150 years ago: An objection to the use of USCT troops in Virginia

Francis H. Pierpont is most remembered as the “Father of West Virginia.”  Lesser known is his role as the Governor of “restored” Virginia.  After West Virginia was admitted as a state in June 1863, Arthur I. Boreman became the state’s first governor. But Pierpont remained governor of the areas of Virginia, outside of West Virginia, under Federal control.  That area included parts of Northern Virginia (where the provisional capital was in Alexandria), Hampton Roads, Norfolk, and the Eastern Shore counties on the DelMarVa peninsula. Around this time 150 years ago, Pierpont raised an issue with the way Major-General Benjamin Butler had garrisoned those Eastern Shore counties (the Virginia counties were placed in his jurisdiction, and administered separately from the Maryland Eastern Shore for this time).  Pierpont raised those issues in a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on January 27, 1864:

Hon. E. M. Stanton,  Secretary of War, Washington, D.C.:

SIR: It is with deep regret that I feel compelled in the discharge of my official duty, however humble, to call your attention to the occupation of Accomack and Northampton Counties with colored troops to act as a provost guard. I am informed that 600 colored troops are sent to those counties, I suppose to take the place of the white troops there. Two companies of white troops is a large estimate for those counties, and from the number of those sent, I suppose, as a matter of course, the white ones will be removed.

Discipline is the first requisite for troops of any color, but from my observation veteran troops soon lose their discipline when placed on a roving service such as required in those counties, and none but soldiers of the best habits should be placed on that duty. These colored troops are new recruits just from bondage. Their own welfare requires discipline, hence their place is in the field or fortification where they can be under the eye of their officers.

This disposition of troops will have a bad effect on the white soldier in the field. Evil-disposed persons will circulate the news through the army that colored troops are sent back for guard duty, where there is no danger, while the white man is sent into the front of the battle. Pardon these suggestions.

But the great objection is the positive insolence of these colored soldiers, undisciplined as they are, to the white citizen. It is at the risk of the life of the citizen that we make any complaint of their bad conduct. I know you would not leave your wife and daughters in a community of armed negroes, undisciplined and just liberated from bondage, with no other armed protection. My information is that it is a terrible stroke to the Union cause in that section. Union men are justly frightened for the safety of their families. The citizens there are disarmed. I am happy to say the Union cause was growing daily in those counties.

The Legislature of the State has ordered a State convention to abolish slavery in the State. The delegates are all elected, and I have not heard of a single man being elected who is not in favor of abolishing slavery. The people in Accomack and Northampton will lose from 6,000 to 8,000 slaves, but still they bear it–must bear it. A number of slave-holders are with us, and the Union cause growing. Is it right now to torture both parties with the terrible apprehensions that must haunt them by the presence of these troops, when all reflecting men must doubt the propriety of it, looking alone to the good of the soldier, the service, and the policy in reference to the white soldiers? The same state of affairs exists at Portsmouth.

It is painful to me to raise these questions, but I am sure the honor of your administration requires the correction of abuses where they exist. I am satisfied these things are not done by your orders.
I am, yours, &c.
F. H. Peirpoint [sic].

There are so many different threads to follow here.  Not the least of which is the presence of USCT units in an area where slaves were still held.  The sound of a record needle scratching the vinyl should be going through your head in that last paragraph.

But as I like to focus on the Emancipation Proclamation as an executive order with a decided focus on military operation and policy, let me take up that line.  The troops mentioned were the 10th USCT.  Lieutenant-Colonel Edward H. Powell, commanding the regiment, reported arriving and relieving parts of the First Maryland (Eastern Shore) on January 21, 1864.  When Butler sent Powell to the Virginia Eastern Shore, he provided instructions which read in part:

The officer in command of the Tenth U.S. Colored will caution all his officers that there must be the strictest diligence and vigilance that no outrages of any sort are committed by his troops, for both he and his officers will be held personally responsible by me if any such are committed. The inhabitants there fear greatly the quartering of negro troops in their midst. I depend upon him and the good conduct of his troops to correct that misapprehension, for I assure both him and them that the most summary punishment will be visited upon them for any breach of discipline, especially any that shall affect peaceable men. The commanding officer will immediately take measures to recruit his regiment to the fullest extent. He will give receipts to all loyal men who have taken the oath prescribed by the President’s proclamation for any slave which may be recruited. He will report to me immediately any deficiency in his officers, incompetency, or any vacancy that may exist, that the one may be taken notice of and the other filled….

Clearly Butler was aware of the issues later raised by Pierpont.  In fact, he addressed such in a letter to Elizabeth Upshur, a resident of Northampton County, on January 10, responding to her inquiry about rumors concerning a USCT garrison:

 If I could believe for a moment any of the consequences would follow which you detail it certainly should not be done. Experience, however, has shown that colored troops properly officered are less aggressive than white ones in the places where they are quartered, from the fact that they have been accustomed from their childhood to give up their will to the will of those who are over them.

Butler spent a paragraph assuaging her fears and dismissing reports of poor conduct by the regiments in North Carolina.  He concluded the letter, “Therefore calm your fears.  I will hold myself responsible that no outrage shall be committed against any peaceful citizens.

Again, looking at this as a military extension of the Emancipation Proclamation, consider the twist.  In a county that was except from militarily enforced abolition, emancipated slaves, which were formed into a regiment authorized by the Proclamation, were ordered to perform garrison details.  There was still significant reluctance, despite the performance of USCT regiments in the summer of 1863, to place those regiments on the front lines in the major field armies.  And as noted above, there was reluctance to have the USCT perform garrison duties in some areas to relieve white soldiers.  At some point, due to weight of numbers if nothing else, the USCT would have to be used for something.

Considering Butler’s remark about the “properly officered” USCTs, I am reminded of similar conclusions from Morris Island in September.  That’s where the “military thread” leads in this case.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 371, 375, 432-3.)

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