“Efficiently garrisoned as any in the department”: Evaulation of USCT troops in Florida

Bear with me for another “backwater of Florida” post here.  This has some sesquicentennial timing, as I like to incorporate here.  It also works into the USCT experience that I like to highlight as we proceed through the sesquicentennial.

On September 5, 1864, Colonel Charles Brayton, Chief of Artillery for the Department of the South, offered a report of a recent visit to the garrisons in Florida.  Addressing Major-General John Foster, Brayton wrote:

General: I have the honor to make the following report of a tour of instruction through the District of Florida:

The garrison of Fort Clinch consists of two companies of the One hundred and seventh Ohio Volunteers and one company of the Third U.S. Colored Troops, recently sent to that post to perform the artillery duty. This company has had some experience at Jacksonville in artillery, and will, in my opinion, make efficient artillerists, they having competent instructors.

With the departure of two brigades from the department that summer, individual companies served on detached duties.  The three at Fort Clinch were from two different regiments – an Ohio volunteers regiment and a USCT regiment.  And the USCT company was transitioning from infantry drill to heavy artillery assignments.  Brayton seemed confident these men would take well to their new roles.

Brayton continued in a “southernly” direction, describing the Jacksonville garrison next:

The garrisons of the different works at Jacksonville are all in excellent condition, being well drilled in the manual of the piece and well instructed in the nomenclature of pieces, carriages, implements, equipments, ammunition, and ranges of the different objects in the vicinity of their respective batteries. The garrison of Fort Hatch, Company H, Third U.S. Colored Troops, Capt. S. Conant, is particularly conversant with the above points. I am of the opinion that these works are as efficiently garrisoned as any in the department, the ranges of different points having been often verified by actual practice.

Perhaps the reason for Brayton’s confidence with Fort Clinch was founded on his satisfaction with the same 3rd USCT at Jacksonville.  Keep in mind that Brayton was very familiar with the nature of heavy artillery in the department.  He’d commanded the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery.  He had several very well maintained and operated garrisons for which to compare.  These are high compliments coming from someone who had experience in the matter, and were not simply empty comments to appease someone’s ears.

To that point, Brayton was quick to point out deficiencies where those existed:

The garrison of Fort Marion, at Saint Augustine, I found in quite an indifferent condition. The recent raid and absence of a company that had been instructed as artillery left the fort without an efficient garrison. I would respectfully suggest that a company of the Seventeenth Connecticut Volunteers be designated to perform the artillery duty in this work, and not to be removed unless the regiment leaves the post. The frequent change of garrisons and the substitution of companies unacquainted with their duties at times when the best artillerists are needed for defense perils the safety of the town and fort, and renders impossible to maintain a well-instructed and efficient garrison.

Looking to one of his own regiment’s batteries, Brayton identified the need to refresh and refit a light battery:

I would respectfully state that Company A, Third Rhode Island Artillery, has been on all the raids in Florida since the battle of Olustee, and its efficiency is impaired by a loss of horses and material and the addition of 60 new men. The battery has had but little opportunity for drill since it was mounted, and I am of the opinion that it needs an opportunity for drill not to be obtained at Jacksonville. I would therefore request, if it is deemed consistent with the good of the service, that Company A, Third Rhode Island Artillery, now at Jacksonville, be relieved by Battery F, Third New York Artillery, from Beaufort, and that Company A, on being relieved, be ordered to Beaufort.

Foster would approve the relief of Company A.  The point to consider here is how taxing even the small scale raids and other operations could be upon a military formation.  These backwater assignments were not exactly easy, cushy rear area work.

From this report, as I look back 150 years, what catches my attention is the high regard Brayton had for the ability of the USCT serving as artillerists.  Officers of that time felt artillery was far more demanding in terms of intellect.  Not to disparage the infantry, but for artillery to perform properly on the battlefield there is a lot more math involved.  The crew of the gun might not have to think about precise facing movements, but instead had to consider a number of factors like elevation, fuse settings, and range deflection.   There was, at some points during the war, questions about the colored troops having the ability to handle such tasks.  Now here is Brayton saying they were as good as any other in the department – a department with a heavy emphasis in “garrison” and “heavy” artillery, mind you.

By the summer of 1864 the USCT were winning accolades.  Some of them were not the type exemplified with battle streamers.  In this case, it was the appreciation of professional officers.  Preconceptions were changing.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 271-2.)