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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Gallant Sons of Mississippi: The 21st Mississippi Infantry at the Battle of Savage Station, Virginia

As the sun dipped low in the Virginia sky and the shadows lengthened over the Savage Station battlefield, the 21st Mississippi Infantry quickened their pace and raced the dying light, desperate to make contact with their enemies in blue before darkness ended the killing that day.

The Mississippians were spoiling for a fight – the regiment had been organized in the summer of 1861, and during their year of service the men had yet to be engaged in combat against the Union army.[1]

Any thoughts the men might have had that darkness was about to rob them of another chance to see the elephant abruptly ended as a regiment of blue-clad soldiers emerged from a pine thicket and “formed a line as accurately as though done with a tape line.”[2]

Although lacking combat experience, the 21st was well trained, and an expertly directed volley lit the twilight and sent a wave of lead missiles slamming into the Yankee   line.  The Federals responded in kind, filling the air with “…a terrible shower of shell & musket shots” that ripped through the ranks of the 21st with destructive effect.[3]

Darkness quickly ended the engagement, but the brief outburst of violence left it’s mark on the 21st Mississippi – in the action at Savage Station, July 29, 1862, the regiment had fifteen men killed and sixteen wounded.[4]

The Battle of Savage Station - Library of Congress

The losses at Savage Station, as bad as they were, turned out to be a bloody foreshadowing of things to come. For the 21st Mississippi, the future held for them, just two days hence, the bloodiest battle of the entire war; Malvern Hill.

The individual companies that comprised the 21st Mississippi Infantry were organized in the spring of 1861, and they traveled individually to Richmond after tendering their services to Jefferson Davis.  They were formed into a regiment by mid-September, and in the unit election the men chose Captain Benjamin G. Humphreys of Company I to be their Colonel.[5]

Although a pre-war Whig and opponent of secession, Humphreys cast his lot with

Benjamin Grubb Humphreys - Library of Congress

hisnative state saying, “All I held dear on earth family, friends and property welded me to that soil by the strongest cement of nature.[6]  Very popular with his men, Humphreys only military experience was a one year stint at the United States Military Academy.  Admitted in 1825, he was expelled the next year for participating in a Christmas Eve cadet riot.[7]

Soon after the completion of their regimental organization, the 21st Mississippi was ordered to join a brigade consisting of the 13th, 17th and 18th Mississippi Infantry regiments, commanded by Brigadier General Richard Griffith.[8]  The brigade of Mississippians was ordered to Leesburg, Virginia, on November 19, 1861, and the 21st Mississippi remained there with the brigade until March 1862.  Colonel Humphreys said that the regiment’s time at Leesburg was spent “…in the drudgery of building forts, rifle pits, and picketing the Potomac with the Fed. Army in sight.”[9]

"A Camp in the Woods Near Leesburg" - Library of Congress

The boredom of garrison life ended abruptly when Major General George B. McClellan launched the Peninsular Campaign to capture Richmond.  Griffith’s Brigade was ordered south to help defend the beleaguered city, and the 21st Mississippi was set on the course that would take them to Malvern Hill.[10]

The Union operation to take Richmond began on March 17, 1862, when McClellan began

Fort Monroe, Virginia - Library of Congress

to ferry his troops to the Virginia peninsula between the York and James Rivers at Fort Monroe.[11]  In anticipation of a Yankee advance General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, began pulling his troops stationed in advanced positions near Washington back towards Richmond.[12]  The 21st Mississippi, with their brigade evacuated Leesburg on March 9, and began a retreat south to the Rapidan River.[13]

The Union army began their advance from Fort Monroe on April 4, and three days later General Griffith was ordered to take his Mississippians to the peninsula to man

Brigadier General Richard Griffith commanded the brigade to which the 21st Mississippi belonged. He was killed during the Battle of Savage Station. - Library of Congress

fortifications near Yorktown.[14]  By the time the regiment reached Yorktown, they found the Yankee advance stalled in front of the Rebel fortifications along the Warwick River.[15]

The standoff along the Warwick lasted nearly a month, and during the long delay the 21st spent much of their time on picket duty, trading shots with the Yankees.  Private James Downs of Company D told his parents of one incident in which the regiment’s skirmishers made contact with their blue-clad counterparts:

…and then we had some fun, it was look out rebel for yankee and yankee look out for rebel and it was everybody’s business to protect himself with a tree in order to evade the balls of the enemy.[16]

Routine skirmish duty at Yorktown continued until the night of May 3, 1862, when General Johnston ordered his army of 56,600 men to evacuate and retire to the outskirts of Richmond.  McClellan finally had his heavy artillery emplaced and ready to blast the Confederate fortifications, making the Warwick River line untenable.[17]

The Union pursuit was sluggish, taking fifteen days to reach the Chickahominy River near the entrenched Rebel army.  McClellans command, numbering some 105,000 men, was substantially larger than the Confederate army defending Richmond, but in making his dispositions he placed two corps of his army on the south side of the Chickahominy, isolated and vulnerable to attack.  Johnston took advantage of this opportunity and attacked the exposed Union position at Seven Pines on May 31.[18]

The Battle of Seven Pines - Library of Congress

Once again the 21st Mississippi was fated to miss the action, arriving on the battlefield just as darkness put an end to the fighting.[19]  Private James T. Downs of Company D later wrote his mother a tongue in cheek letter asking her:

I wonder if you don’t pray that I may never get into a fight?  For I have been through every stage of a battle except a regular engagement – perhaps my time may come yet though when I can strike for my country.[20]

It was just as well that the 21st missed the battle, for Johnston’s plan went awry and in the end all the Confederates had to show for the battle was a heavy butcher’s bill – over 5,000 casualties, including General Johnston himself, who was seriously wounded.  The only positive result of the battle was that General Robert E. Lee was chosen as Johnston’s replacement.[21]

Reinforcements soon swelled Lee’s ranks to 92,400 – the largest force he commanded for the entire war, and the aggressive general planned to use his men to strike McClellan and seize the initiative in the campaign.[22]  McClellan actually beat him to the punch attacking at Oak Grove on June 25, 1862, starting the Seven Days Battles for Richmond.  Unruffled by this development, Lee fired back, hitting the Union army at Mechanicsville on June 26 and Gaines’s Mill on June 27-28.[23]

While Lee had most of his army attacking north of the Chickahominy River, Major

Major General John B. Magruder - Library of Congress

General John B. Magruder’s Division, of which the 21st Mississippi was a part, were south of the river, responsible for holding in place the 60,000 federal troops opposite them.  To keep them occupied, Magruder had with his division and other attached troops 25,000 men.[24]  While combat raged to the north, the 21st spent a relatively quiet time occupying an advanced picket line on the Nine Mile road, only 500 yards from the federals.[25]

Although Lee failed to inflict a mortal blow at Mechanicsville or Gaines’s Mill, McClellan decided on the night of June 27th his army had had enough and ordered a retreat to his new base on the James River.[26]  From their picket posts on the Nine Mile road, the 21st could clearly hear the sounds of an army in retreat; Colonel Humphreys later described the commotion saying,

The great noise, bustle, and apparent confusion within their lines on the evening during the night of the 28th June satisfied me that they were ‘skiddaddling’.  I reported the fact to Genl. Magruder between 8 & 9 Oclk.[27]

On June 29th when he was sure of McClellan’s direction of march, Lee ordered his army to begin the pursuit.  Magruder was ordered to advance to the east and maintain pressure on the enemy rear, these orders leading to the 21st’s baptism of fire at Savage Station.[28]

Compared to most of the actions the regiment was engaged in over the next three years, Savage Station could hardly be rated more that a sharp skirmish, but the fight there did have one important result: early in the day their brigade commander Richard Griffith, was hit by a stray shell fragment and killed.  The brigade’s senior colonel, William

Colonel William Barksdale took command of Griffith's Brigade after the general's death at Savage Station. - Library of Congress

Barksdale – a man of whom much would be heard before his own untimely death at Gettysburg, replaced him.  The 21st lost not only their brigade commander that day, but their Colonel as well, although in a less dramatic fashion.  Stricken with the flux, Benjamin Humphreys relinquished command to Lieutenant Colonel William L. Brandon.[29]

A large plantation owner with over 300 slaves, Brandon had no military experience prior to the war.  In the twilight years of his life at 62 years old, with three grown sons serving in the regiment beside him, his military skill was an unknown, but at least he looked the part of a soldier, standing 6’2 and weighing 200 pounds.[30]

McClellan’s army was in full flight for the James River, spread thin along the route of retreat.  Lee recognized any excellent opportunity to destroy the Yankees in detail and planned to concentrate 44,800 men and attack the crossroads of Glendale.  If successful, the Union line of retreat would be cut and the army ripe for destruction.  Under Lee’s plan, Magruder’s men were to serve as reserves for the battle, so the 21st would sit out another battle.[31]

Lee sent his gray columns forward to attack Glendale on June 30, 1862, but he was unable to get all of his troops into the battle.  His men were repulsed with heavy casualties, and the Army of the Potomac’s line of retreat was secure.[32]

The Battle of Glendale - Library of Congress

The 21st Mississippi marched to Glendale after dark, and slept on their arms amidst the dead and dying.  In line of battle before daylight, they advanced to find the enemy gone, but the respite was only temporary – the Mississippians had a date with destiny a few miles up the road at Malvern Hill where many a young and promising life would be extinguished in the blink of an eye.


[1] Rowland, Dunbar.  Military History of Mississippi 1803 – 1898 (Spartanburg, SC: The Reprint Company, 1978), 108-113.  Hereafter cited as Military History.

[2] Brandon, William L.  “Military Reminiscences of William L. Brandon.”  J. F. H. Claiborne Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.

[3] Humphreys, Benjamin G.  Letter to Richard T. Archer, 29 July 1862.  Catalog # Mss 1 Ar 247 a219, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA.

[4] Compiled Service Records Of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations From the State Of Mississippi;  21st Infantry;  Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Record Group 9, Microfilm Rolls 293-301.

[5] Rowland, Military History, 108-112.

[6] Rainwater, Percy Lee.  ed.  “The Autobiography of Benjamin Grubb Humphreys.”  Mississippi Valley Historical Review.  Volume 20  (September 1934): 244-245.

[7] Warner, Ezra J.  Generals in Gray.  (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1959), 145.

[8] Rowland, Military History.  112.

[9] Humphreys, Benjamin Grubb.  “Account of the Sunflower Guards.”  J. F. H. Claiborne Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Esposito, Vincent J., ed., The West Point Atlas of American Wars Volume 1 1689-1900 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1959), 39.  Cited hereafter as West Point Atlas.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Rowland, Military History, 112.

[14] Esposito, West Point Atlas, 39; Rowland, Military History, 112.

[15] Sears, Stephen W.  To the Gates of Richmond (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 36.

[16] Downs, James T.  Letter to Sarah Downs, 22 April 1862.  Located in the James Tickell Downs and Family Papers, Z 2099.000, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS.

[17] Sears, Stephen W.  To The Gates of Richmond  (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 59-60.

[18] West Point Atlas, 43.

[19] Humphreys, Benjamin Grubb.  “Account of the Sunflower Guards.”  J. F. H. Claiborne Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.

[20] Downs, James T.  Letter to mother, 9 June 1862.  Located in the James Tickell Downs and Family Papers, Z 2099.000, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS.  Cited hereafter as Downs Family Papers.

[21] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 138-139; 145.

[22] Ibid, 151-156.

[23] Boatner, Mark Mayo III.  The Civil War Dictionary (David McKay Company, 1959), 321 & 540-541.

[24] Ibid, 541.

[25] Humphreys, Benjamin G.  Letter to Richard T. Archer, 29 July 1862.  Catalog # Mss 1 Ar 247 a219, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA.

[26] West Point Atlas, 46.

[27] Humphreys, Benjamin G.  Letter to Richard T. Archer, 29 July 1862.  Catalog # Mss 1 Ar 247 a219, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA.

[28] West Point Atlas, 46.

[29] Humphreys, Benjamin Grubb.  “Account of the Sunflower Guards.”  J. F. H. Claiborne Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.

[30] Humphreys, Benjamin Grubb.  “Account of the Sunflower Guards.”  J. F. H. Claiborne Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.  Brandon, Robert L.  Letter to Mr. Perry, 2 June 1896.  Catalog # Z 1600, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS.

[31] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 278-279.

[32] Boatner, Civil War Dictionary, 914-916.

Reminiscences of the Battle of Spotsylvania

Some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire Civil War took place on May 12, 1864, at the Mule Shoe Salient in Spotsylvania, Virginia. Among the defenders of the Mule Shoe was Brigadier Nathaniel Harris’ brigade consisting of the 12th Mississippi Infantry, 16th Mississippi Infantry, 19th Mississippi Infantry, and 48th Mississippi Infantry. The carnage that took place in this one small piece of the battlefield was almost beyond belief: the fighting was hand to hand for nearly 20 hours, and hundreds of Mississippians were either killed or wounded.

While doing some research recently I found an article entitled, “Reminiscences of the Battle of Spottsylvania,” originally published by the Natchez Democrat, and picked up and republished by the Memphis Daily Avalanche on August 19, 1866. The author of the article is unknown, but he was probably a member of the 16th Mississippi Infantry, as that regiment had two companies from Natchez: Company D, the “Adams Light Guard No. 2,” and Company I, the “Adams Light Guard No. 1.” The author also specifically mentions casualties from the 16th in the article, so I am pretty confident he was a member of the regiment. Coming so soon after the war, the article is one man’s account of one of the bloodiest encounters of the war:

Reminiscences of the Battle of Spottsylvania

The 12th of May dawned like the day of Waterloo; the dark, wet clouds hung low and heavy upon the earth and seemed to struggle to prevent the advent of that day of blood and carnage. For seven days the fierce strife of battle had raged furious and incessant, and from the Rapidan to the Court House of Spottsylvania, the dead lay in heaps upon the gory field. The rain storm that occurred the night of the 11th, somewhat allayed the tumult of battle. It was during this storm, when naught could be heard but the rushing winds and descending rain, that the Federal General Hancock moved his corps silently to within a few rods of the Confederate entrenchments, at a silent angle on the left of the Court House. Here this corps rested on their arms until the first ray of light should give the signal for a desperate assault.

This sketch of the Spotsylvania Battlefield was made by Edwin Forbes on May 10, 1864. Library of Congress

No sooner does the first gleam of day light in the East the murky sky, than the Federals rise to their feet and advance upon the Confederate works. It is, but a short distance, and they are soon reached. The struggle is short; the Confederates, without previous intimation of the dangerous proximity of the foe, are taken partially by surprise, and, contending against overwhelming numbers, are soon overpowered. General Johnston, with his division and several batteries of artillery are captured, hundreds fall bravely fighting, and the works are lost. Now the Confederate line is severed at its centre, and the enemy is advancing steadily through the breach.

In the meantime the battle has become general from right to left, and the very earth trembles with the shock of artillery and small arms. Grant concentrates at this salient all his available force in the attempt to widen the breach and make complete the temporary but important advantage. The annals of war furnish perhaps no instance where the peril of an army was more imminent than is now that of the struggling Army of Northern Virginia; the fate of a nation rests upon it and trembles in the balance of probabilities. Reduced in numbers; exhausted with the constant vigilance of nights, this army would seem to be battling with the courage of desperation, even against destiny.

The great chieftain, mounted upon his iron gray battle steed, rapidly surveys the critical position of affairs. Riding impassively through shot and shell, with couriers and aides all around him on every side. his practiced eye penetrates the smoke of battle, while his

General Nathaniel Harris commanded the brigade of Mississippians who fought at the Mule Shoe Salient. Old Court House Museum, Vicksburg, Mississippi.

warrior mind plans the master stroke of war which is to pluck the laurel wreath of victory from the very jaws of defeat. Dispatching orders in various directions, he rides to the front of Harris’ brigade of Mississippians, (which is awaiting orders, having just arrived in double quick, from a remote part of the line,) and himself directs it to ‘fall in.’

Mahone’s Virginians are put in motion, and General Lee leads Harris’ Mississippians towards the deadly breach – the place of havoc. The dangers are thickening fast around the warrior chief, and his devoted troops murmur fervent prayers for his safety. Now a twelve pound solid shot comes shrieking through the air, and strikes the ground between the forefeet of the General’s horse, causing him to rear and plunge; the General still rides unmoved, but his followers, no longer willing that he should advance to be stricken down, now loudly remonstrate, saying, ‘go back, General, we will do our duty!’

Brigadier General Harris rides up and implores, then commands him to go back. Colonel Venable, of his staff, riding in front and seizing him, holds him in check, exclaiming, ‘General Lee, you must go back; your presence in this danger demoralizes the men.’ Then, says General Lee, turning to the moving column, ‘I will remain if you will drive the enemy from the works.’ ‘We will,’ was the deafening response. ‘Go on, brave men, God bless you,’ says the General, and the troops move forward with an all-conquering enthusiasm and sullen determination, which knows no defeat. They move to victory, though their path the while is strewed thickly with the bravest sons of Mississippi and South Carolina. In this charge were slain the gallant Colonel S.E. Baker and Lieutenant Colonel Feltus, of the 16th Mississippi regiment, and a large number of other Mississippians.

The works are taken and occupied as far as the small force can stretch its front. There is still a breach, but it is narrow, and so well defended on either side, that to attempt its

Remains of the tree that was cut down by rifle fire at Spotsylvania. National Park Service

passage, is to die. At the left extremity of this breach, where the battle raged with continued violence, was situated the famous Spottsylvania tree, twenty-two inches in diameter, which was cut down by Minnie bullets alone, during this battle. There are now a number of returned soldiers in Natchez who enjoy the proud distinction of having defended this point, where the dead, at the close of the engagement, were piled above the surface of the ditch.

Division after division of the enemy is pushed forward to widen the breach and retrieve the lost advantage, and is hurled back decimated and scattered, from the harvest of death. Companies and battalions are swept away, and trampled to the earth to rise no more. The Confederates are immovable in the midst of death. The battle continues with but slight intermission until the Confederates, having fulfilled the promise to their chieftain, and held the disputed point for nineteen hours, retire at daylight of the morning of the 13th, leaving the foe in possession of a vast Golgotha.

Thus closed the most destructive battle of the Confederate War for Independence.

The 16th Mississippi fought very bravely at the Mule Shoe, and had the casualties to show  for it – between May 6-12, the regiment had suffered 36 killed, 84 wounded, and 31 missing. The majority of those casualties took place during the fighting on May 12. The fighting took an especially heavy toll on the leadership of the regiment: Colonel Samuel E. Baker and Lieutenant Colonel Abram M. Feltus were both killed.

These wooden headboards mark the graves of the men from the 16th Mississippi Infantry who were killed at Spotsylvania. National Park Service.