Category Archives: Emancipation

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.)

“To those who doubt whether the negro soldiers will fight…”: Skirmish on the Pocotaligo

Raids from Port Royal into the coastal plantations of South Carolina and Georgia were commonplace by the fall of 1863.  Starting early that year, these raids focused on something more than simple harassment of Confederate posts.  As seen with the St. Mary’s River expedition,the Combahee Raid, and later Edisto River operation, Federal forces engaged in what I’d cite as the active component of the Emancipation Proclamation.   Another of those type operations took place on November 23-24, 1863.

Tipped that a group of thirty slaves were gathering in the vicinity of Pocotalio, South Carolina, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton in Port Royal dispatched a small force to that vicinity.  Captain John E. Bryant, of the 8th Maine Infantry, lead this force, consisting of sixty men of Companies E and K, 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (soon to be the 33rd US Colored Troops).  Bryant had already established a reputation as a scout in the swamps and marshes.  Captain Alexander Heasley, of Company E, and Captain Henry Whitney, of Company K, commanded their respective detachments under Bryant.

CunninghamsBluff

The raiders would advance by way of ships up the Broad River to the Pocotalio River. There they would move by boats through the marshes to a landing and proceed on foot to the designated rendezvous point. Along the way, they had to capture a known Confederate picket post along the Broad River in order to keep the movement secret.

Execution of the first phases of the raid fell not to a white officer, but to a black sergeant in the ranks of Company K, as Saxton reported:

The pickets, 2 in number, with their horses, were captured. Sergt. Harry Williams, of Company K, went with a party and liberated 27 slaves on the Heyward plantation, 6 miles in advance of our force and within 4 miles of the enemy’s headquarters. Great credit is due this dusky warrior for the skill with which he managed his part of the affair.

HarryWilliams

Sergeant Harry Williams

Coming back with the freed slaves, the party ran into fog that prevented their return to the boats. The raiding party, escaped slaves, and Heasley’s covering force waited in the fog for the boats. Meanwhile, according to a report filed by Brigadier General William S. Walker, Confederate commander of the Third Military District, a rebel detachment responded to alarms sent from Heyward’s plantation.

They were closely pursued by Captain [J. T.] Foster, with 25 men of Rutledge’s regiment of cavalry. The negroes took shelter in a very dense thicket near Cunningham’s Bluff (opposite Hall’s Island). Captain Foster dismounted his command and charged them, in skirmishing order.

In Foster’s party were a group of men in charge of bloodhounds.  Walker described the pursuit as a “fox chase.” Heasley waited until the dogs were practically upon the force before ordering bayonets against the dogs, followed by a volley against the Confederates. This killed three of the dogs and drove off Foster’s men for the moment.   Other Confederate forces under Colonel B.H. Rutledge arrived, but were unable to get at the Federal party due to the marshes.

As the Federal force withdrew further, the Confederates continued to press them.  Whitney’s detachment, which was positioned to guard the bluffs, then ambushed the pursuers. Saxton wrote, “he opened fire upon them, killing, among others, the commander of the company and the remaining bloodhounds.”  Saxton added:

To those who doubt whether the negro soldiers will fight, this daring act of Captain Whitney and his little band of 10, opening fire unhesitatingly upon a full company, not less than 100 of the enemy’s cavalry, and repulsing them, this will be a startling fact.

With that, the raiding force returned to the boats and departed for Port Royal Sound.

Federal reports mentioned seven wounded, though none seriously.  But Rufus claimed five Confederate killed and many more wounded, out of an estimated 1,000 (!) sent in pursuit.  On the other hand, Walker reported only three wounded, none seriously.  One of the two captured pickets later escaped.  Walker added, “this is the first time the men of this portion of the command have been under fire.”

Both accounts emphasized the employment of the dogs in the pursuit.  In Army Life in a Black Regiment, Colonel Thomas Higginson added some perspective:

The whole command was attacked by a rebel force, which turned out to be what was called in those regions a “dog-company,” consisting of mounted riflemen with half a dozen trained bloodhounds.  The men met these dogs with their bayonets, killed four or five of their old tormentors with great relish, and brought away the carcass of one.  I had the creature skinned, and sent the skin to New York to be stuffed and mounted, meaning to exhibit it at the Sanitary Commission Fair in Boston; but it spoiled on the passage. These quadruped allies were not originally intended as “dogs of war,” but simply to detect fugitive slaves, and the men were delighted at this confirmation of their tales of dog-companies, which some of the officers had always disbelieved.

To some degree these raiding actions were simply wide scale slave escapes, now encouraged by forces which only years earlier had been legally bound against such activity.  However, in the broader context of the Civil War, these raids were sapping away the labor force on which the Confederacy depended.  At the same time, raids such as that conducted on the Pocotaligo 150 years ago were manifestations of a war policy set forward with the Emancipation Proclamation, and reiterated only days earlier at Gettysburg.  The best counter to the “dog-companies” was an armed U.S Colored Troops detachment.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 745-6; Thomas W. Higginson, Army Life in a Black Regiment, Oxford University, 1870, pages 230-1.)

Colored troops will receive the same treatment and opportunities: The Gettysburg Address and G.O. 105

Today many will recall, with good reason, President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Several contemporary written copies of that famous speech offer slight variations. The words may be different, but the meaning is there.  We tend to forget in the context of the time, that speech, and its meaning, were extensions of Lincoln’s policies – his greater goals beyond just seeing the war through to a successful conclusion.

But policy statements are but hollow words without action.  If the President really, honestly, intended there be a “new birth of freedom” then where do we see that in action?  On the battlefield?  Yes… on the battlefield.

Months earlier, Major-General Quincy Gillmore General Orders No. 77.  Section I of that order read:

It has come to the knowledge of the brigadier-general commanding that the detachments of colored troops detailed for fatigue duty have been employed, in one instance at least, to prepare camps and perform menial duty for white troops. Such use of these details is unauthorized and improper, and is hereafter expressly prohibited.

Commanding officers of colored regiments are directed to report promptly to these headquarters any violations of this order which may come to their knowledge.

As mentioned in an earlier post, in the context of this order the Federal troops on Morris Island were engaged in a long, bitter siege.   And during that siege, the Army employed the U.S. Colored Troops to a larger degree than ever before.  USCT regiments served in the lines, often on specific details, along side white volunteer regiments.  This lead some to evaluate, or perhaps RE-evaluate is a more applicable word, the nature of race as it applied to the combat environment.

But apparently not all on Morris Island had fully re-evaluated.  A week after Lincoln’s address, Gillmore issued General Orders No. 105 on November 25, 1863.  The first section of that order read:

The major-general commanding has heretofore had occasion to rebuke officers of this command for imposing improper labors upon colored troops. He is now informed that the abuses sought to be corrected still exist. Attention is called to General Orders, No. 77, current series, from these headquarters, and commanding officers are enjoined to see to its strict enforcement. Colored troops will not be required to perform any labor which is not shared by the white troops, but will receive, in all respects, the same treatment and be allowed the same opportunities for drill and instruction.

Again, don’t paint Gillmore as an advocate for front seats on the bus, or even at the lunch counter.  The context is clear – if black troops were willing to carry the muskets and risk their lives, they should receive the same respects as white troops.

The path from Civil War to Civil Rights contains many waypoints like G.O. 77 and G.O. 105.  Lincoln’s 272 words stand as a marvel of the English language and serve as the centerpiece to a national legacy.  Not to detract from that, but I’m drawn to those words from Gillmore.  That order put action behind the words.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, pages 95 and 123.)