of sixteen as brave, loyal, and patriotic soldiers as ever drew a bead on a rebel.
The enemy charged us so close that we fought with our bayonets, hand-to-hand. I have six broken bayonets, to show how bravely my men fought. It was a horrible fight, the worst I was ever engaged in, not excepting Sliiloh.
A boy I had cooking for me came and begged a gun when the rebels were advancing, and took his place with the company. When we retook the breastworks I found him badly wounded. A new recruit I had issued a gun to the day before the fight was
found dead with a firm grasp on his gun, die bayonet of which was broken in three places. (Brown)
The outnumbered African American troops at Milliken's Bend yielded before the Confederate attack, but did not break. At daybreak, with artillery support from river gunboats, they counterattacked, and pushed the Confederates out of the camp.
The behavior at Milliken's Bend was typical of the battlefield performance of black troops, who often proved the most reliable forces on the battlefield. William Eliot Furness, who commanded black troops in both the 3rd and 45th USCI regiments, observed in 'The Negro as a Soldier," "There was 110 occasion in which they were smitten as a body with a panic like the unreasoning panic of the Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville, or that of the army in general at the first battle of Bull Run."
Milliken's Bend was a defensive action. The blacks were fighting behind breastworks. Many, including George Thomas, felt them capable of that. The issue that remained was whether they could be relied upon in an open field battle, or in an assault on a fortified position. That question was decisively answered in May and later in July 1863, when pioneer black regiments led assaults against fortified positions at both Port Hudson, Louisiana, and Battery Wagner, off Charleston, South Carolina. In both cases the support they were to have received from white regiments came late. The 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard regiments (as they were then titled) at Port Hudson, and the 54th Massachusetts (Colored) in Charleston Harbor, pressed the attack anyway.
James Gooding wrote to his hometown newspaper about the attack on Wagner.
You may all know Fort Wagner is the Sebastopol of the rebels; but we went at it, over the ditch and onto the parapet through a deadly fire; but we could not get into the fort. We met the foe on the parapet of Wagner with the bayonet - we were exposed to murderous fire from the batteries of the fort, from our Monitors and our land batteries, as they did not cease firing soon enough. Mortal man could not stand such a fire, and the assault on Wagner was a failure.
At the first charge, the 54th rushed to within twenty yards of the ditches, and, as might be expected of raw recruits, wavered -
but at the second advance they gained the parapet. The color bearer of the State colors was killed on the parapet. Col. Shaw seized the staff when the standard bearer fell, and in less than a minute, the Colonel fell himself.
Both assaults were crushed, but they were victories in the sense that they gave African American troops a fighting reputation. The officers leading them, Col Robert Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts and Capt André Callioux of the 1st Native Guards, were killed, becoming martyrs. Shaw, the scion of a prominent Boston family, was buried with his "niggers." This attempt to shame the white officer instead became a symbol of the bond between the officers and men. Callioux was one of the few black officers in the Union Army. William Wells Brown stated that Callioux "prided himself on being the blackest man in the Crescent City." Callioux demonstrated that blacks were capable not only of fighting, but of leading men into combat.
In an anonymous battle in the Indian Territory, an African American regiment, the 1st Kansas Infantry (Colored), fought a mixed force of Confederate Indians and white Texans in a battle at Honey Springs. In an open field, the African American regiment anchored the center of the Union line. They repulsed a cavalry charge launched by a Confederate force so contemptuous of the blacks that they attacked with damp gunpowder, anticipating that cold steel would make the ex-slaves run. Instead, in the words of Gen James G. Blunt, commanding the Union Army:
The First Kansas (Colored) particularly distinguished itself; they fought like veterans and preserved their line unbroken throughout the engagement. Their coolness and bravery I have never seen surpassed; they were in the hottest of the fight, and opposed to Texas forces twice their number, whom they completely routed. (Official Records)
The problem often proved to be less that African American troops would not fight, but rather that they did not know when not to fight. Whatever odds faced them, African American regiments took them on - to prove that they were both men and warriors. Throughout the war, African American regiments continued to make assaults against odds that most soldiers would consider foolhardy.
Sometimes their zeal swept the Confederates before them. In "Fourteen Months' Service with Colored Troops," Solon A. Carter wrote of one such assault, on June 15, 1864, during the assault on Petersburg. A brigade made up of African American regiments was sent to clear a fieldwork commanding the City Point road.
Although the 54th Massachusetts' assault on Fort Wagner brought it glory, the price in blood was high, as shown by this roll of missing soldiers. (National Archives)
The line of battle advanced across the open field in splendid style, though the enemy's artillery had perfect range, and their practice was good.
There was no giving way on any part of the line although progress through the wood was slow, owing to the undergrowth through which they were obliged to force their way.
Emerging from the timber, the line charged with a rush, the enemy retreating before the furious onset, leaving one of their guns in the possession of the 22nd [African American] Regiment.
General Hinks and his staff closely followed the line of battle, moving on a road, and upon reaching the work just captured, found a group of colored troops in extravagant demonstrations of delight at their victory.
Addressing them, the general inquired: "What has become of the Johnnies?"
"Well, sail, they jest done lit out; didn't care to make close acquaintance. Reckon they must have smelled us."
More typical was the result of the 7th USCI attack on Fort Gilmer, on the Petersburg lines. As described by Joseph Califf, the courage of the black soldiers proved unequal to the task given them by foolish superiors:
Captain Bailey, General Birney's Adjutant-General, rode up to Col. Shaw with the order to send four companies deployed as skirmishers "to attack and take the work that is firing." Colonel Shaw replied that he had orders to charge it with his regiment to which Captain Bailey answered, 'Well, now the General directs you to send four companies, deployed as skirmishers, to take the work."
Captain Weiss, when he received the order to charge, replied, "What! Take a fort with a skirmish line?" and then added, "I will try, but it can't be done."
Capt Weiss, one of the 7th USCI's officers who commanded Companies C, D, G, and K that day, described the attack in the 7th USCI's memoirs:
In a few minutes die ditch of the fort was reached. It was some six or seven feet deep and ten or twelve wide, with die excavated material sufficing for the embankments of the fort. Some 120 men and officers precipitated themselves into it, many losing their lives at its very edge. After a short breathing spell men were helped tip the exterior slope of the parapet on the shoulders of others, and fifty or sixty being thus disposed an attempt was made to storm the fort. At the signal nearly all rose, but die enemy, lying securely sheltered behind the interior slope, die muzzles of their guns almost touching the storming party, received die latter with a crushing fire, sending many into the ditch below shot through the brain or breast. Several other attempts were made with like results, till at last fort)' or fifty of the assailants were writhing in the ditch or resting forever.
The defense having been reinforced ... it was considered impolitic to attempt anther storm, with the now greatly reduced force on hand... [With] no signs of [reinforcements] appearing it was decided to surrender, especially as the rebels had now commenced to roll lighted shells among the stormers. Seven officers, and from seventy to eighty enlisted men, delivered up their arms.
Union generals learned to value African American troops. Henry Freeman described his regiment's first experience under fire, at the battle of Dalton, and his commanding general's reaction to it:
The fire was not heavy, but men had fallen. As coolly as if on drill, the line pushed through the briars and brush, while the main line, farther to the right, became very much broken by passing among the huts, the rebel skirmishers falling back before it. After clearing the buildings it was halted for a moment for rectification. At the command guides sprang out with inverted muskets, and the broken ranks closed on the center, though at least two men fell dead from the enemy's fire while the movement was going on. General Steedman, who commanded the Composite Division made up of units Sherman had left behind when he went to Atlanta, from his
Steedman gained enough confidence in his African American brigades to entrust them with increasingly important tasks on the battlefield. At the battle of Nashville, Thomas and Steedman, initially doubters, pinned their battle plan on the steadiness of the African American troops, and were rewarded with a decisive victory.
African American troops also gained the confidence of their white counterparts. Thomas Morgan recalled that "The Lieutenant Colonel commanding the Sixty-eighth Indiana Volunteer Infantry requested me as a personal favor to ask for the assignment of his regiment to my command, giving as a reason that he would rather fight alongside of the Fourteenth Colored, than with any other regiment."
Respect for black troops was not limited to the Army of the Cumberland. In Virginia, a New York Herald correspondent reported, "An Ohio soldier said to me today, 'I never saw men fight with such desperate gallantl y as those negroes did. They advanced as grim and stern as death; and when within reach of the enemy, struck about them with a pitiless vigor that was almost fearful'" (Brown).
Some whites viewed the African American troops as fearless automatons, unaware or uncaring of the odds against them. Yet most African American troops understood the dangers associated with battle. As Thomas Cole, an artilleryman who later served in the 2nd US Colored Light Artillery, and who served unofficially as a loader in a white artillery regiment at the battle of Chickamauga, put it, "I never did get to where I wasn't scared when we goes into the battle" (Cole Narrative).
Cole's description of the battle of Chickamauga highlighted the confusion and danger of combat, and the reaction of a typical soldier -white or black:
position to the right, had sent his aide, Captain Davis, to, as he expressed it, "look after the niggers." As he saw this formation he rode back to the General with the information: "General, you needn't have any fears about the niggers; they're holding dress-parade over there under fire."
I helps set them cannons on this Chickamauga Mountain in hiding places. I have to go with a man and wait on him and that cannon. First thing I knows, bang, bang, boom things has started and guns are shooting faster than you can think, and I looks round for the way to run. But them guns is shooting down the hill in front of me and shooting at me and over me and on both sides of me. I tries to dig a hole and get in it. All this happens right now, and first thing I knows, the man is kicking me and wanting me to help him keep that cannon loaded. Man, I didn't want no cannon, but I has to help anyway. We fought till dark ... I done 50 told Gen. Rosecran that I wants to fight the Rebels, and he sure was letting me do it. He wasn't just letting me do it; he was making me do it.
Cole also provided a vivid account of his experience at Lookout Mountain and at Missionary Ridge:
By 1864 attitudes towards African American troops had shifted dramatically since the war's outbreak. Here white soldiers cheer their black comrades as they bring in a captured Confederate cannon. (Potter Collection)
They starts climbing this steep mountain and when us gets three-fourths of the way up it was foggy and you could not see no place. Everything wet and the rocks are slick and they begin fighting. I expect some shoots their own men because you couldn't see nothing, just men running and the guns roaring. Finally them Rebels fled and we gets on Lookout Mountain and takes it.
There a long range of hills leading away from Lookout Mountain, nearly to Missionary Ridge. This ridge alongside the Chickamauga River, what in the Indian name meaning "River of Death." I was in the Missionary Ridge battle. We has to come out the timber and run across a strip or opening up the hill. They sure killed lots our men when we runs across that opening. We runs for all we's worth and uses guns or anything we could. The Rebels turns and runs off and our soldiers turns the cannons round that we's capture and killed some the Rebels with their own guns.
By 1864 attitudes towards African American troops had shifted dramatically since the war's outbreak. Here white soldiers cheer their black comrades as they bring in a captured Confederate cannon. (Potter Collection)
Alexander Newton, a less reluctant warrior, frankly admitted his fears:
Many, such as myself, [were] almost afraid of my own shadow, ready to shoot at anything that made a threatening noise. I remember that I shot at die limb of a free floating down the river, thinking it was a rebel skiff with spies. It was a sore and trying ordeal. Every soldier was in constant expectation of surprises from the Johnnies or rebels.
Fear did not prevent him from doing his duty. Newton vividly described his participation in an assault on Confederate rifle pits, following Col W. L. Ward, temporarily commanding Newton's regiment:
He brought us up double-quick to the rifle pits and the bugle sounded charge. We charged, firing, yelling, using our bayonets and our arms in the most cruel manner, but in accordance with the tactics of warfare. We were there to kill in every manner possible. We held the pits for twenty-four hours, brought the rebels to their knees, brought down their flag and unfurled the Stars and Stripes to the breezes.
Most black troops faced the challenge offered by battle. Thomas Morgan related how his men reacted to the prospect of fighting Bedford Forrest, the commander of Confederate cavalry in Tennessee, who had led the Confederate forces at the Fort Pillow Massacre earlier in 1864:
At length the enemy in strong force, with banners flying, bore down towards us in full sight, apparently bent on mischief. Pointing to the advancing column I said, as I passed along the line: "Boys, it looks very much like fight. Keep cool, do your duty." They seemed full of glee, and replied with great enthusiasm: "Colonel, they can't whip us; they never get the ole Fourteenth out of here, never." "Never drives us away without a mighty lot of dead men."
Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest, in this case, proved to be more intimidated than Morgan's men, "When Forrest learned that Rousseau was reinforced by infantry, he did not stop to ask about the color of skin, but after testing our line, and finding it unyielding, turned to the east," concluded Morgan.
Battle was not without risks. Chief among them were injury and capture. Civil War firearms produced devastating wounds. Despite this, African American soldiers often ignored injuries. Albert Jones described his reaction to being wounded: "One day when I was fighting, the rebels shot at me, and they sent a bullet through my hand. I was lucky not to be killed. But that didn't stop me. I had it bandaged and kept on fighting" (Jones Narrative).
Morgan related an incident involving a soldier wounded at Nashville: "One private soldier in Company B, who had taken a position in a tree as a sharpshooter, had his right arm broken by a ball. Captain Romeyn said to him: 'You would better come down from there, go to the rear, and find the surgeon.' 'Oh, no, Captain,' was his reply, 'I can fire with my left arm,' and so he did."
Those who did seek medical attention clung to their weapons tenaciously. Solon Carter told about a surgeon awakened at daybreak following a battle by a wounded soldier.
The caller was a colored soldier who had been shot through the right lung the previous afternoon, the bullet passing through his body. The man had followed the retreating column through mud and rain for ten miles, bringing his gun and equipments with him.
Surgeon Barns dressed the wound and placed him in charge of the ambulance corps. Asked why he had brought his gun, the brave fellow replied that he "Didn't care to be in those parts without something to protect hisself."
Many put their faith in God to protect them. "I never have been wounded. My clothes have been cut off me by bullets, but the Lord kept them off my back, I guess," stated Richard Slaughter of the 19th USCI in an interview.
Alexander Newton took a more personal view of Divine Intervention.
I remember a twenty-pound cannon ball coming towards me, I could see it distinctly through the smoke. I said quickly, "Lord, you promised that a thousand shoidd fall at my side, but that it should not come nigh me." It was quick praying, quick thinking, quick coming; but when the ball was within about three feet of me it struck the ground and bounded over my head.
Another risk faced by African American troops was capture. The Confederacy never officially recognized them as legal combatants. At Milliken's Bend captured blacks were killed out of hand or claimed as slaves, at the whim of their owners. Two white officers and NCOs captured there were executed for fomenting slave insurrection. Formal executions of captured USCT personnel ended after Grant threatened to hang captured Confederates in reprisal. Unsanctioned murders continued throughout the war, however, including a massacre of African American troops captured at Fort Pillow in April 1864.
As Alexander Newton related, threats failed to force blacks off the battlefield.
We were told by the enemy that if we were captured our tongues would be cut out, or we would be starved to death; that there would be no exchange of prisoners in our case. So this was a rather fearful inspiration, but it served its purpose, of causing us to fight to the best of our ability; for we really feared that in case we were captured that such barbarities might be administered to us.
Every battle left a fearful toll, whether the African American troops won or lost. Cole related the aftermath of the battle of Missionary Ridge. It was:
Alexander H. Newton, in full dress uniform while he was quartermaster sergeant for the 2gth Connecticut Infantry (Colored). Note the tasseled sash and NCO sword. Though of poor quality, this is the only known picture of one of the black participants quoted in this book. (Author's collection)
the last one I was in and I was sure glad, for 1 never seed the like of dead and wounded men. We picks them up, the Rebels like the Unions, and doctors them the best we could. When I seed all that suffering, I hopes I never live to see another war... I just couldn't stand to see all them men laying there dying and hollering, and begging for help and a drink of water, and blood everywheres you looks. Killing hogs back on the plantation didn't bother me none, but this was different.
Alexander Newton had a similar reaction after an assault at Petersburg:
I came on my rounds, bringing refreshments and stopped where the surgeons were at work. I shall never forget the fearful sight that met my eyes. There were arms and legs piled up like hogs' feet in a butcher shop. The dead and dying were strewn over the battlefield for five miles.
Susie King Taylor told of the aftermath of a bloody action fought by the 33rd USCI:
About four o'clock, July 2, the charge was made. The firing could be plainly heard in camp. I hastened down to the landing and remained there until eight o'clock that morning. When the wounded arrived, or rather began to arrive the first one they
brought in was Samuel Anderson of our company. He was badly wounded. Then others of our boys, some with their legs off, arm gone, foot off, and wounds of all kinds imaginable.
Medical services were crude during the Civil War, more so for African American troops. Often, as Taylor explained, initial treatment for the wounded was little more than crude first aid:
It seems strange how our aversion to seeing suffering is overcome in war, - how we are able to see the most sickening sights, such as men with their limbs blown off and mangled by the deadly shells, without a shudder; and instead of turning away, how we hurry to assist in alleviating their pain, bind up their wounds, and press cool water to their parched lips, with feelings only of sympathy and pity.
Sometimes, as Esther Hill Hawks recorded in her diary, a flood of casualties overwhelmed available medical services, delaying medical treatment:
What a terrible sight it was! It was 36 hours since the awful struggle at Fort Wagner, and nothing had been done for them. We had no beds, and no means even of building a fire, but the colored people came promptly to our aid, and almost before we knew what we needed they brought us buckets full of nice broth and gruels, pitchers of lemonade, fruits, cakes, vegetables; indeed everything needed for the immediate wants of the men was furnished... Everything for our immediate wants was furnished, and in 24 hours the poor fellows were lying with clean clothes and dressed wounds in comfortable beds.
Throughout the war, the Union expanded its hospital system. African American troops who reached a hospital received medical treatment on a par with that given to white troops, and were kept as long as was
The battle of the Crater resulted in one of the Civil War's biggest slaughters of African American troops. Here the African American regiments plunge into the crater formed by an underground mine in an effort to rescue the white regiments sent in with the first wave. (Author's collection)
required for their recovery. Charles Gabriel Anderson, who enlisted in the 56th USCI, spent over a year in a hospital, and was discharged the year after the war ended, in 1866.
The staff sometimes had an uphill struggle to get former slaves to accept proper medical treatment. Hawks noted that a:
great difficulty to be overcome was to get them to sleep between sheets. They stared aghast on being told to get in between such immaculate whiteness... when those who were able made their beds, the sheets of some were carefully folded and lain on the outside of their beds, while others spread them over the blankets, and got into bed upon the bare mattress.
To these men, most former slaves, clean, white sheets were an unimaginable luxury.
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