Tag Archives: United States Colored Troops

“Every vestige of the prejudice and ill feeling… has disappeared”: Gillmore on the USCT

By December 1863, Major-General Quincy Gillmore had commanded the Department of the South, and more specifically the Tenth Corps, for seven months.  In that time, his command took possession of Morris Island, but only through an active, vigorous campaign of three months.  The follow up was a prolonged bombardment of Fort Sumter, with occasional prods at the other Confederate defenses and Charleston itself.

In that time, several regiments of US Colored Troops played a prominent role in operations.  Grimball’s Landing, the second failed assault on Battery Wagner, the long siege of Battery Wagner – all actions in with colored troops at the fore. And after those active operations on Morris Island, the colored troops continued, like all the infantry formations, to support the artillery operations and garrison the island footholds on the South Carolina coast.  Meanwhile, other colored troops in the department engaged in raids into the low country.  Up to this time in the Civil War, the department boasted the most active employment of the USCT.

This activity caused some changes in attitudes among the Federal command and ranks.  (And it caused no small discomfort on the Confederate side.) Gillmore twice issued general orders to ensure the USCT, as regiments, were treated as the white troops.  And on December 14, 1863, Gillmore sent forward some recommendations about the USCT to Major-General Henry Halleck in Washington, D.C. The note began with Gillmore’s assessment of the use of USCT in the department:

I desire to urge upon the attention of the Government certain simple measures for bettering the condition of the colored people of this department, colored soldiers in particular.

The policy of the Government in organizing regiments of colored troops upon this coast, and the value and general efficiency of that class of soldiers, has had a fair trial and a successful issue under my own eye. The wisdom of the course pursued (under my uniform rule to treat the white and the colored soldier alike) has been fully vindicated upon the field of battle and in the trenches. Every vestige of the prejudice and ill feeling which existed between the white and the colored troops of this command, during a period of inactivity, has disappeared under the excitements of an active campaign, of which the labors and dangers were shared alike by both classes.

Gillmore’s assessment of race relations must have the caveat here.  The orders were specific to work assigned to the troops.  There was nothing in those orders to change the attitudes and behavior of individuals.  It was a policy with respect to assignments of regiments.  The USCT would not get menial details.  Gillmore attributes the change in attitude to the performance of the USCT under fire.

As he continued, Gillmore made five recommendations (one of which was detailed separately in a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton).   The first was to re-designate the existing regiments officially as US Colored Troops.  Their original designation of South Carolina Volunteer Infantry set them apart from fellow colored troops.  “This would materially simplify the organizations and increase their efficiency.”  The second recommendation was to maintain a promotion board within the Department of the South to review candidates for commissions in those regiments.  Both were more administrative changes and easily implemented.

The third recommendation read:

The pay of the white soldier and of the colored soldier should be the same. All distinctions calculated to raise in the mind of the colored man a suspicion that he is regarded as an inferior being, should be scrupulously avoided. Every dictate of sound policy suggests this course, even if we regard the matter as still all experiment of doubtful results, which it is not.

The pay difference had long been a point of contention, if you recall the history of the 54th Massachusetts.  Now the highest level of command recognized the impact of inequalities of pay… be that some administrative glitch or not.  Still this would require congressional action.

The fourth recommendation alluded to a unique situation among those who’d just escaped slavery.  All well and good to emancipate, but what after that?

The families of colored soldiers should be provided for by allowing them to locate upon and cultivate land in advance of the regular survey and sale thereof. This is important as a military measure by making the soldier contented with his lot, by securing to him a home for his family during the war and for himself when the war is over.

Not quite an explicit “forty acres and a mule” but the concept was growing in the minds of those at the front of the issue.  Contraband camps around Port Royal had grown into full fledged villages.  And not confining ourselves to South Carolina, places like Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River were now allocated for use by freed slaves.  The question of ownership of the land and resources, however, lingered.

Lastly, Gillmore proposed consolidation of several South Carolina Volunteer regiments:

There are now nominally five regiments of South Carolina colored troops, only one of which, the First South Carolina Volunteers, Col. T. W. Higginson, has ever reached the minimum number of men required by law. The others are as follows: Second South Carolina Volunteers, Col. James Montgomery, about 540 men; Third South Carolina Volunteers, Lieut. Col. A. G. Bennett, about 300 men, organized by Major-General Hunter for labor in the quartermaster’s department, for which they have been used until quite recently; Fourth South Carolina Volunteers, Col. M. S. Littlefield, about 150 men; Fifth South Carolina Volunteers, organization just commenced.

Gillmore wanted to break up the 3rd South Carolina to provide troops to the 2nd and 4th (which would become the 3rd South Carolina, if not directly a USCT numbered regiment).

Shortly after this letter to Halleck, Gillmore received authorization to form officer boards for the USCT regiments.  The reorganization requested was worked out.  And the regiments were officially renumbered as US regiments.

I would point out that all of Gillmore’s justifications, to include those for the general orders issued earlier, were based on practical experience.  Operational needs placed the USCT at the front lines.  And that experience brought out the need to change policies.  Often when studying the story of the USCT involvement in operations against Charleston, the narrative begins and ends with the charge of the 54th Massachusetts on July 18, 1863.  But I contend we need to look at the whole experience to better understand this important thread in our history.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, pages 127-8.)

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.)

The horse and the ox: Comparing the work of whites and blacks on Morris Island

As the work from the fifth parallel drug on… slowly drug on… Major Thomas Brooks recorded a change of the duty regiment among the fatigue detail on August 31, 1863:

The Third U.S. Colored Troops, who have been on fatigue duty in the advanced trenches since the 20th instant, were relieved to-day by the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers, it being desirable to have older troops for the important and hazardous duty required in the advance at this period. Infantry officers commanding fatigue details inform me that it requires much more effort to make the men work than fight under the same fire.

Again we find an example where the contingencies of war, at the very front edge, challenged society’s perceptions of race.  As result authorities on the ground adjusted to meet the challenge in small ways.  There’s a subtle point made in the journal entry:  “men” behaved the same, and it was the “experience” that counted most.

As related yesterday, the Federals opted to employ their fatigue details within a rotation cycle.  Although the rotation did nothing to reduced the danger or improve the overall living conditions, at least it afforded some recovery time for the troops.  These rotations applied to all the regiments assigned to constructing the trenches.    A significant portion of the troops assigned to the fatigue details were USCT – particularly the 3rd USCT and the 54th Massachusetts in the critical later phases of the operation.  Black troops performed 56% of the fatigue detail duties (white troops performed all of the guard details on the line).

Shortly after Battery Wagner fell, Brooks sent out an inquiry among his fellow engineers regarding the performance of the USCT:

As the important experiment which will test the fitness of the American negro for the duties of a soldier is now being tried, it is desirable that facts bearing on the question be carefully observed and recorded.

It is probable that in no military operations of the war have negro troops done so large a proportion, and so important and hazardous, fatigue duty, as in the siege operations on this island.

The questions posed were:

I. Courage, as indicated by their behavior under fire.

II. Skill and appreciation of their duties, referring to the quality of the work performed.

III. Industry and perseverance, with reference to the quantity of the work performed.

IV. If a certain work were to be accomplished in the least possible time, i.e., when enthusiasm and direct personal interest are necessary to attain the end, would whites or blacks answer best?

V. What is the difference, considering the above points, between colored troops recruited from the free States and those from the slave States?

Brooks received six replies, of which those from Captain Joseph Walker and Lieutenant Hiram Farrand appear in Note 19 of Brooks’ report.

To the first question, Brooks indicated all those polled felt “the black is more timorous than the white, but is in a corresponding degree more docile and obedient, hence more completely under the control of his commander….” Walker explained further:

 I will say, in my opinion, their courage is rather of the passive than the active kind. They will stay, endure, resist, and follow, but they have not the restless, aggressive spirit. I do not believe they will desert their officers in trying moments in so great numbers as the whites; they have not the will, audacity, or fertility of excuse of the straggling white, and at the same time they have not the heroic, nervous energy, or vivid perception of the white, who stands firm or presses forward.

He added that he knew of no instances where the USCT had avoided duty, but the same could not be said for the white troops.

Although all observers felt the black troops were less skilled than whites, the skill level was more than sufficient for siege work and soldiering.  But as for appreciation of the work at hand, the black troops appeared to make up ground.  As Farrand observed:

White soldiers are more intelligent and experienced, and, of course, more skillful, than black ones, but they have not generally a corresponding appreciation of their duties. As a consequence, I have, in most cases, found the work as well done by black as by white soldiers.

I think this is significant.  We might explain the lack of skills within the individual experiences – in particular educational backgrounds.  But appreciation for duties is something derived from the individual’s situational awareness.

As for the quantity of work performed, Brooks noted that all agreed, “the black will do a greater amount of work than the white soldier, because he labors more consistently.”  Walker added in his response:

I think they will do more than the whites; they do not have so many complaints and excuses, but stick to their work patiently, doggedly, obediently, and accomplish a great deal, though I have never known them to work with any marked spirit or energy. I should liken the white man to the horse (often untractable and balky); the black man to the ox.

In line with that assessment, to the fourth question, Brooks summarized, “The whites are decidedly superior in enthusiasm.”  Walker offered an amateur analysis, “… there is a hard, nervous organization at the bottom of the character of the white, and a soft, susceptible one at the bottom of the character of the black.”

In regard to the performance of those recruited from slave states compared to those from free states, all felt those from the north performed better.  Walker stated, “They have more of the self-reliance, and approximate nearer to the qualities of the white man, in respect to dash and energy….”

Walker went on to add his own summary:

To me they compare favorably with the whites; they are easily handled, true and obedient; there is less viciousness among them; they are more patient; they have great constancy. The character of the white, as you know, runs to extremes; one has bull-dog courage, another is a pitiful cur; one is excessively vicious, another pure and noble. The phases of the character of the white touches the stars and descends to the lowest depths. The black character occupies the inner circle. Their status is mediocrity, and this uniformity and mediocrity, for military fatigue duty, I think answers best.

Reading this 150 years later, one must keep in mind the context.  And an important part of that context was that on Morris Island white and black regiments performed duties within the same set of trenches, in close proximity.  Perhaps not an “integrated” force, but at least one where a few preconceptions were broken.

At the end of his report, Brooks offered an observation worth noting:

The efficiency and health of a battalion depends so much upon its officers, that, in order to institute a fair comparison, when so small a number of troops are considered, this element should be eliminated.  That has not, however, been attempted in this paper.

The matter called for more study, to be sure.  An army does not simply recruit a good regiment.  Rather good leaders train a group of recruited men into a good regiment.  I think those observing the performance of the troops on Morris Island saw that held true regardless of skin color.

(Source: OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 328-31.)