“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.)

 

 

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“The small number of artillerists now in the department”: The artillery of the Department of the South, Spring 1864

Major-General John G. Foster assumed command of the Department of the South on May 26, 1864.  Foster served at Charleston (specifically Fort Moultrie) before the war, had been second in command at Fort Sumter when the war started, but spent much of the next two years in North Carolina.  Foster was familiar with Charleston… and with making do with small garrison forces along the coast.

Among the first actions Foster took was an inquiry about the status of artillery within the department, with a focus on the field artillery.  On this day (May 29) in 1864, Foster’s Chief of Artillery, Colonel Charles R. Brayton of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, provided a report:

Sir: In accordance with instructions of yesterday from department headquarters, I have the honor to submit the following report of the condition of my department and the requirements necessary to make the same effective.

The effective light artillery within the department consists of three batteries, stationed, equipped, and armed as follows:

LtArtyDeptSouthMay64

Batteries B and F, Third New York Artillery, have sufficient men for six pieces, to which number it is intended to increase them when horses can be obtained. Company G, Second U. S. Colored Artillery, is recruiting at Hilton Head and numbers upwards of 110 men. It is intended to arm this battery with six 12-pounder howitzers. In the manner above mentioned it is intended to increase the light artillery within the department to twenty-four pieces, which will allow a six-gun battery for each district. Required to horse the different batteries, each increased to six pieces, 250 horses suitable for artillery purposes. The remaining necessary material can be obtained from the ordnance department when required.

The light batteries served in the shadow, you might say, of the larger guns on Morris Island.  But as chronicled last year, the light guns provided support during operations on Morris Island.

After the siege, the batteries played a prominent role in the Florida Expedition in the winter of 1864.  But with the departure of the Tenth Corps, just three batteries remained.  At strength, but in need of horses. These were important assets for the department, providing mobile support for threatened points and any expedition inland.

The weapons listed – two 3-inch Ordnance Rifles, four Napoleons, four Wiard rifles, and four 12-pdr howitzers – is not complete, I think.  There is ample evidence a large number of light field guns and howitzers remained either in the fortifications or in storage.  One indicator of these “extra” weapons is the plan to outfit Company G, 2nd USCT with six howitzers.  And if I may, does that not say something about the acceptance of the USCT in the department?  Manning artillery, particularly field artillery, was judged a complex, mentally demanding job.  Recall the “smart ones” from West Point usually got into the artillery.

Brayton continued, reporting on the status of the heavy artillery at different locations in the command:

The heavy artillery forces within the department consist of ten companies of the Third Rhode Island Artillery, with an aggregate strength of 800 men. Five companies are stationed on Morris Island, in charge of the important forts and batteries, assisted by sufficient details from the infantry to serve the offensive guns constantly when required, and the defensive ones in case of an attack.  The mortar batteries on Morris Island are necessarily without full reliefs on account of the small force on the island. The batteries on Folly Island, which are purely defensive, are served by details from the infantry, instructed by non-commissioned officers from the artillery.

With regard to the manning of these batteries, keep the distinction in mind between the “offensive” batteries on Morris Island’s north end and the “defensive” batteries further south, down to Folly Island.  As reported, many of the latter were manned by infantry.  But it was the “offensive” batteries which seemed to have all the action:

Thirty shells are thrown into Charleston daily from the Morris Island batteries, directed at different portions of the city, and a slow mortar fire at different times opened on Sumter, with a view to prevent the mounting of mortars on the terre-plein. The armament of the different works in the Northern District are in good condition, and those on Morris Island ready at a moment’s notice for offensive or defensive operations. Weekly reports of all firing, changes in garrisons, bursting of guns, with full history of same, together with accounts of the firing of the rebels, are required from the chief of artillery of this district.

Further down the coast, Beaufort, Hilton Head, and Fort Pulaski also had heavy artillery mounted, but lightly manned:

The different forts and batteries at Beaufort are in charge of companies of the Twenty-sixth U. S. Colored Troops, under the instruction of non-commissioned officers from the artillery. The armaments of these works are well cared for and ready for defensive purposes.

Four companies of heavy artillery are stationed at Fort Pulaski and one at Hilton Head; the latter company is now instructing the First Michigan Colored Volunteers in artillery with a view to have them serve such works in Hilton Head District which cannot be manned by the artillery.

The armaments of the works in this district are well taken care of. The details to serve as artillery from the infantry have not such opportunities for drill as I desire on account of heavy fatigue work now going on. Detachments from the artillery at Pulaski are serving on the armed transports May Flower, Thomas Foulkes, Plato, and Croton.

Yes… the Army had some gunners trained to fire from ships.

Rounding out the department’s artillery, Brayton discussed the garrisons in Florida:

Fort Clinch, at Fernandina, is garrisoned by companies of the One hundred and fifty-seventh New York; the forts at Saint Augustine by detachments from the Seventeenth Connecticut Volunteers; the different batteries at Jacksonville by details from the Third U. S. Colored Troops.

Again, details from the infantry, including USCT, filled in where the Army lacked artillerists.  And this overall shortage of gunners factored into Brayton’s conclusions and recommendations:

The departure of the Tenth Army Corps left us with infantry garrisons, many of which were wholly ignorant of their duties as artillerists; non-commissioned officers and privates from the artillery have, however, been distributed as instructors, so that the different garrisons are in fair condition as regards drill. Copies of General Orders, No. 88, from War Department, relative to the care of field-works and their armaments, have been distributed to the different officers in charge of forts and batteries and provisions of the order required to be observed. The small number of artillerists now in the department renders it necessary that every available man should be on duty with his special arm, and as many are detailed as clerks, orderlies, teamsters, boatmen, bakers, and attendants in hospitals, I would respectfully request that all detailed men from the light and heavy artillery be ordered to join their companies, and that no details for any purpose, other than in the line of their duty, be made from the artillery.

Brayton did not mention, however, the employment of rockets and boat howitzers which had been of particular use in front of James Island.  Those weapons were, as with other artillery weapons in the department, manned by infantry.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 105-6.)

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.)