JUST LEARNING TO BE MEN
"They Have Been Slaves"
After President Abraham Lincoln authorized the organization of black troops in 1863, some individuals quickly initiated recruitment efforts. Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew sponsored the first black regiments, the 54th and 55th Massachusetts. These units finished recruiting by April 1863. Not content to stop with the organization of these regiments, Andrew saw an opportunity to raise more black units in eastern North Carolina. On April 1, 1863, he wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton detailing his plans for a brigade of former slaves to be formed in North Carolina.
Andrew believed that sending part of a northern black regiment went to North Carolina would aid in the recruitment process. He thought blacks would hesitate to join white regiments or enlist with white recruiters. Once recruits saw a black unit for themselves, he predicted, their willingness to enlist would increase. Therefore, Andrew requested that Stanton send black troops to eastern North Carolina. "If you could send some colored troops down there the result would shortly be a general attraction of the blacks to our Army," Andrew wrote. "And if you are prepared to have it done I believe the work is already ripe." The Massachusetts governor had immense faith in such a policy, believing that northerners would agree as well. "Meanwhile, I am desirous of doing what I can to bring it before the public mind by doing the thing which men are discussing," Andrew wrote. "There is little chance of opposition after a thing is accomplished and seems to be good." As the governor of Massachusetts, he felt responsible for taking the lead in organizing black units. Andrew stated in the letter to Stanton, "The truth is that unless we do it, in Mass., it cannot be expected elsewhere. While, if we do it, others will ultimately, and indeed soon, follow." 1
In the same letter to Stanton, Andrew addressed the question of who would lead the brigade. It had to be a careful selection. Andrew wrote, "if the President would permit me to name an officer, I could find a Colonel by selecting one of several whom I know . . . having regard to the proper combination of intellectual and moral qualities with military experience." Andrew believed that an officer chosen to lead black soldiers should support the idea of arming blacks or, in the best case, have abolitionist sentiments. In addition to these moral attributes, Andrew sought a colonel who had seen action in the war and proved his abilities. By late April he settled upon Colonel Edward A. Wild of the 35th Massachusetts. 2
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1825, Wild grew up in a well-known local family and chose to study medicine, just as his father had. He returned to Brookline to begin his medical practice after studying at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and finishing his education in Europe. While in Europe, Wild became extremely interested in political affairs, particularly the crisis in Italy between the dictatorship and the radical "redshirts." Wild continued to follow political events in Europe after returning to Brookline. When the Crimean War broke out in 1854, he used his medical training to serve as a surgeon in the Turkish Army. After the attack on Fort Sumter, Wild quickly volunteered to fight with the Union. He served as a captain of the 35th Massachussetts until losing his left arm at South Mountain in the Antietam campaign in 1862. 3
Wild may have lost his arm, but he did not lose his zeal to save the Union and defeat the South. He fitted Andrew's criteria for colonel of a black unit: he had military experience in the Crimean War and had served in six engagements in the Civil War. Moreover, Wild strongly supported arming blacks in the war against their former masters. Others involved with black troops approved of Wild's appointment. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts admired Wild's commitment. Writing to his mother on April 14, 1863, Shaw described the colonel selected to raise a brigade in North Carolina. "He is an excellent man," detailed Shaw, "He lost his arm at Antietam and, I am afraid, may not be able to remain in active service, though he is determined to try it." 4
As Governor Andrew had carefully selected Wild to lead the brigade, Wild attempted to do the same in selecting officers to accompany him to North Carolina. Choosing largely from officers of Massachusetts regiments, Wild assembled a group whom he believed were capable of meeting the demands of leading black troops. As colonel for the first regiment, Wild selected James Chaplin Beecher of Hartford, Connecticut. Son of the well-known minister Lyman Beecher and half-brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, both prominent abolitionists, Beecher possessed Wild's requirements for the position. Beecher had previous military experience, having served as lieutenant colonel of the 141st New York Infantry, and he also came from an abolitionist background. The Beecher family worked against slavery in the years prior to the Civil War, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin, is often credited with intensifying antislavery sentiment in the United States. Published in 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin depicted the horrors of slavery and the cruelties of some white masters. Lyman Beecher also worked to bring about an end to slavery. All of these attributes made James Beecher an excellent choice to lead a regiment of black soldiers. Though Wild could not have known at the time, by selecting Beecher he chose a man who staunchly would defend his men and, upon occasion, all people of color against unfair treatment by whites. 5
Wild and Beecher attempted to select officers who supported the idea of arming blacks, and in most cases succeeded. Despite the efforts of Wild and Beecher, they simply could not guarantee that each officer chosen for Wild's "African Brigade" (another name for the units recruited in North Carolina) would treat blacks as soldiers and as free men. Every regiment of black soldiers faced this problem. Many white officers strongly supported their black troops, but others held prejudices against blacks or were overt racists. Some whites sought commissions in black regiments merely because of the higher likelihood of receiving promotions. It would be naïve to assume that all whites involved with black troops supported emancipation and equality for blacks, especially at the beginning. These men still bore the marks of a society imbedded with strong racism at one extreme, and paternalism at the other. Even the most "enlightened" Northern whites retained a degree of paternalism toward blacks. Men who exhibited no overt racism often believed blacks to be inferior and felt the need to guide and protect them. This sentiment certainly caused some white officers to want to direct the black troops in their new efforts. Much like the "good" slave masters, paternalistic white officers believed they could lead the inferior, childlike blacks and feel righteous for their work.
Regardless of white officers' reasons for joining the U. S. Colored Troops, many accepted commissions. As early as May 4, 1863, Union Major General David Hunter, commander of black troops in South Carolina, wrote to Governor Andrew indicating that he noticed less racism among his white officers toward black soldiers than previously observed. "I am happy to announce to you that the prejudices of certain of our white soldiers and officers against these indisputable allies, are rapidly softening or fading out." Hunter assured Andrew of his pleasure with the performance of black troops under his command. "These regiments are hardy, generous, temperate, patient, strictly obedient, possessing great natural aptitude for arms, and deeply imbred with that religious sentiment . . . which made the soldiers of Cromwell invincible." Hunter also expressed his wish that Wild's Brigade would be sent to Hunter's command upon completion of recruitment and training. This signified his faith in the military abilities of black troops. 6
Before the destination of the brigade could be determined, Wild had to complete recruitment. After selecting Beecher as colonel for the first regiment, other officers had to be chosen, trained, and commissioned. Of the regimental officers recruited by Beecher for the 35th, one in particular invited controversy at several points in his career. Lieutenant Colonel William N. Reed, rumored to be a mulatto, had a short but eventful career with the 35th. In a November 17, 1863, letter to Major General Quincy Gillmore, Medical Director H. M. Mintz described a situation that involved Reed. According to Mintz,
It appears that the 1st Regiment N.C.C. Vols. has two medical
officers assistant surgeon D. Mann (a white man) and assistant
surgeon DeGrasse (a Negro). As might be expected from this
unfortunate combination difficulties have arisen of a much serious
nature that it becomes my duty to represent the case-It also
appears that the Lt. Colonel of the Regt. [Reed] (which is commanded
by Colonel Beecher) is a mulatto and while he has been temporarily
in command of the Regt. he has used every endeavor in his power
to elevate the Negro Doctor over the white one . . . . 7
Mintz accused Reed of favoring Doctor John V. DeGrasse, the black assistant surgeon, over Doctor Daniel Mann. The Medical Director believed that Reed gave DeGrasse special treatment because of Reed's race. The Descriptive Books of the 35th fail to indicate Reed's racial classification. But throughout his career Reed openly championed the rights of blacks. Reed's strong beliefs in the rights of blacks could have caused others to question his racial background, a usual tactic of those hostile to black advancement.
Reed figured prominently in the leadership of the 35th, even commanding the regiment at one point. He seemed to invite controversy. On October 29, 1863, Beecher ordered Reed arrested for recalling a private from the quartermaster's department without going through the proper channels. Two days later, Beecher released Reed from arrest after he learned the lieutenant colonel's rationale for recalling the soldier. While working for the quartermaster's department, Private Lafayette Spencer faced mistreatment at the hands of white soldiers who forced Spencer to labor for them. Reed, angry at the maltreatment of Private Spencer, simply recalled the soldier from duty rather than allowing the abuse to continue. Upon learning the facts of the case, Beecher agreed with Reed's reason, but not his method. Reed and Beecher shared an intense belief in abolition and the rights of blacks, and both officers fought to prevent their men from mistreatment by other white soldiers. Unfortunately for the 35th, Reed did not have many opportunities to uphold the rights of his enlisted men. Reed died of wounds received at the Battle of Olustee, Florida, on February 23, 1864, less than a year after the organization of the regiment. 8
Reed played an important, albeit brief, role in the 35th by championing the rights of black enlisted men. However, Reed and Beecher were not the only important white officers in the regiment. General Wild selected another key figure when he recruited Major Archibald Bogle. Twenty-two years of age when he joined the 35th on May 21, 1863, Bogle's war record included serving as first lieutenant in the 17th Massachusetts Volunteers. According to Bogle's service record, he briefly commanded the 35th in December 1863. At the Battle of Olustee, Bogle received severe wounds and was presumed dead and left on the field. Confederate troops captured Bogle and imprisoned him at Andersonville, Georgia. There Bogle faced terrible conditions and mistreatment at the hands of his captors, particularly because of his position in a black regiment. By April 1865, Bogle returned to his unit, though still suffering from wounds received over a year before at Olustee. Bogle did not obtain proper medical care during his imprisonment, which resulted in severe medical problems for some time after his release. In a detailed letter to Union Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas in May 1865, Bogle addressed the lack of care he received while at Andersonville.
After being left several days without even having his wounds dressed, Bogle finally received attention from a low ranking medical officer. However, a Confederate doctor ordered the lesser officer to "turn him out with his God damned Niggers." The doctor removed Bogle from the hospital without caring for his wounds and, as a result, infection set in. By June 16, 1864, four months after the battle, Bogle finally gained admittance to the prison hospital. Bogle weighed only 70-80 pounds upon admission, down from 170 pounds at the time of his capture. Bogle suffered greatly at Andersonville, largely because his captors knew of his rank in a black regiment. He survived the difficult experience and went on to be promoted to colonel after the war ended on June 22, 1867, for "gallant and meritorious services." 9
An interesting figure in the 35th, though never noted for "gallant and meritorious services," was Assistant Surgeon John V. DeGrasse, a black soldier. Appointed on April 28, 1863, DeGrasse had a remarkable career prior to his service in the 35th. During an era when few black men received an education, DeGrasse had the benefit of medical school. The first black member of a medical association, DeGrasse joined the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1854. DeGrasse established himself as a competent physician in the years before the Civil War and a likely candidate for the assistant surgeon position in a black regiment. However, numerous individuals did not support blacks serving as any officer. Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts, however, believed that select black men should be given the opportunity to lead their brethren. In the early days of black recruitment, Andrew urged Secretary of War Stanton to allow blacks to serve as officers in junior positions. On February 3, 1863, Andrew sent a telegram to Stanton explaining his wish. He wrote:
Congressional Bill passed. House Rep does not prohibit Colored Officers
in Colored Reg. Will you withdraw prohibition so far as concerns line
officers, asst. surgeons, and chaplain of my proposed Colored Reg. It will
avoid difficulty. Power would not be used except possibly for few cases
of plainly competent persons, recommended by the field officers, who shall
be gentlemen and soldiers of the highest men and influence. 10
Andrew pressured Stanton to allow blacks to serve as noncommissioned officers, assistant surgeons, and chaplains; Wild and Beecher concurred. DeGrasse joined the regiment relatively early, which spoke well of the intentions of Wild and Beecher to support the rights of blacks. Despite the hopes of the two leaders and DeGrasse's record, DeGrasse eventually proved unfit for the position. He was neither a "gentlemen and soldier of the highest men and influence," nor was he even plainly competent. DeGrasse simply could not perform his duties because of drunkenness. The surgeon drank so frequently and thoroughly that it interfered with his ability to carry out the details of his position. The problem with alcohol grew until his superior officers noticed and took action. DeGrasse faced a court martial in Jacksonville, Florida, on November 1, 1864. Charged with both "drunkenness on duty" and "conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman," DeGrasse pleaded "not guilty." For the charge of "drunkenness on duty," DeGrasse faced three specifications.
The first charged him with failing to obey his duties of caring for wounded soldiers and instead going to bed drunk on February 20, 1864. On that date the 35th participated in the Battle of Olustee, Florida, and sustained heavy casualties. The second specification accused DeGrasse of leaving the regiment and going to Jacksonville, getting drunk, and going to bed before the regiment arrived there in June 1864. The third specification read:
that the said Asst. Surgeon John V. DeGrasse, 35th U.S.C.T.,
sought for to attend to a wounded man was found in a condition
entirely incapacitated to perform duty, caused by excessive drinking
of alcoholic stimulus. This at bivouac of 35th U.S.C.T., near Darby's
Station, Fla., on or about the 25th day of July, 1864, while in the face
of the enemy and the only Medical Officer on duty with his regiment. 11
DeGrasse, found guilty on both charges, was discharged. One of few black officers in the earliest days of black troops thus saw his military career come to an end because of his drinking habit. Perhaps the brutalities of war drove DeGrasse to the bottle. If so, he was not the first soldier to turn to drinking. Soldiers found various ways to cope with the horrors of war. Unlike card playing or storytelling, drinking often interfered with performing duty. In The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (1952), historian Bell Irvin Wiley noted that many surgeons turned to alcohol with regularity. Because of the harshness of their duty and their unrestricted access to alcohol, surgeons such as DeGrasse could lose themselves in the bottle with greater ease than could the average soldier. According to Wiley, many surgeons faced court martials and dismissals for being too drunk to carry out their duties. Whatever the reason, or reasons, DeGrasse drank to excess until it ended his career with the 35th, a career that could have been all the more remarkable had it been capable of continuing. 12
With the 35th regimental staff in place, DeGrasse still among them, Wild and Beecher left the North to begin recruiting soldiers in eastern North Carolina. They faced an entirely different process of recruitment in the South than did black regiments recruited in the North. In the South, recruiters entered enemy territory. Even in areas of the South occupied by Union troops, such as eastern North Carolina, the local citizens certainly did not like the idea of their former slaves bearing arms against them. A slaveholder in Kenansville, North Carolina, not far from Union lines, feared what might happen. Writing to Confederate President Jefferson Davis on November 25, 1863, Jere Pearsall urged Davis not to draft a local guard unit into Confederate forces. The home guard, according to Pearsall, protected slaveholders and their families, as well as preventing slaves from escaping to join Union forces. Pearsall's fears were not unfounded. Slaveholders in eastern North Carolina lost many bondsmen to the Union, where they joined the United States Colored Troops. 13
Even whites further away from the dangers felt threatened by the recruitment of blacks. Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston, a prominent white woman near the occupied area, excitedly wrote in her journal on several occasions about the arming of former slaves. As early as February 10, 1863, Edmondston confided to her journal, "Think of it, armed negroes! Think of what it means!" She correctly recognized the implications of arming former slaves against their masters. If anyone had a reason to fight, men who faced bondage did. By May 1863, Edmondston's diary mentioned the recruitment of black troops in the eastern part of the state. Through members of her family who lived in the northeastern counties of North Carolina, Edmondston heard different stories about the recruitment of blacks. On May 26, 1863, she wrote about the formation of black regiments:
Negro Regiments are being mustered into the service of the U.S.
throughout the country. A glorious cause that requires Cuffey's arm.
Cuffey's valour, to sustain it! I never mentioned half that Patty (my
new niece) told me of the Yankee villainy and oppression in the North
Eastern Counties-paper would fail me. They lie, steal, and murder
Edmondston went on to describe the Federal theft of slaves from the homes of friends in the area, for the purpose of recruiting them. She found this a deplorable crime, but the murders and atrocities reportedly committed against their former masters troubled her more, and correctly so, because Edmondston's family owned slaves. Edmondston believed that the entrance of Union soldiers into North Carolina and their intention to arm blacks threatened economic and social order. Indeed, Edmondston thought that the combination of blacks and Union soldiers meant disaster to area whites.
Prominent whites in northeastern North Carolina shared Edmondston's fears. On July 25, 1863, John Pool of Bertie County, a former Whig candidate for governor, wrote to Governor Zebulon B. Vance about the formation of Negro regiments. Pool, writing on behalf of a group of citizens, expressed concern over the presence of Union soldiers and their purposes. These North Carolinians believed that the troops proposed to raise units of former slaves with the idea of inciting a rebellion of all blacks against their former masters. Pool gave the governor examples of Union soldiers appearing on or about plantations, conversing with slaves. According to reports, they intended to lure slaves away from their masters by August 2, 1863. Pool insisted, "I really think, the matter ought to claim your prompt attention." Slaveholders strongly feared what might befall them if former slaves were given weapons and trained by the Union Army. Wild, Beecher, and their officers, however, showed little concern over disrupting the way of life for southern whites. 15
As recruitment unfolded, Wild chose a site for the military base
just outside of New Bern on the banks of the Neuse River. New Bern was
the headquarters of the Federal forces and had attracted 5,000 black refugees
to the area. By the first week of June 1863, seven companies were complete
and in camp. Just a few weeks later, Wild determined that the first regiment
had finished recruiting, and he began recruiting the second one. These
first soldiers participated in a difficult training schedule in camp. On
June 17, 1863, Colonel Beecher issued Regimental General Order Number 1,
which outlined a typical day in camp:
|5:00 a.m.||Reveille-Roll call-Shake out blankets-Clean
tents and men wash in squads in river.
|6:45 a.m||Surgeon's Call|
|6:50 a.m.||Sergeant's Call-Morning Reports|
|7:00 a.m.||Fatigue Call and Drill|
|8:00 a.m.||1st Call for Guard Mount|
|8:15 a.m.||Guard Mount|
|3:00 p.m.||Fatigue and Drill|
|6:20 p.m.||1st Call Dress Parade|
|6:30 p.m.||Adjutant's Call|
|9:00 p.m.||Taps 16|
The long hours spent in drill were meant to prepare the 35th for skirmishes and battle. In July 1863, the regiment participated in minor skirmishes on a raid into Duplin County. In a letter to the Christian Recorder, the organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Joseph E. Williams of the 35th described the raid. According to Williams, the soldiers accomplished their goal of recruiting other black men to join the United States Colored Troops. "I am happy to state that I, with the invading expedition in the enemy's country, safely returned to New Bern," Williams reported. "We expected to have to fight our way through, but the rebels flew away from our advancing forces as the darkness flies from advancing light." Williams described the raid, including rescuing prisoners from the courthouse in Kenansville, as well as ruining railroad ties in Warsaw. Two of the prisoners joined the raiders and followed them back to New Bern. More significantly, the group put the torch to an important war-materials factory in Kenansville before marching the eight miles to Warsaw. Williams described, "With more vigorous determination, we burnt the sabre factory and dashed on to Warsaw." Throughout the raid, Williams reported that slaves flocked to their lines seeking protection. Williams's letter reported that part of the 35th successfully completed one of their first raids and expressed his confidence in the soldiers' abilities to take on the enemy, as well as their desire to do so. 17
Whether they would be allowed to face the enemy in battle remained a question. From the earliest debate over arming blacks, the War Department and Congress questioned the role that former slaves could serve. Would they participate as regular soldiers or would they be restricted in their activity? Those in the government who held racist beliefs and did not think blacks capable of regular military duty hoped for the latter. When sponsoring the 54th and 55th Massachusetts, as well as Wild's Brigade, Governor Andrew pressed the government repeatedly for regular military service for black regiments. He made it clear that his regiments were not intended to labor for white soldiers. In an April 1, 1863 letter to Secretary Stanton, Andrew mentioned sending the 54th to eastern North Carolina to help raise what became Wild's Brigade. Concerned that the 54th would be used as a laboring force, Andrew wrote:
Our 54th is being raised and officered for active not for
duty; and unless active operations of a brilliant sort are contemplated
in No. Carolina, in which they, as a portion of the troops in that command
could be allowed to engage, then I pray you to send the 54th to So.
Carolina, where, under Genl. Hunter, negro troops will be appreciated
and allowed a place in onward and honorable movements of active war. 18
Unfortunately, other leaders and sponsors of black units did not support their regiments as vehemently or as frequently as Andrew did. Once organized, many black regiments faced endless fatigue duty with little opportunity for active duty. Fatigue duty consisted of hard military labor that reminded many former slaves of the all too familiar burdens of slavery. USCT regiments frequently performed construction, dug ditches, prepared breastworks, and endured all sorts of other military labors. Especially in the first months of existence, black soldiers faced an inordinate amount of such duty. Andrew, however, let Stanton and others in the War Department know that his troops should be used for active duty, rather than for fatigue duty or as laborers. Despite his intentions, the government actually did little to give the 35th or other black regiments an understanding of their function in the war. This lack of a clear mission left black soldiers and their officers unsure of their roles. 19
The absence of an explicit mission affected the 35th in several ways. The conviction of Wild and Beecher aided the regiment, but they could not control their orders from Washington. Soon after the 35th completed recruitment, Beecher received orders to pull out of camp at New Bern and embark for Charleston, South Carolina. The orders came unexpectedly and required that the regiment leave immediately. The 35th did just that, but in their haste they left behind the regimental records and most of their baggage. For months afterwards, the 35th faced difficulties because of their missing books. Six months later, in January 1864, problems continued to arise. The War Department sent a circular calling for the monthly returns for the regiment for July 1863, the month of the move from New Bern to Charleston. Unable to provide the returns due to the missing books, Major Archibald Bogle responded to the circular:
the morning of the first detachment disembarked it was placed
at once on fatigue-and every available officer and man continued
on duty throughout August and September and the larger. . . . until
early in December there being during this time an average of less than
two officers to companies of from 50 to 90 men-it has been very
difficult to furnish the required reports from the date the company and
Regiment books arrived and necessarily impossible to make accruable
returns for July and August. 20
The missing reports and books plagued the 35th for some time. Issues frequently arose over the lost records. In November 1863, Beecher wrote to Lieutenant Thomas J. Robinson, the Assistant Adjutant General, concerning the absent books. According to Beecher the amount of duty imposed on company commanders made it "about impossible to give proper attention to company books." Not only did the officers have trouble keeping up with official work while the books were missing, but once they arrived, the officers found it difficult to devote adequate time to paperwork. Beecher noted that the 35th lacked officers capable of performing paperwork, which worsened the problem. "There is not an orderly sergeant as non-commissioned officers in the command who can write sufficiently well who of any service and hence the whole duty has been thrown upon the one or two commissioned officers in the command," Beecher explained. The situation intensified because of a scarcity of officers to handle the reports, records, and correspondence. 21
Troubled not just by its missing regimental books and records, the 35th faced other problems in South Carolina as well. Because of its ambiguous status, the 35th often confronted difficulties in obtaining proper equipment and receiving adequate training, a problem common among regiments of the U. S. Colored Troops. On December 29, 1863, six months after the regiment began recruiting, Major Bogle issued "Regimental and Special Order Number 97," which directed:
Immediately after the inspection by Captain Burt this
morning, Company Commanders will inspect their companies and
be sure that each man has canteen and haversack, two pairs shoes,
two suits underclothing-ammunition plenty and in good order-and
that the men are in every way prepared for "the field." 22
Bogle sought to ensure that the men had adequate equipment and clothing in case they saw combat action. After the inspection performed on December 29, Bogle reported to Lieutenant Thomas J. Robinson, the assistant adjutant general to Major General John G. Foster, Department of the South, concerning the weapon supply. "The arms (Springfield, Enfield, Swivel Bore) being mostly second hand and many of them more or less imperfect are hardly suitable for field service," Bogle complained. The inspection also determined that the men had adequate outer clothing, but it revealed that the regiment was "deficient in underclothing especially drawers for which Requisition has repeatedly been made." The results of the inspection demonstrated that the regiment lacked necessary equipment and clothing. The arms the 35th possessed had been repeatedly used, and, according to Bogle, were not suitable for battle use. Obviously, whomever issued those arms did not concern themselves with whether the regiment could protect its men in the field, or they simply did not care. Bogle noted that requisitions had been made more than once, but the men had not yet been supplied. 23
Four months later, the issue of insufficient and deficient arms still had not been solved. Colonel Beecher wrote to Major C. W. Foster of the Bureau of Colored Troops, on April 8, 1864, concerning a prior requisition for arms. Beecher originally requested Springfield rifles and muskets from the chief of ordinance, Department of the South, on March 21, 1864. On March 31, he resubmitted the request, and received a positive reply from the War Department on April 8. Beecher wrote, "I am grateful to the Hon. Secretary of War for promptly ordering a decent armament for my new regiment yet am confident that no arms will be obtained except through direct action of the War Department in sending the rifles to Hilton Head and ordering their issue to my regiment." 24
Having no great faith in the prospect of receiving arms through proper channels, Beecher went directly to Secretary of War Stanton. Certainly Beecher knew that his regiment would not likely receive any shipment of armaments unless specific orders from the War Department accompanied the shipment. Many USCT regiments faced similar problems with weapons. Black regiments frequently received weapons of lesser quality that would never be issued to white regiments. Similarly, USCT regiments often possessed several types of firearms, each of which required different ammunition. In battle, such differences caused difficulties soldiers could ill afford. By the time of Beecher's letter to Stanton, the 35th had already participated in the Battle of Olustee and also in skirmishes, obviously without proper arms for the regiment. The need had become imperative, and Beecher had grown frustrated with waiting. At the close of the letter, Beecher asked for "prompt action in a case of pressing urgency." 25
The persistent colonel ultimately achieved his goal and the 35th received a shipment of new Springfield rifles during the summer of 1864. Nonetheless, inspecting officers from the Assistant Inspector General's Office, Department of the South, questioned the supply of arms in their inspection report dated September 9, 1864. The report noted that "deficiencies in arms were numerous." However, Beecher disagreed with this finding. On September 22, 1864, he responded, "Every enlisted man has a new Springfield Rifle and 26 Rifles are in hands of the Colonel Commanding as surplus. The deficiency is therefore [not apparent]." Despite the fact that Beecher's requisition for arms finally had arrived, official inspectors still saw a need for more, or superior, rifles. 26
Black regiments and their officers confronted numerous shortages in addition to weapons. Like most USCT regiments, the 35th did not possess adequate clothing and equipment. On the same day Beecher requested weapons, he also wrote Lieutenant Colonel Fuller, the chief quartermaster of the Department of the South, about another pressing need. The soldiers of the 35th did not have an adequate supply of shoes. Writing from Jacksonville, Florida, Beecher reported, "I can obtain no shoes here of proper size and have respectfully to inquire if there are any shoes sizes from 9 to 14 which can be obtained." Beecher requested 200 pairs of shoes, if available, to be sent to the quartermasters department in Jacksonville for distribution to his men. After almost one year of service, the men of the 35th still needed proper arms, shoes, underclothing, and other equipment. Beecher worked to supply his men, but he could not do it alone. The War Department usually chose to supply white regiments over black ones. 27
Just as it did not properly equip black troops, the War Department also failed to establish a specific role for the 35th and other black regiments. Because the regiment did not have a clear mission, it became simple to reduce the men to constant fatigue duty rather than active service in fortifications or in field operations. Part of the problem for the 35th arose from insufficient training and drill in camp prior to leaving New Bern in July 1863. After embarking for Charleston and eventually making camp at North Folly Island, South Carolina, the regiment's orders gave little time for drill and training. The men of the 35th found themselves in situations of near constant fatigue duty and, in some cases, duty for white soldiers. On September 13, 1863, an enraged Beecher wrote to General Wild, complaining about the treatment of some of the 35th. The colonel of the 35th had received reports informing him that a detachment of the regiment was being used improperly while on fatigue duty at Morris Island. The detachment of sixty soldiers had been ordered to report to a white regiment on the island, where the group was ordered to prepare camp for the white regiment. Furious about the treatment of his soldiers, Beecher sarcastically wrote that he believed white regiments normally "pitch their own tents and lay out their own camps." 28
Noting that, "it being (unless I am greatly in error) the custom of New York and other regiments to pitch their own tents and lay out their own camps a privilege, by the way, which my men have had little time to enjoy by reason of constant detail on fatigue," Beecher believed that his men should not be used as laborers for white soldiers. The incessant fatigue duty performed by the 35th had raised the sick list of the regiment from less than ten to almost 200 in a little more than a month. For a regiment already burdened with fatigue duty, Beecher protested against adding the duties of other regiments onto the shoulders of his men. Not only did the increased duties risk the health of the soldiers, but Beecher recognized the "injurious influence" that laboring for white soldiers would have upon black men not long out of slavery. "They have been slaves and are just learning to be men," Beecher declared. The colonel firmly believed that forcing blacks to perform the duty of white soldiers would bring back both the mental and physical aspects of slavery for black soldiers and thwart their progress as soldiers. 29
Beecher hoped to prevent similar events from happening to his troops and requested that Wild forward his protest to the commanding general of the department. "If these men do their duty in the trenches, and in the field," wrote Beecher, "I do not believe that he [the commanding officer] will make them hewers of wood and drawers of water for those who do no more." 30
Angry at what he considered to be misuse of his men, Beecher did not hesitate to show his indignation. The colonel of the 35th believed that his men had not been recruited and trained to do menial labor for white troops. He strongly supported his troops and thought that reducing them to serving white soldiers took away some of the freedom they were fighting to win. Possessing no respect for whites who treated black soldiers in such a manner, Beecher hoped Wild would remedy the situation. Wild responded to Beecher's letter, "I have given instruction that the officers of fatigue details from my command shall disregard such orders hereafter. But I forward the complaint trusting that all such abuses will in future be authoritatively corrected from Hd. Qrs." Wild forwarded Beecher's complaint to commanding officer Brigadier General Israel Vodges who took note of the incident. Vodges responded to Beecher two days later, first commenting that Beecher's letter lacked proper respect. Despite this, Vodges recognized the "important military principle which it asserts" and expressed his concern over the alleged misuse of Beecher's men. Not only did Vodges recognize of the impact of the mistreatment of black soldiers, but he also observed that it "can not but exercise an unfavorable influence with the minds of both of the white and black troops." Allowing white soldiers to treat black troops in this manner could only worsen the racism that already existed. 31
General Vodges believed that the misuse of Beecher's men arose from insufficient training. Because the men had not been adequately trained as soldiers, their bodies were seen by veterans as workhorses. Vodges did not support the maltreatment of black troops by whites, but found the solution in further training for black soldiers. He instructed, "If possible I deem it desirable that opportunities be given to drill and instruct the colored troops in their duties as soldiers. I am aware that hitherto the amount of fatigue imposed upon this command has prevented this being done. I hope however that in the future a fair opportunity may be given for instruction." Also stationed at Folly Island, the 55th Colored Massachusetts troops likewise encountered extreme fatigue duty that allowed limited time for further training. At times, black soldiers faced fire from enemy sharpshooters while performing fatigue duty. A soldier of the 55th described the hazards of such duty in a January 12, 1864 letter to the Weekly Anglo-African. He detailed:
I do not hesitate to assert, sir, that it requires a higher standard
courage to perform fatigue duty under fire, than to go into battle.
When men are exposed to a galling fire of artillery and sharpshooters,
with no means of returning it and bear themselves in a cool and soldierly
manner, doing their duty without a complaint, and when that duty is
forced upon them, both day and night, for weeks without intermission,
they may justly lay claim to some credit. And this was the manner in
which the 55th Mass. and 1st N.C. Colored Volunteers, were initiated
into the duties of soldiers in active service in the field, by being
subjected to hard labor under a heavy cross fire of solid shot and
shell, without any other means of showing to their unseen foes their
determination, than what would be, and ultimately was, shown, by
the result of their patient and faithful labor-the fall of Wagner and Gregg. 32
Beecher recognized the heavy strain placed on the men by continuous fatigue duty such as the soldier of the 55th described, but believed a more significant problem existed. The real issue, according to Beecher, concerned the discriminatory attitude of white soldiers towards blacks. Beecher noted that the men mistreating black soldiers considered themselves "gentlemen." He obviously did not think "gentlemen" the proper title for these men, and did what he could to make his point heard by others in the United States Army. Beecher's complaint to Wild vividly described his frustration, and according to Vodges, was "somewhat wanting in proper respect due his superior." Beecher firmly believed in the men of the 35th and defended his troops whenever necessary. Unfortunately, he could not single-handedly fight the prejudices and misconceptions held by others in the army against black soldiers. 33
Despite all the problems that the 35th faced in the first year of existence, the regiment managed to survive and even participate in a major battle and a few skirmishes with the enemy. Though not properly outfitted, dressed, or trained, the men of the 35th tasted real battle-the battle of Olustee in Florida-and knew they could handle it. The 35th suffered heavy casualties in the battle, a situation worsened because the only doctor on duty for the regiment was too drunk to perform his duties. The men of the 35th may not have been suitably trained in the early months of existence, but practical experience taught them nearly everything necessary in order to make it as soldiers. All they needed was the opportunity. Many continued to question the abilities of black soldiers. Fortunately for the 35th, their regimental officers supported them and were willing, especially Colonel Beecher, to fight for their equal status in the army. 34
** Go to Chapter Three **
1. John A Andrew to Edwin M. Stanton, April 1, 1863, in the Negro in the Military Service of the United States, 1639-1889, 5 reels, National Archives Microfilm Publication (hereafter cited as NIMS, reel:frame) 3:1158; Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 136.
2. Andrew to Stanton, April 1, 1863, NIMS 3:1158: Richard Reid, "Raising the African Brigade: Early Black Recruitment in Civil War North Carolina," North Carolina Historical Review 70 (July, 1993): 275.
3. Ibid.; Edward Longacre, "Brave Radical Wild: The Contentious Career of Brigadier Edward A. Wild," Civil War Times Illustrated, 19 (June, 1980): 9-10.
4. Longacre, "Brave Radical Wild," 10; Russell Duncan, ed., Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1992), 321, 323.
5. James C. Beecher, Compiled Military Service Record, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, Record Group 94 (hereafter abbreviated as RG), National Archives, Washington D.C.; Descriptive Books, 35th Regiment United States Colored Troops (USCT), RG 94.
6. Major General David Hunter to John A. Andrew, May 4, 1863, in NIMS, 3:1219, 1220.
7. H. M. Mintz to Major General Quincy Gilmore, November 17, 1863, Descriptive Books, 35th Regiment USCT, RG 94.
8. William N. Reed, Compiled Military Service Record, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, RG 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; Cornish, The Sable Arm, 112; Quarles, The Negro in the Civil War, 195.
9. Archibald Bogle, Compiled Military Service Record, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's -1917, RG 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
10. John A. Andrew to Edwin M. Stanton, February 3, 1863 in NIMS, 3:1082.
11. John V. DeGrasse, Compiled Military Service Record, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, RG 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
12. Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952 ), 130-131.
13. Joe A. Mobley, ed., The Papers of Zebulon Baird Vance, Volume 2, 1863 (Raleigh, North Carolina: Division of Archives and History, 1995), 222-223.
14. Beth Gilbert Crabtree and James W. Patton, eds., "Journal of a Secesh Lady:" The Diary of Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston (Raleigh, North Carolina: Division of Archives and History, 1979), 357, 397; Ira Berlin, Barbara Fields, Steven F. Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds. Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992),142-143.
15. Crabtree and Patton, "Journal of a Secesh Lady", 397.
16. Order Books, Companies A to E, 35th Regiment USCT, RG 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
17. Edwin S. Redkey, ed., A Grand Army of Black Men (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 92.
18. John A. Andrew to Edwin M. Stanton, April 1, 1863, in NIMS 3:1158.
19. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle, 182-184.
20. Descriptive Books, 35th Regiment USCT, RG 94.
22. Order Books, Companies A to E, 35th Regiment USCT, RG 94.
23. Descriptive Book, 35th Regiment USCT, RG 94.
25. Ibid.; Glatthaar, Forged in Battle, 185-187; Cornish, The Sable Arm, 195.
26. Inspection Report, Assistant Inspector General's Office, Department of the South, Hilton Head, South Carolina, September 9, 1864; Box 29, United States Colored Troops Regimental Papers, 35th and 36th United States Colored Infantry; RG 94.
27. Descriptive Books, 35th Regiment USCT, RG 94.
28. Ira Berlin, Joseph Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Series 2: The Black Military Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 493.
31. Ibid., 494.
32. Ibid., 494; Noah Andre Trudeau, Voices of the 55th: Letters from the 55th Massachusetts Volunteers, 1861-1865 (Dayton, Ohio: Morningside House, Inc., 1996), 56-57.
33. Berlin, et. al., eds., Freedom, Series 2, 494.
34. Descriptive Books, 35th Regiment USCT, RG 94.
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