To Die By The Flag Rather Than Disgrace It: Black Mississippians in the Union Army

 

Although this blog is officially dedicated to the Mississippians who served in the Confederate army, there will be times when I stray somewhat from the topic, and guess what, this is one of those times. My interest in Civil War Mississippi is not limited to just Confederate topics, and I think it would be a grave injustice not to mention another group of Mississippians who fought in the Civil War. At the time the conflict started, African Americans made up the majority of the population of Mississippi, but not as citizens – they were property. They had no rights to speak of, the toil of their labors went to make wealth for others, and they could be separated from loved ones for life at the whim of their owner. Thus when the Union army entered Mississippi and began  recruiting black soldiers, it is not surprising that they enlisted by the thousands. This is their story.

At the beginning of the Civil War blacks rushed to join the U.S. Army, but were turned away because of a 1792 law that barred Negroes from joining, even though blacks had been allowed to serve during the American Revolution and War of 1812.

The active recruitment of blacks into the U.S. Army began after President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation following the Union victory in the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862.  Volunteers from South Carolina, Tennessee, and Massachusetts filled the first authorized black regiments.

On March 26, 1863, the U.S. Secretary of War issued an order directing Adjutant General

Recruiting poster for African American Soldiers

Lorenzo Thomas to organize black regiments in the Mississippi Valley.  On May 22, the War Department established a Bureau of Colored Troops to handle the recruitment, organization, and service of black regiments.

Although there were a few black units recruited earlier, the majority of black regiments were organized in Mississippi after the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.  On July 11, Major General Henry W. Halleck, General-in-Chief of all the Union armies, wrote to Ulysses S. Grant offering his advice on how best to defend the Mississippi River:  “The Mississippi should be the base of future operations east and west.  When Port Hudson falls, the fortifications of that place, as well as of Vicksburg, should be so arranged as to be held by the smallest possible garrisons, thus leaving the mass of troops for operations in the field.  I suggest that colored troops be used as far as possible in the garrisons.  – Official Records, Series 1, Volume 24, Part 3, 497.

Halleck was not the only one suggesting that blacks be recruited for garrison duty in the Mississippi Valley.  On August 9, 1863, General Grant received a letter from Abraham Lincoln in which the president informed him, “General [Lorenzo] Thomas has gone again to the Mississippi Valley, with the view of raising colored troops.  I have no reason to doubt that you are doing what you reasonably can upon the same subject.  I believe it is a resource which, if vigorously applied now, will soon close this contest.  It works doubly – weakening the enemy and strengthening us.  We were not fully ripe for it until the river was opened.  Now I think at least 100,000 can and ought to be organized along its shores, relieving all the white troops to serve elsewhere.” – Official Records, Series 1, Volume 24, Part 3, Page 584.

Black Mississippians, almost all former slaves, responded to Union recruiting efforts by

CDV of Tom Dare of the 58th United States Colored Troops, taken at Washington, Mississippi, July 1865.

enlisting by the thousands.  Officially credited to the state was one regiment of cavalry, two regiments of heavy artillery, and five regiments of infantry.  All told Mississippi was listed as having 17,869 black men serve during the Civil War.  This number is certainly low however, for in addition to the units officially credited to the state, there were at least six regiments credited to other states that were partially recruited in Mississippi, and two regiments mustered directly into Federal service that were raised largely in Mississippi.

The regiments officially credited to Mississippi were as follows:

CAVALRY

1st Mississippi Cavalry, African Descent; later designated the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry.

HEAVY ARTILLERY

1st Mississippi Heavy Artillery, African Descent; later designated the 5th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery.

2nd Mississippi Heavy Artillery, African Descent; later designated the 6th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery.

INFANTRY

1st Mississippi Infantry, African Descent; later designated the 51st U.S. Colored Infantry.

2nd Mississippi Infantry, African Descent; later designated the 52nd U.S. Colored Infantry.

3rd Mississippi Infantry, African Descent; later designated the 53rd U.S. Colored Infantry.

4th Mississippi Infantry, African Descent; later designated the 66th U.S. Colored Infantry.

6th Mississippi Infantry, African Descent; later designated the 58th U.S. Colored Infantry.

The two regiments raised directly into Federal service from Mississippi were:

70th U.S. Colored Infantry – one of the white officers in this unit was Lieutenant Anson T. Hemingway, grandfather of the writer Ernest Hemingway.

71st U.S. Colored Infantry

The black men who served in the Union army from Mississippi had to overcome many obstacles, not the least of which was the prejudice of white soldiers in their own army.  Many whites were very upset at the thought of having to serve side by side with black soldiers, and they could be very vocal about it.  Typical of this mentality was the reaction of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Rust of the 13thMaine Infantry when he learned that black

Lt. Col. Henry Rust Jr., 13th Maine Infantry

soldiers from the 2nd Louisiana Native Guards were joining his men for duty on Ship Island, off the coast of Mississippi.  Rust wrote in his diary, “ ‘Nigger on the brain.’ No, I have not got that.  It has stuck to my stomach and gone all over me.  The feeling of certainty that I have got to leave my two good companies here to come into collision with these niggers has made me feel homesick, and I have serious thoughts of resigning.” – January 13, 1863; Transcript of this diary is at Gulf Islands National Seashore in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

There were many other injustices that black soldiers had to learn to live with in the army.  Blacks typically served in regiments under white officers; only the non-commissioned officers were black.  Black soldiers were also paid less than white soldiers; a black private received 10.00 per month, of which 3.00 was deducted for a clothing allowance.  White privates received 13.00 per month, with no deduction for a clothing allowance.  It wasn’t until June 1864 that Congress granted equal pay to black soldiers.

The Black troops saw only limited combat during the Civil War because many whites believed they would be unreliable in a fight, and thus most were relegated to support roles doing manual labor.  In a letter dated November 3, 1864, Captain O. J. Wright wrote about the heavy labor required of the 50th and 52nd Colored Infantry Regiments at Vicksburg:  “The bad condition of clothing, arms and accoutrements is mainly attributable to the heavy guard and fatigue duty that is required of these troops, giving them no chance for improvement in discipline, instruction and the duties of a soldier, or time to clean and take proper care of their arms and accoutrements…Out of eight hundred and forty-two privates for duty, seven hundred and eighteen are on duty.”  – Quoted in Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, edited by Ira Berlin, page 504.

A company of African American soldiers at Vicksburg during the Union occupation of the city, circa 1864-1865 – Old Court House Museum, Vicksburg

In addition to the prejudice they faced from their own army, black soldiers and their officers faced the very real threat of harsh punishment if captured by Confederates on the battlefield.  On May 1, 1863, the Confederate Congress authorized President Jefferson Davis to have captured officers of Negro regiments “put to death or be otherwise punished at the discretion” of a military tribunal.  Black enlisted men were to “be delivered to the authorities of the state or states in which they shall be captured to be dealt with according to the present or future laws of such state or states.”  This could mean death or sale into slavery.  This was not just an idle threat as there were numerous instances of Confederates killing captured Negro soldiers. – Official Records, Series 2, Volume 5, Pages 940-941.

David Holt of the 16th Mississippi Infantry described the reaction his comrades had the first time they faced blacks in combat in Virginia:  “The Yanks hurled a heavy force at the point where the fort had been blown up, Negro troops in the lead.  They were the first we had seen and the sight of a nigger in a blue uniform and with a gun was more than ‘Johnnie Reb’ could stand.  The visage of his countenance was changed liked Nebuchadnezzar of old, and he was filled with fury.  I looked around at my comrades and noticed the change, but fury had taken possession of me also, and I knew that I felt as ugly as they looked.” – A Mississippi Rebel In The Army of Northern Virginia, pg. 287.

The Battle of the Crater as depicted by artist Don Troiani

The Black soldiers who joined the Union army had the very strongest motivation – the freedom of their race.  When the 1st Alabama Infantry, African Descent, mustered into United States service at Corinth, Mississippi in 1863, Color Bearer Rufus Campbell gave a speech in which he explained why he joined the service; a newspaper reporter recorded it thus:  “The burden of his speech was thankfulness for the privilege of becoming free, through the agency of their strong right arms; exhortation to his fellows to show themselves worthy to be free; and expression of determination to die by the flag they had received rather than disgrace it.  Having felt through a long life, the evils of slavery, he rejoiced at the opportunity of rescuing his children from such a fate.  ‘Why,’ said he, ‘there’s not much blood in  a man any how, and, if he is not willing to give for the freedom of his children and friends, he does not deserve to be called a man.” – Cincinnati Gazette, June 29, 1863.  A copy is in the Corinth subject file at MDAH.

Despite the many obstacles placed in their path, black Mississippians fought very well when finally given the chance.  The first fighting involving black troops in Mississippi that I have been able to find occurred on April 9, 1863, when Union forces made a raid on East Pascagoula, Mississippi.  The 2nd Louisiana Native Guards, a black unit stationed on Ship Island, landed at East Pascagoula with 180 officers and men and ran up the United States flag over a large hotel.  Confederates in the area made an attack on the 2nd Louisiana, hoping to drive them into the sea.  The black soldiers put up a strong defense however, driving off the Rebels, killing and wounding a number, capturing three prisoners, and a stand of colors.

Colonel Nathan W. Daniels, commander of the 2nd Louisiana, later wrote in his official report of the battle that the regiment was “attacked by the Confederate cavalry, some 300 strong, and one company of infantry.  Repulsed them after a severe fight, killing 20 or more, and wounding a large number, capturing 3 prisoners and the Confederate Colors.  Held the town until 2 p.m., frequent skirmishes occurring meanwhile, when I withdrew my forces to the boat…Loss in battle, 2 killed and 5 slightly wounded.” – Official Records, Series 1, Volume 52, Part 1, Page 61.

In a congratulatory order to his men published after the battle, Colonel Daniels told them, “You have tested the question of your nations valor, and demonstrated to it fullest extent the capacity – the bravery – the endurance and the nobility of your race, and taught the malignant foe that a centuries oppression has not extinguished your manhood or suppressed your love of liberty, and that you have still a hand to wield the sword, and a heart to vitalize its blow.” – Thank God My Regiment An African One.

The first black Mississippi regiment to see combat was the 1st Mississippi Infantry, African Descent, at the battle of Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, just upriver from Vicksburg, on June 7, 1863.

While General Grant was invading Mississippi in the Spring of 1863, the supply line keeping his army stocked with food and ammunition ran back to Louisiana, and one of the key points in this line was Milliken’s Bend.  The Union troops defending the area consisted of the 8th, 9th, 11th, and 13th Louisiana Infantry Regiments, African Descent, and the 1st Mississippi Infantry, African Descent, and the 23rd Iowa Infantry; Colonel Hermann Lieb commanded this force.

The black troops at Milliken’s Bend were all recent recruits and were poorly trained and haphazardly armed.  The 1st Mississippi had been in service less than a month at the time of the battle, and many did not know how to properly load and fire their weapons.  The Union soldiers did have the advantage of a fairly strong defensive position, based around the levee ditches near the Mississippi River reinforced with cotton bales and obstacles an attacker would have to overcome.  Also the army troops had the support of the U.S.S. Choctaw, a navy ironclad just off shore.  All told the Union force at Milliken’s Bend amounted to 1,061 men.

Illustration from HARPER’S WEEKLY depicting the Battle of Milliken’s Bend

On June 7, 1863, a Confederate force commanded by Brigadier General Henry McCullough leading 1,500 battle-hardened Texans attacked the garrison at Milliken’s Bend.  After advancing to within 25 paces of the main Federal line McCullough ordered a charge shouting, “No quarter for the officers, kill the damned abolitionists, spare the niggers.”  Musketry from the Union defenders slammed into the attacking Confederates, but most of the men were so green they only got off one or two shots before the Texans were among them.  The fighting then dissolved into a very brutal hand-to-hand fight using bayonets and muskets as clubs.

Union Brigadier General Elias S. Dennis later wrote of this hand-to-hand fighting,

Brigadier General Elias S. Dennis

Here ensued a most terrible hand-to-hand conflict of several minutes duration, our men using the bayonet freely and clubbing their guns with fierce obstinancy, contesting every inch of ground…” – Official Records, Series 1, Volume 24, Part 2, Page 447.

Eventually the Federals were forced to retreat towards the river; the Confederates pursued, but were driven off by the powerful cannon blasts from the U.S.S. Choctaw.  The casualties at Milliken’s Bend reflected the brutal combat involved; the Confederates had 44 killed, 131 wounded, and 10 missing.  The Federals had 101 killed, 285 wounded, and 266 captured or missing.  Casualties in the 1st Mississippi Infantry were 3 killed and 21 wounded.

Captain M. M. Miller of the 9th Louisiana Infantry, African Descent, wrote immediately after the battle, “I never more wish to hear the expression ‘The niggers won’t fight.’ Come with me 100 yards from where I sit and I can show you the wounds that cover the bodies of 16 as brave, loyal, and patriotic soldiers as ever drew bead on a rebel.” – Official Records, Series 3, Volume 3, Page 454.

The significance of the battle of Milliken’s Bend was not that a Union supply route had been saved; by the time of the fight, Grant already had an alternate supply route. The real importance of Milliken’s Bend was that it proved to many whites that blacks did have the courage and determination to fight the Rebels if only given the chance.

The Black Mississippi regiment that probably saw the most combat was the 1st Mississippi Cavalry, African Descent, later designated the 3rd United States Colored Cavalry.  While the black infantry and artillery units from the state were tied down in garrison duty, the 1st, the only black cavalry unit raised from Mississippi, was participating in raids in which they traveled the length and breadth of the state and into Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee as well.  During the course of the war the unit participated in over a dozen major raids into Confederate territory and fought numerous skirmishes.  The 1st Mississippi Cavalry had 37 men killed in action and 367 who died from disease and other causes.

On October 13, 1864, the Vicksburg Daily Herald reported on a recent raid in which the unit was engaged and said of them, “We learn the black horse cavalry (U.S. 3d Colored) under gallant leader Maj. Cook, captured the three pieces of artillery which were brought here as the trophies of the late fight near Woodville, Miss.  It has been the custom of some white folks to underrate the courage of the negro soldiers, but we have heard officers and men of white commands who have been in action with the 3d Colored Cavalry say that they are as good fighters as there are in the U.S. army, and under the lead of the chivalrous Cook, they will charge to the cannon’s mouth.

Rebel prisoners being led into Vicksburg by the 3rd United States Colored Cavalry

One of the most interesting battles involving black soldiers in Mississippi was the battle of Coleman’s Plantation in Jefferson County on July 4, 1864.  This is one of the first times, and may be the first time, that white Mississippians fought black Mississippians.

A Union force of 2,000 men, including the 48th and 52nd United States Colored Infantry, took part in a raid to Jefferson County to tie down all of the Confederate forces in the area and prevent them from being used against a Union raiding force that was advancing on Jackson at the same time.  On July 4th , a Confederate force of 400 men led by Colonel Robert C. Wood Jr. attacked the Union raiders near Coleman’s Plantation, and the fighting raged all day long.  Late in the afternoon the Confederate attack was finally smashed in a cornfield near the Rodney Road.  The two black regiments played a vital part in repulsing this attack, and as the Rebels retreated, one of the black regiments advanced with the cry, “Fort Pillow! Remember Fort Pillow! No quarter! No quarter!.”  They were referring to the battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee in which the victorious Confederates killed surrendering black soldiers.

The Union raid into Jefferson County did exactly what it was supposed to do – tie up as many Confederates as possible, and the fighting done by the 48th and 52nd Colored

Unidentified Black infantryman from the collections of the Library of Congress

Infantry Regiments was noticed.  In an article about the battle in the Vicksburg Daily Herald, the writer stated, “The colored troops fought like tigers often clubbing the enemy down with the buts of their muskets.  No cowardice was shown by any of the command, and all acted with the most determined bravery & coolness.” – July 7, 1864.

Even one of the Confederate Officers involved in the fight was forced to admit that the black soldiers had fought well.  In a letter dated July 9, 1864, Major Elijah A. Peyton, who commanded a battalion of Confederate Mississippi cavalrymen at Coleman’s wrote: “After dark we pursued the enemy to within two miles of Rodney, driving him to his Gun Boats.  The Negro Troops contested obstinately Every inch of ground.” – Record Group 9, R151/B16/S3/315, MDAH.

As the war continued, Black troops played an increasingly important role in defending the Union garrisons in Mississippi.  For example, by the spring of 1864 there were 320 officers and 5,854 men from black regiments stationed at Vicksburg, which was one-half of the city’s garrison.

Soldiers of the 64th United States Colored Troops in Camp at Davis Bend, just south of Vicksburg – Library of Congress

During the remainder of the war the black troops stationed in Mississippi continued to make a good name for themselves in combat.  They participated in the battle of Brice’s Crossroads in June 1864 and the Tupelo Campaign in July 1864, and in both cases fought very well.

An important aspect of the military service of blacks in Mississippi was that they proved they could fight just as well as a white man and had earned the right to citizenship. Frederick Douglass said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is not power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”  The black soldiers who served from Mississippi proved this statement to be true.

Soldiers from the 64th United States Colored Troops manning a defensive position at Davis Bend, just south of Vicksburg

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served the United States in uniform.  Nearly 40,000 of them died in service, 30,000 from infections or disease.

BLACK SAILORS

The service of black men in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War is often overlooked,

Unidentified Black sailor from the collections of the Library of Congress

because unlike the army that segregated blacks into their own units, the navy integrated them with white sailors.  It is difficult to determine exactly how many black men served in the Navy during the war because they were integrated, but the latest research shows 18,000 black men and 11 women were in that branch of service during the conflict.

At the start of the Civil War black enlistments in the navy were limited to 5% of the enlisted force, but only 2.5% were black.  By the third quarter of 1863 this number had risen until blacks made up 23% of the enlisted force.

The navy not only enlisted black men but black women as well to serve as cooks, bakers, and laundresses.  Some of them served as nurses aboard the U.S.S. Red Rover, the navy’s first hospital ship; at least nine black women served on this ship, five as nurses and four as laundresses.

U.S.S. Red Rover – National Library of Medicine

With the opening of he Mississippi River a major goal of the U.S. Navy, many Mississippi blacks had the opportunity to join that branch of service, but the exact number that served in the navy is not known.

On black Mississippi sailor did win the nation’s highest award for valor; The Medal of Honor.  Wilson Brown was a Landsman from Natchez serving on the U.S.S. Hartford

The grave of Landsman Wilson Brown in the Natchez National Cemetery

when he won the award for his actions during the battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864.  His Medal of Honor citation reads, “Knocked unconscious into the hold of the ship when an enemy shellburst fatally wounded a man on the ladder above him, Brown, upon regaining consciousness, promptly returned to perform his duties although 4 of the 6 men at this station had been either killed or wounded by the enemy’s terrific fire.”  Brown died in 1900 and is buried in the Natchez National Cemetery.

 

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4 thoughts on “To Die By The Flag Rather Than Disgrace It: Black Mississippians in the Union Army

  1. Jim

    Excellent summary, Jeff!

  2. A site to read for all–especially our parents, children, and grandchildren for generations to come. F.R.W./Founder and President of the Jacksonville African American Genealogy Society

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