The USCT as Prison Guards (Part 34) by Bill Vallante

A Google search of “USCT [United States Colored Troops] and Prison Guards” yielded over 3000 hits. Of the first ten, one “hit” made brief mention of the behavior of African American guards at Point Lookout, claiming that it was sometimes “brutal” but also sometimes “kind.” Another hit stressed the ‘important’ part the USCT guards played in the war effort, i.e., “they prevented captured Confederates from rejoining the war,” which I have to admit is one of the most creative attempts I’ve ever seen at turning a mundane task into a war-winning feat of incredible achievement.

It gets even better though, because still another “hit” praised the 200 black guards at Elmira for guarding over 12000 Confederates! I wonder if any of them got the Congressional Medal of Honor for pinning down 12000 unarmed, emaciated, freezing men? Any more embellishment and the story would have been easily confused with 200 men holding off thousands at the Alamo. And in another hit, there is actually a mention of a Confederate being shot by a guard at Point Lookout, but according to the writer, the prisoner was being “unprofessional” because he shouted “racial slurs.” What can I say? It is impossible to argue with “logic” such as this!

Now, a reality check – The United States Colored Troops displayed the same human failings as the white troops on either side. They were not mythic, they were not “angels” in blue, and they were not “boy scouts.” I am a firm believer in “equal time,” and quite simply, it is “time” for a little of that here. It seems that no one else is willing to look objectively at the down side of their behavior and performance, so allow me. Here is a quick look at them in their roles as prison guards. My purpose is less to issue a general condemnation of them, and more to provide a little balance among the stories that are currently being told.

“Southern Historical Society Papers,” Vol 1. Richmond, Virginia, April, 1876. No. 4 ”The Treatment Of Prisoners During The War Between The States.”

“The affidavit of Thomas E. Gilkerson states that negro soldiers were promoted to corporals for shooting white prisoners at Point Lookout, where he was a prisoner…..…That negroes were placed on guard. That while on guard, a negro called a prisoner over the dead line, which the prisoner did not recognize as such, and the negro shot him dead, and went unpunished…..That shooting prisoners without cause or provocation, was of frequent occurrence by the negro guards.”

“Southern Historical Society Papers,” Vol. VII. Richmond, Virginia. August 1879. No. 8. “Prison Experience.” By James T. Wells, Sgt. Co. A, 2nd South Carolina Infantry.

“…A guard of negroes was sent through the camp to search for it, and the manner in which they performed that duty was observable in the number of bleeding heads among the prisoners. They had beat them over the head in order to compel them to tell who did it. For this conduct, their officers praised them, and told them to shoot whenever they felt like doing so, and right well did they obey this order, as will be shown hereafter. Matters were thus proceeding from bad to worse. The shooting of a prisoner was looked upon as an every day affair, especially when said shooting was done by a negro. The colored troops came on guard only once in three days, and the day of their coming was always dreaded by the prisoners”

“Southern Historical Society Papers,”Vol. XVIII. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1890. ”Prison-Pens North” [From The Dispatch, June 21, 1891.] by Hon. A. M. Keiley.

“The negro guard would, almost without warning, fire among the prisoners, and this at last culminated in the murder of a poor, feeble old man named Potts, a prisoner, one of the most harmless creatures in the pen. He was hailed by one of the guard while approaching his ward, ordered to stop, and shot dead while standing still.”

“Southern Historical Society Papers.” Vol. XVIII. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1890. Point Lookout – Address before Pickett Camp Confederate Veterans, October 10, 1890.

BY PAST COMMANDER CHARLES T. LOEHR., [Richmond (Va.) Times, October 11, 1890.]

“Next our guards. As already stated, they were negroes who took particular delight in showing their former masters that "the bottom rail was on top." On one occasion one of the North Carolina men, who have a habit, which is shared by our Virginia country cousins, in whittling every wooden object they come across, was enjoying this sport on the prison gate, when one of the colored soldiers shot him down, nearly blowing his head off. This created some little excitement, but what the result was I never learned. During the day we had access to the sink built on piles in the bay, but at night the gates were closed, and boxes were placed in the lower part of the camp, to which the men were allowed to go at all hours of the night. There were hundreds of sick in camp, cases of violent diarrhœa, reducing the men to skeletons. As these men were compelled to frequent these boxes, the negroes would often compel them at the point of the bayonet to march around in double quick time, to carry them on their backs, to kneel and pray for Abe Lincoln, and forced them to submit to a variety of their brutal jokes, some of which decency would not permit me to mention…”

“Southern Historical Society Papers,” Vol. XXV. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1897. [From the Richmond, Va.. Times, August 22, 1897.],
Stories of Captain F. C. Barnes and Captain R. E. Frayser.

“We were guarded by negro troops commanded by Colonel Hallowell, who was a heartless man, and under him the most cruel treatment was experienced. We were not allowed any privileges, and often fired into by the guards for the most trivial offence and several men were wounded.”

****Special thanks to Bernard Thuersam of the “Cape Fear Historical Institute”, for the following reference:

“Rock Island Dungeon”
(Forty Hours In A Dungeon At Rock Island,” B.M. Hord, Nashville, TN. Confederate Veteran Magazine, August 1904, page 385

“When we arrived [as Confederate prisoners] at Rock Island, early in December 1863, Col. Rust was in command with a detachment of the Fourth Invalid Corps. He was a kind-hearted old fellow and just to the prisoners; but unfortunately for us the old Colonel was soon removed, and in his place came as inhuman a brute as ever disgraced the uniform of any country, one A.J. Johnson, with his regiment of Negroes for guard duty, leaving the Fourth Invalid men…for light fatigue duty.

Men were brutally punished upon the slightest pretext. I saw prisoners tied up to the fence by their thumbs, their toes barely touching the ground in the hot, broiling sun until they would faint, and when cut down by the guards, fall limp and unconscious. While none of us dared approach for they were next to the fence, over the dead line and grinning Negro sentinels stood just above them with ready guns in hand. …”

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