“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.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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