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VT Proceedings: The Colored Troops in the War of the Rebellion by J. H. Goulding

Editor’s Note: Portions of this article not specifically pertaining to the Siege of Petersburg have been omitted.


The Colored Troops in the War of the Rebellion.1

This subject, hitherto, I believe, not touched upon by any of the many distinguished men and comrades who have preceded me as speakers before this Reunion Society of Vermont Officers, is one well worthy the brief attention we shall be able to give it to-night.

The conditions under which the contest between the Federal Government and rebellious states was begun and carried on for the first year or two of its history, seemed to forbid the employment of colored citizens in the ranks of the army. They had for many years, however, been enlisted in the navy and the records of our earlier wars disclose the fact that a colored volunteer at Bunker Hill fired the shot that killed the doughty major who had commanded the British force in the raid on Concord. Bancroft states that at that day their right to bear arms in the public defence was as little disputed in New England as any of their other rights. They took their places not in separate corps but in the ranks with white men and their names may be found on the pension rolls of the country side by side with those of the other soldiers of the Revolution. In the war of 1812, New York raised two regiments of these men, while Jackson employed such troops in his service at New Orleans and emphatically attested their bravery in general orders.

[Editor’s Note: A portion of this article located here was removed.]

We have seen that they can march, how about their conduct under fire? I will show you. It is the cool gray dawn of a Virginia September morning [September 29, 1864]. All the past night orderlies have been coming and going, making preparations for a forward movement. The tenth corps, Gen. [David B.] Birney, and the eighteenth corps, Gen. [Edward O. C.] Ord, have been brought over to the north side of the James to strike a blow at Lee’s left which defends the Varina and Newmarket roads to Richmond. It is to be a day of hot fighting and desperate struggle; our men are again to be hurled against strong works held by a veteran, determined foe.

The opening of this sanguinary day is given to this brigade of colored men [Duncan’s 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division, 18th Corps, Army of the James], belonging to the colored division of the 18th corps. Their gallantry has been tested before this, and the other two divisions, white men, would resent your question as to the fighting qualities of these black men, for they have learned to depend upon them as they do upon each other. The task of this brigade is to engage the enemy’s extreme left, while our centre, in which are Stannard and Ripley, moves to attack the Chapin’s [sic, Chaffin’s] Farm works, known to be strong and important. The troops opposed to this one brigade, are the rebel Gen. Hoke’s division [sic, Gregg’s Texas Brigade of Field’s Division, about 500 men], posted behind a line of earthworks, protected in front by a dense growth of light brushwood, lopped down so that the stumps and trees yet cling together, forming a tangled network of limbs and trunks difficult to penetrate. A little brook winds its clear way along through the thicket. Our line is formed just back of a crest or knoll over which we are to charge down upon this unknown work. As we clear the top, the ground on either side of us seems broken and woody, while that in our immediate front is smooth and slopes down toward the enemy’s line. The 4th [USCT] and 6th [USCT] regiments lead and as they rush down the incline, receive the concentrated fire of the whole rebel division. The crash of small arms is terrific, a constant roll with the heavier discharges of artillery breaking in like the bass notes of some mighty organ. The air seems full of missiles, hissing above, around and with deadly intent at each one of us. Man after man with the colors goes down, and officer after officer as they snatch the falling staff from stricken falling arms. With shouts and cries, with deep drawn breath and gasps and choking heart-throbs we plunge on and on, men dropping suddenly or thrown whirling or doubled up as they were struck. Now we reach the brook and are tearing our way through the brush. What wild music the bullets sing as we force our way along! “Keep on boys.” My God, see them reel and stagger, and yet still keep coming on. The dense masses of the rebels, their yellow works, are in plain sight; we hear their shouts and cheers, their pitiless, incessant, withering volleys. Surging up to the parapet, our men leap the low, newly made lines and black and white meet, hand to hand, no longer as master and slave. The Johnnies seem about to break, when we hear our bugles sound. What, is that the recall? Yes, what can it mean? Desperately turning, back the survivors go; the enemy’s fire rekindling and adding many to the fallen as we seek for safety the shelter of the crest so far, far away. We gain it at last, breathless, and yet, reforming, the men beg to be led in again, declaring they can and will effect a lodgment in the works. So a second charge is ordered over the same ground, led by [John W.] Ames of the 6th [USCT], now commanding the brigade, his long mustache dripping with blood from a cut across the forehead. This rush was successful, and driving before us the enemy who were plundering our dead and wounded, we rolled his left back upon his center and performed fully the work given our part of the line. Yes, the task was accomplished, but with a cost and with a display of heroism hardly excelled in the annals of war. All along the grassy slope, in the tangled bushes by the brook now running red with their life blood, lie the men who fought that day for you and for me. Speaking for my regiment alone [the 6th USCT], let me say, what the records show, that it took 367 officers and men into this charge; that 41 were killed, 160 wounded, and 8 missing, a total loss of 209, or 57 per cent. Company D had three men left, and as we fell in to stack arms but eighty men closed up shoulder to shoulder, the other survivors being with the wounded. Three-fourths of the commissioned officers were either killed or wounded, though I am telling you more particularly of the men. Going over the field after the fight, we found the color sergeant of the 4th [USCT] with both legs shattered by a round shot. He had crawled twenty yards to get out of the way of the rebs as they sprang over upon our wounded. His first question was “Have we taken the works?” “Yes, sergeant, we have.” He raised himself to a sitting position while his mangled limbs hung by shreds of flesh, swung his hat over his head, gave a cheer for the colored brigade, and fell back gasping upon the turf. Tenderly laying him in the shade, we revived him with a little water, and after an inquiry as to whether he could live, which was answered doubtfully, he said faintly, “Well, I carried my colors up to the works, and I did my duty, didn’t I?” What answer do you think we gave him? What mattered it that his face was black? What more could he have done to prove himself a man, as true as any who walks the earth? His duty done, done to the utmost, even to the laying down of life for us, for the flag, for the perpetuation of the grandest nationality the sun shines upon—from that bloody field to the peaceful reward of those whose duty has been done, he went. Another poor fellow with three bullets through his body, but who lingered yet alive, wanted to know if it was any disgrace to the regiment that it went back the first time. He was told that it was not, but being outnumbered it was ordered back; this seemed to satisfy him, for even to his dying vision orders given meant orders to be obeyed. I tell you, comrades, while the memory of this charge upon New Market Heights is mine—while I still remember that Florida field of death, Olustee, with the 8th U. S. Colored Troops marching into it, deploying and dressing their line in a terrible fire as coolly as if on parade and giving shot for shot, till their colonel and half their men fell, and when ordered out retiring in perfect order, the colors last of all—till I can forget Wagner, where the gallant [Colonel Robert Gould] Shaw sleeps with the shattered 54th [Massachusetts], I shall maintain that the colored soldier could fight as well as march.

One hundred and seventy-nine thousand enlisted in the army during the war, 138 regiments of infantry, 6 regiments of cavalry, 12 of heavy artillery, 2 batteries, organized by the War Department, besides the regiments furnished by some of the states; and more than 36,000 died in our country’s service, writing in their blood their claim to everlasting remembrance. Turn to Fox’s great statistical work on regimental losses and what showing do these colored men make there? The 9th Louisiana, afterwards the 5th U. S. Colored Heavy Artillery, was engaged at Milliken’s Bend in June, ’63, 300 strong, losing 62 killed, 130 wounded, missing none, total loss 192, or 64 per cent. Captain Heath of the regiment was taken prisoner and murdered in cold blood by the confederates. In Burnside’s Mine affair at Petersburg, nine of his colored regiments lost over 1,300 men. At Honey Hill, South Carolina, in November, ’64, the 55th Massachusetts and the 35th U. S. [CT] lost 256. At Nashville in December, ’64, under “Old Papa Thomas” when he was taking care of Hood for Sherman, the 12th, 13th and 100th U. S. Colored Infantry lost 468, the share of the 13th being 221, one of the largest recorded regimental losses. No missing among them; all either killed, wounded, or answering to their names at the roll call after the fight. I have already alluded to the loss of my own regiment at New Market Heights, 57 per cent., but the 4th [USCT] and 5th [USCT] in the same brigade with us there also suffered severely, the three regiments losing 623 men.2 In the closing battle of the war, April 9th, ’65, at Fort Blakely, Alabama, the 68th and 76th regiments lost 193 men. Every field where they were put in tells the same story.

How does this record compare with that of other wars? The famous Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava, sung by Tennyson, was made with 673 officers and men; the loss was 113 killed, 134 wounded, a total loss of 246, or 36 and 7-10 per cent. The heaviest loss in the Franco-Prussian war after the adoption of more destructive weapons, was sustained by the 16th German regiment at Mars la Tour, 49 per cent., and another battalion lost at Metz 46 per cent., called very big losses. These take nothing from the laurels of our brave black men, nor can you find any figures that will. Their record is worthy to stand beside that of any race or age. Upon their record alone should they be judged.

Consider for a moment the many disadvantages, the many discouragements under which these colored men labored, as to their enlisting. Look up the massacre at Fort Pillow early in 1863 by the infamous rebel General Forrest, including his first report, afterwards suppressed, in which he says that the river was red for more than two hundred yards with the blood of his victims, about five hundred in number, men of new colored regiments, shot down after trying to surrender, and note his icy words that very few officers escaped; then tell me what prospect apparently awaited these men if they fell at any time into the hands of the enemy. I have already alluded to the proclamation of Jeff Davis outlawing their officers, and believe this massacre was but a part of a rebel plan to prevent their engaging in our service. In more than one charge these black men went in with the words, “Remember Fort Pillow” on their lips, and no wonder. They realized fully that one left behind on the march, straggling beyond our lines, left on some tangled field as our stretcher carriers were reluctantly called off when our forces fell back, might hope for no mercy, except such mercy as the bayonet or the bullet has to offer. Never expecting to rise above the ranks, never to be commissioned officers, a strong incentive in other service, always feeling more or less the reproach of their color, their real character as soldiers not understood or appreciated by many of our own commanding officers, they nevertheless enlisted with us and performed their duty with as much credit as any. These facts should outweigh any prejudice we may have had against them and should constrain us to judge them fairly. Almost all the adverse criticism they have ever received has come from those knowing very little of their service except from hearsay, or a view from an extremely safe distance. The number they added to our force, I have named it as 179,000, was no small factor in the solution of the problem that troubled even our great Lincoln and his able advisers and generals. Many of our own Vermont colored men served in the ranks of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry, and many white Vermonters obtained commissions in the United States Colored Regiments; of these I have given you but the faintest idea as regards their work, in camp, in battle, in deadly rifle pit or gopher hole. These appointees took with them in many instances experience gained in the Old Brigade, yet in their new positions added new lustre to and reflected credit upon the State that gave them birth.

I need not say to men of a society like this, distinguished on so many fields, representing so many commands whose glories are the proud heritage of our state, that I leave with confidence in your hands this attempt to give you something of the service of men not as fortunate in many respects as you, my comrades, but who nevertheless served for the same cause, under the same flag, doing whatever duty was required of them to the fullest extent of which they were capable, making every exertion, every sacrifice demanded; contributing their share to the glorious result, of which the present high position of our country among the nations of the earth is but the fruition. It shall ever be my pride as well as high privilege to testify at all times’ to the hardihood, the persistence, the bravery—shown no less in the long forced march than in the deadly fight—the unflinching courage of the United States Colored Troops, to which I had the honor to belong.

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  1. Goulding, Joseph. H. “The Colored Troops in the War of the Rebellion.” Proceedings of the Reunion Society of Vermont Officers, Vol. 2, pp. 137-154
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: The Official Records show only the 4th USCT and 6th USCT in Duncan’s 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division, 18th Corps, Army of the James.  The 5th USCT was in Draper’s 2nd Brigade of the same division.  Goulding appears to be mistaken due to the length of time between the events of 1864 and the address he gives here.
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