August 2, 1864: General Birney heading to Virginia with his brigade

At the beginning of August 1864, Major-General John Foster’s Department of the South was shrinking.  Not in area, but rather in terms of manpower.  At the start of July, Foster called upon substantial manpower – more than perhaps the War Department wanted in the theater – to launch a series of demonstrations.  With the equivalent of three brigades to put into action, Foster could take the initiative.  But that spent, Foster re-deployed Brigadier-General William Birney’s brigade to Florida.  There, Birney lead anther expedition with his three regiments of USCT with the goal to further Foster’s “demonstration” objective, but accomplished less than the actions in South Carolina earlier in the month.  At the same time, Foster lost faith with Birney and looked to unload him from the department.

By late July, Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant felt those troops would be better utilized in Virginia.  So on July 25, orders went down to Foster calling for Birney to report to Fort Monroe, if possible with his brigade.  On August 2, Foster acknowledged the orders and reported on the progress of the movement:

I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your order of the 25th ultimo, accompanying the telegraphic order from General Grant of the 24th ultimo. I have at once made arrangements to comply with it. Brigadier-General Birney has been ordered to proceed at once to Fort Monroe, Va., and report to Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler with his brigade. This brigade only contained three regiments, the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth U.S. Colored Troops, but in order to make it full I have added another regiment. This will make the strength of the brigade over 3,500 men, or over 2,500 effectives. The regiments are good, and only require a little more drill and service to make them first-rate. I would just as soon send the same number of white regiments, as these latter are sooner broken down with the heat and sickness in this climate. I thought it better, however, to send the regiments belonging to General Birney’s brigade and consisting mainly of regiments raised by him. The transportation is all ready, and as soon as General Birney and two of his regiments can be brought from Florida the whole will sail for Fort Monroe and arrive as soon as this letter.

The addition of the 29th Connecticut (the other regiment mentioned) to round out the brigade indicates that Foster was at least sincere and cooperative in the effort.  He could have sent Birney north with just exactly what was called for.

Foster’s initial preference to sending white regiments is worth discussion.  Some would cite this as an example of continued racial sentiments with respect to colored troops.  But Foster’s preference was based on the medical opinions of the time – and there was some validity to those opinions.  Today we call it acclimatization (and it remains an operational consideration for Army operations, though at an individual level and not assessed by race).    Furthermore, some former slaves, particularly those recruited in the Department of the South, having lived and worked in the southern coastal regions, were more likely to have built up immunity to some diseases.   Take Foster’s assessment at face is what I’d say.

Birney’s troops transited to Virginia without delay.  Foster’s command was shrinking, by a brigade.  The Army of the James increased by a brigade.  The troops went where the war effort needed them most.  By the middle of the month, the 7th, 8th, and 9th USCT along with the 29th Connecticut re-joined their old Tenth Corps and participated in a series of actions on the north side of the James River.  For that part of the story, you need to read Jimmy Price’s book!

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 209.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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