The Negro as a Soldier.1
By WILLIAM ELIOT FURNESS.
[Read November 12, 1891.]
SOPO Editor’s Note: Much of this article has not been reproduced here. A large portion of the beginning of the article and a portion dealing with the Battle of Nashville near the end have been skipped.
On the 15th of June , General W. F. Smith’s corps, the Eighteenth, crossed the Appomattox at Point of Rocks, and moved south. A brigade of General Hincks’s negro division was ordered to clear a line of rifle-pits in front of Smith’s corps. It was about nine o’clock in the morning when the Black Brigade went forward with a brilliant dash. They carried the rifle-pits with the bayonet. General Smith, who watched the black soldiers fight for the first time, declared that they were equal to any troops. The brigade moved on, when the defences of Petersburg were confronted; until evening the negroes skirmished. At about sunset the Black Brigade charged the intrenched enemy. In a few moments the negro troops were within the works, cheering. An officer in one of the regiments says: —
“Our brave fellows went steadily through the swamp, and up the side of a hill at an angle of nearly fifty degrees, rendered nearly impassable by fallen timber. . . . We took, in these two redoubts, four guns. . . . Other colored troops advanced against works more to the left. The Fourth United States Colored Troops took one more redoubt, and the enemy abandoned another. . . . There is no overrating the good conduct of these fellows during these charges; with but few exceptions, they all went as old soldiers, but with more enthusiasm. . . . We can bayonet the enemy to terms on this matter of treating colored soldiers as prisoners of war, far sooner than the authorities can bring him to it by negotiation. … I know, further, that the enemy won’t fight us if he can help it.”
General Smith, in his order of the day, said: —
“To the colored troops comprising the division of General Hincks the general commanding would call the attention of his command. With the veterans of the Eighteenth Corps they have stormed the works of the enemy and carried them, taking guns and prisoners, and in the whole affair they have displayed all the qualities of good soldiers.” (See Williams’s History of “Negro Troops,” etc., page 235.)
General Hincks, in his report of this action, says: —
“In the gallant and soldierly deportment of the troops engaged on the 15th inst., under varying circumstances, — the celerity with which they moved to the charge, the steadiness and coolness exhibited by them under heavy and long continued fire, the impetuosity with which they sprang to the assault, the patient endurance of wounds, — we have a sufficient proof that colored men, when properly officered, instructed, and drilled, will make most excellent infantry of the line” (Official Records, vol. xi. pt. i. p. 723.)
General Samuel A. Duncan, who commanded one of the brigades of colored troops in this battle, in an address delivered before the Society of the Army of the James, in 1871, says : —
“It was in that day’s fighting that the colored troops of the Army of the James first had opportunity to show their true mettle. Nobly did they bear themselves in the morning attack upon the outlying works on Baylor’s farm. Emerging from the edge of the woods in regular line of battle, the leaden rain of musket-balls and the storm of grape and canister at short range smote full in their faces; but, undismayed by the havoc which this well-directed fire made in their ranks, they raised a tumultuous shout, rushed upon the breastworks of the foe, and swept the position. But a severer test awaited them. At half-past one o’clock in the afternoon of the same day they were lying in line of battle in front of the main works, with orders to be ready for instant response to the signal for attack. The position was an exposed one, being swept by no less than four of the enemy’s batteries. There they lay, powerless of action, through all the tedious hours of that blazing afternoon, and one after another was struck down by shot and shell and bullet until the list of casualties had grown to alarming figures. It was the severest trial to which inexperienced troops could be subjected; and yet as the sun sank low towards the western horizon and the bugles rang out the signal for advance, up sprang those dusky warriors, nothing daunted, and swept like a resistless tide over the formidable works before them. That day’s work demonstrated to the satisfaction of all that it was not for nought that in the hour of her extremest peril the Republic had summoned to her aid two hundred thousand of the emancipated race.”
This success has a peculiar value and significance for the thorough test it has given of the efficiency of negro troops. In the thickest of the fight and under the most trying circumstances they never flinched. (See vol. ii. Rebellion Record Documents, p. 571 et seq.~)
General Smith, speaking of this fight, is reported to have said: “No nobler effort has been put forth and no greater success achieved than that of the colored troops” (Same volume and page).
On June 30 [sic, July 30], the negro division of the Ninth Corps, under General Burnside, took part in the affair of the Mine, and in the disastrous fight in the crater caused by the explosion [aka the Battle of the Crater].
It had been intended by General Burnside that this division should, as soon as the mine had exploded, lead the advance upon the enemy, and its troops had been specially drilled for the service. But at the last moment, Generals Grant and Meade insisted that one of the white divisions of the corps should be given the advance, and the negro troops were sent in after the enemy had recovered from the unnerving effect of the explosion, and had encircled the crater filled with a disorganized mass of men, threatening a counter-attack upon our works.
The negroes went in with spirit, and seem to have been almost the only troops which behaved thoroughly well.
General Grant, in his report to the Committee on the Conduct of the War, states that Burnside wanted to put his colored division in front, and expressed the belief that had he been allowed to do so the affair would have been a success.
Again, at Deep Bottom, Virginia, from the 14th to the 17th of August, the negro troops of the Tenth Army Corps sustained the reputation they had already gained. On the night of August 18, the enemy assaulted vigorously, but the negro soldiers were cool and determined, and met the blow with courage. General Birney, next day, in orders, spoke as follows : —
“The enemy attacked my lines in heavy force last night and was repulsed with great loss. In front of one colored regiment eighty-two dead bodies of the enemy are already counted. The colored troops behaved handsomely, and are in fine spirits. The assault . . . would have carried any works not so well defended.”
On the 29th of September, 1864, in the course of one of the numerous attempts of the armies under Grant to advance toward Richmond on the north bank of the James River, carried on by the Tenth and Eighteenth Corps, under General Butler, the attack on Newmarket Heights was intrusted to the colored division of the Tenth Corps, which successfully accomplished the work, though with very considerable loss. General Samuel A. Duncan, at one of the reunions of the Army of the James, spoke of the behavior of the negro troops in this action, as follows: —
“You saw them when the movement upon Richmond was made upon the James; saw them, in the early gray of the morning, march with steady cadence down into the low grounds in front of Newmarket Heights, when the mists of the morning still hung heavy; saw them disappear, as they entered the fog that enwrapped them like a mantle of death; saw them struggling bravely forward through the almost impenetrable abatis that protected the enemy’s works, and saw them receive the deadly fire of the foe, recoiling once, but re-forming the columns, dashing forward again, sweeping over the hostile intrenchments, and driving the enemy back to his inner line nearer Richmond. And later in the day, you were witnesses to the special prowess of the troops of one regiment, — the Seventh United States Colored Troops, — that was sent against one of the Rebel forts [Fort Gilmer]. . . Those brave men rushed to the attack with an impetuosity that refused to be checked, until company after company was actually entrapped in the very moat of the work.”
Lieutenant Spinney, who was one of the officers leading these companies of the Seventh, thus describes the attack: —
“The charge was made in quick time, in open order of about three paces, until we could plainly see the enemy; then the order was given by Captain Weiss to double-quick, which was promptly obeyed, the line preserving its order as upon drill. Upon arriving at the ditch, there was no wavering, but every man jumped into the trap. . . . Captain Weiss gave orders to raise men upon the parapet, which was done by two men assisting one to climb. Captain Weiss, having from thirty to forty men up, attempted to gain the inside of the fort; but all were knocked back killed or wounded into the ditch. A second and a third attempt were made, with no better success. . . . Upon arriving at Libby Prison, an officer in charge asked the commander of our guard if the ‘niggers’ would fight. His answer was, ‘By God, if you had been there, you would have thought so ! They marched up just as if they were on drill, not firing a shot.'”
Major-General C. W. Field, of the Confederate service, in an account of the campaign of 1864 and 1865, in vol. xiv. Southern Historical Society Papers, p. 555, thus speaks of the attack on Fort Gilmer, where the Seventh United States Colored Troops lost so heavily: —
“As I got in sight of the breastworks I saw beyond them two lines of the enemy (the leading line of negroes) moving up to assault Gilmer. . . . Fire was opened along the line, but the enemy . . . continued to advance beautifully. … It is worthy of remark that some of the negro troops got up to our breastworks, and were killed there.”
And General Lee is reported to have said, “Fort Gilmer proved the other day that they [the negroes] would fight. They raised each other on the parapet, to be shot as they appeared above.”
[A portion of this article pertaining to the Battle of Nashville has been removed.]
These instances, all well authenticated, should satisfy any one that the negro troops, recruited and organized by the Government to aid in the suppression of the Rebellion, were fully as capable as the troops of other races to perform all the duties of soldiers. If in some respects the inferiors of the white volunteers, and from their long-continued servitude and lack of education naturally inferior to the educated white citizens of the North, yet in other respects they were, from that very inferiority, better fitted to fill the ranks of a regiment as part of that complicated human machine called an army. In physical bravery, steadiness under fire, and discipline to do what was ordered without question, they were certainly, when decently officered, equal to any troops which the Civil War produced, short of those organizations in which the high state of educated intelligence had actually created the spirit which would refuse to criticise, and took a pride in absolute obedience to orders, because the reason had first decided that a soldier never should do anything but obey.
The cases I have cited are but some of the many in which our colored volunteers played a most honorable part, and, though it would not be true to say that they always behaved well, yet the occasions in which they did not do as well as they ought to have done are not proportionately more numerous than those when white soldiers have failed; and I believe there was no occasion on which they were smitten as a body with a panic like that unreasoning panic of the Eleventh Corps at Chancellorsville, or that of the army in general at the first battle of Bull Run.
Finally, the fact that ever since the Rebellion there have been four regiments of negroes, two of cavalry and two of infantry, constantly in the service of the Government, forming part of the regular army, is perhaps the best answer that can be given to any one who doubts their capacity as soldiers. During all the four years of the war, the regular regiments were considered the choicest troops of the Union, and the greatest praise that could be given to a volunteer regiment was to compare it favorably with a regiment of regulars; yet the standard of intelligence was probably in few volunteer organizations not very much above that of the regulars. I am informed by those who have had full opportunity of judging, and who ought to know, that the negro regiments of the army, since the Rebellion, have borne a creditable, and in many cases a gallant part, in the services which our little army has been called upon to perform, that they serve in conjunction with the white troops without trouble, and that their officers make no objections to commanding them because of the color of their skins. It is safe to say that they will always henceforth be accepted as soldiers, and will continue to form a part of the forces on which the nation depends. In the words of General Duncan, who had known and commanded negroes, and knew their soldierly qualities,—
“It is my verdict, and I believe that you will all coincide with me, that the colored troops deserved well of the Republic; and when the artist-historian of the coming age shall seek to represent in enduring marble or bronze the magnificent events of the period of the Great Rebellion, high among the crowning figures of the structure will he uprear a full-armed statue of a negro soldier, and the Muse of History, with truthful pen, shall inscribe at the front of that statue the legend: ‘The colored troops fought nobly.'”
What are your Top 10 Gettysburg Books? See what a panel of bloggers said recently.