The Worst Place to be? Perhaps the USCT! (Part 37) by Bill Vallante

In earlier articles, I attempted to reduce the USCT to more believable historical levels. Their contribution was not critical to the union’s success or failure, their performance was often not nearly as spectacular as portrayed in the movies, like their white counterparts, they were also subject to compulsory military duty, many didn’t even want to be there, and there was no shortage of them who were willing to engage in their own brand of atrocities.

Once again however, it’s time to bring the historical books into balance, and to do it this time, within my own series of articles. What kinds of conditions did USCT soldiers operate under?

Someone once asked me, “who would you have like to have been if you were alive during the civil war?” Can’t say that I have an answer for that question, but at least I do know who I would not have wanted to be – a USCT line soldier. Why? Well, if I were a USCT soldier, here’s how I would describe the conditions that I operate under:

The Confederate soldier views me as his worst nightmare come to life. Ever since 40,000 whites were slaughtered by the former slaves in San Domingo back in 1804, the phrase “servile insurrection” has haunted white Americans, especially in the South where slavery as an institution took root. The white Southerner believes (with some justification perhaps), that the Northern government is turning to servile war in its effort to crush him, and that I am a part of that effort.

My fellow northern (white) soldier sees me as a joke at best and an insult to the uniform at worst. I sometimes run as much of a risk of being fired on by him as I do the men in gray. Many of my white officers rip the “USCT” patches off their jackets when captured and deny that they never saw me before in their lives!

The Northern public either belittles me or sees me simply as a warm body with which to fill a uniform that would otherwise be filled with a white man. Many in the north say that I will never make a good soldier, others want to use me for cannon fodder. My equipment is substandard, and the treatment I receive is worse than the treatment I received as a slave.

And, the criticism of my performance that I receive from those for whom I am risking my life fails to take into account that my regiment was formed in 1863 and is composed of inexperienced men who are being sent into battle against battle-hardened troops who have been fighting for more than two years. I’m doing the best I can despite being “up against it,” yet, I am paid an average of $11/month as compared to the $13/month that my white “comrades” receive. Many times, I am not even given the chance to choose whether or not I want to be here…

That said, let’s roll the historical videotape:

****Captain Waddell, of the Confederate Commerce raider, CSS Shenendoah, perhaps summed it up best:

“Southern Partisan Magazine,” Volume XXVI No. 2, July 2007, Page 31
A Book Review of “The Last Shot”, by Lynn Schooler, New York, Harper-Collins, 2006

“In his musings, (Captain) Waddell wrote regarding Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, “For two years the North waged war against the South without attempting to interfere with slavery. It was only when they found the negro could be used for killing the white people of the South and serve as breastworks for Northern white troops that they declared him free…they cared nothing for the unhappy negro; they preferred his destruction to that of their white troops.” “

****Sherman, who once described himself as “the best friend that Sambo ever had,” was more than critical about the idea of black men wearing blue uniforms:

“War Crimes Against Southern Civilians,” Walter Brian Cisco, Page 140

… “I like niggers well enough as niggers,” but only “fools and idiots” promoted their advancement.”

“Southern Negroes 1861 – 1865,” By Bell Irvin Wiley, Page 302

“I want soldiers made of the best bone and muscle in the land and won’t attempt military feats with doubtful materials…I am right and won’t change.”….”I cannot bring myself to trust Negroes with arms in positions of danger and trust.”…General W.T. Sherman thought it “unjust to the brave soldiers and volunteers” to place them on a par with Negro recruits.”


General HALLECK:

…I hope anything I may have said or done will not be construed unfriendly to Mr. Lincoln or Stanton. That negro letter of mine I never designed for publication, but I am honest in my belief that it is not fair to our men to count negroes as equals. Cannot we at this day drop theories, and be reasonable men? Let us capture negroes, of course, and use them to the best advantage. My quartermaster now could give employment to 3,200, and relieve that number of soldiers who are now used to unload and dispatch trains, whereas those recruiting agents take them back to Nashville, where, so far as my experience goes, they disappear. When I call for expeditions at distant points, the answer invariably comes that they have not sufficient troops. All count the negroes out. On the Mississippi, where Thomas talked about 100,000 negro troops, I find I cannot draw away a white soldier, because they are indispensable to the safety of the river. I am willing to use them as far as possible, but object to fighting with "paper" men. Occasionally an exception occurs, which simply deceives. We want the best young white men of the land, and they should be inspired with the pride of freemen to fight for their country. If Mr. Lincoln or Stanton could walk through the camps of this army and hear the soldiers talk they would hear new ideas. I have had the question put to me often: "Is not a negro as good as a white man to stop a bullet?" Yes, and a sand-bag is better; but can a negro do our skirmishing and picket duty? Can they improvise roads, bridges, sorties, flank movements, &c., like the white man? I say no. Soldiers must and do many things without orders from their own sense, as in sentinels. Negroes are not equal to this. I have gone steadily, firmly, and confidently along, and I could not have done it with black troops, but with my old troops I have never felt a waver of doubt, and that very confidence begets success……

Your sincere friend,

****Other union soldiers, officers and politicians, often mirrored Sherman’s sentiments….

“Myths and Realities of American Slavery,” By John C. Perry, Page 206:

“One Union colonel wrote of the African Americans in the union blue uniform, “makes a good enough soldier for garrison and guard duty, but for field service a hundred white men is worth a thousand of them.”

“A Union sergeant writing from the front lines in Virginia said that he did not want to fight side by side with them, suggesting rather that the African American soldiers “be sent here to use the pick and shovel in the roiling sun as we are doing now, and we will take a soldier’s tool – the gun and the bayonet.” “

“Some white Union soldiers felt that the African American troops were given special treatment. One write, “Some of the boys say that the army motto is, first the Negro, then the mule, then the white man. A sergeant from Minnesota complained about the special treatment received by an African American aide on the headquarters’ staff. He wrote, “Their has been more sympathy lavished on him than I ever saw on 20 white men. I guess the day is not distant when a white man will be as good as a Nigar.” “

“Perry’s Saints or The Fighting Parson’s Regiment,” Chapter 11

“…. I am impelled to say, in spite of the criticisms that my statement may provoke, that my own observation and experience, as well as the experience of others, have convinced me that the prevailing opinion, especially in New England, of the valuable services rendered by colored troops in actual conflict, is erroneous, and that their most effective work during the war was done with the pick and spade.”


Maj. Gen. D. HUNTER, U.S. Volunteers:
General Banks has always been very vigilant in the organization of colored troops. It is to be hoped that his expedition up Red River will give a large number of recruits of this class. All acquired in this way, however, being without organization or discipline, could not be counted as so many men for defense of garrisons. Three of them, though, might count equal to one veteran soldier in fixing the number to leave behind at any one place.

U.S. GRANT, Lieutenant-General.

“THE SOUTHERN SIDE OF THE CIVIL WAR”: Fourth Edition, Michael T. Griffith

“Certainly we hope we may never have to confess to the world that the United States government has to seek an ally in the negro to regain its authority,” declared an editorial in the Milwaukee Sentinel. “We don’t want to fight alongside with the nigger,” agreed a recruit from New York. “We think we are a too superior race for that…”

“Vice President Hamlin probably reflected northerners’ opinion . . . when he told a rally in Bangor [Maine] in July that “we want to save, as much as possible, our men, even if it is done by men a little blacker than myself.”

“Governor Samuel Kirkwood of Iowa put the matter more baldly when he voiced a desire to see “some dead niggers as well as dead white men.” “

****The treatment these men received from their own side ranged from disrespectful to downright appalling:

“Southern Negroes 1861 – 1865,” By Bell Irvin Wiley, Page 344

“Those Negroes who were assembled in contraband camps died by the thousands; those who were employed on plantations received treatment little better than that which they had received under the old regime, those who entered military pursuits were dealt with in a manner more becoming to slaves than to freedmen.”

“The Slave Narratives,” Rev. Squires Jackson, Florida

“…. That very night he ran away to Wellborn where the Federals were camping. There in a horse stable were wounded colored soldiers stretched out on the filthy ground. The sight of these wounded men and the feeble medical attention given then by the Federals was so repulsive to him, that he decided that he didn’t want to join the Federal Army. In the silent hours of the evening he stole away to Tallahassee, thoroughly convinced that War wasn’t the place for him. While in the horse shed make-shift hospital, a white soldier asked one of the wounded colored soldiers to what regiment he belonged, the negro replied "54th Regiment, Massachusetts.”

(LIEUTENANT IN ARTILLERY), NEW ORLEANS., Confederate Veteran June 1906. p. 265

“… An amusing thing occurred between the white and colored troops as we left the island. When we went on board the transport, the colored guards who came with us were stopped. They had come prepared to go on the transport, and there were several consultations between officers of white and colored troops before the colored guards were allowed to come on board, and then they were required to keep themselves at the bow of the boat. The white soldiers were not friendly to their colored comrades. At midnight the colored guards went on duty, then all prisoners had to keep inside the boat. The relief that was put on duty near me was very unmilitary. The colored guard approached in proper form, saluted, and asked for instructions. The white guard, who was leaning on his gun, looked at the relief in a very surly manner and said, "Stand there," and walked off, trailing his gun.”


Raids from Kentucky and East Tennessee into Southwestern Virginia.
No. 6.–Report of Col. James S. Brisbin, Fifth U.S. Colored Cavalry of the part taken by a detachment of the Fifth U.S. Colored Cavalry, under the command of Col. James F. Wade, Sixth U.S. Colored Cavalry, at Saltville

Lexington, Ky., October 20, 1864.

…..On the march the colored soldiers, as well as their white officers, were made the subject of much ridicule and many insulting remarks by the white troops, and in some instances petty outrages, such as the pulling off the caps of colored soldiers, stealing their horses, &c., were practiced by the white soldiers. These insults, as well as the jeers and taunts that they would not fight, were borne by the colored soldier patiently, or punished with dignity by their officers, but in no instance did I hear colored soldiers make any reply to insulting language used toward [them] by the white troops…..

AMES S. BRISBIN, Colonel and Supt. Organization U.S. Colored Troops.


In the Field, Morris Island, S. C., Sept. 17, 1863.

It has come to the knowledge of the brigadier-general commanding that the detachments of colored troops detailed for fatigue duty have been employed, in one instance at least, to prepare camps and perform menial duty for white troops. Such use of these details is unauthorized and improper, and is hereafter expressly prohibited. Commanding officers of colored regiments are directed to report promptly to these headquarters any violations of this order which may come to their knowledge……

By order of Brig. Gen. Q. A. Gillmore:
ED. W. SMITH, Assistant Adjutant-General.


Port Hudson, La., July 30, 1863.

The commanding general of this post has been informed of the abuse of colored soldiers, and disregard of their authority as sentinels, on the part of some of the other troops of this command, and on the part of some persons not in the military service. He takes this opportunity to correct certain erroneous impressions, and to announce to all concerned that this course of conduct must cease at once and entirely…..

By command of Brig. Gen. George L. Andrews:
GEO. B. HALSTED, Captain, and Assistant Adjutant-General.

Victoria, May 4, 1864.

Brig. Gen. J. E. SLAUGHTER,
Chief of Staff:
SIR: I have the honor to state that I have just returned after a week’s absence at Lavaca and Indianola. The information I have collected leaves me to believe that all the white troops except 200 or 300 cavalry have been removed from Saluria and sent to Louisiana. I think it entirely reliable that Warren’s brigade have left and that their place has been supplied by a regiment of colored troops. I am informed that the enemy have no confidence in their colored troops; that Warren thought it unsafe to leave them at Saluria without white troops; that the negroes mutinied on account of their pay, $7 per month; that 1 was shot by an officer; that 50 or 60 were court-martialed and sentenced to one, two, and three years on the Tortugas; that they absolutely refused to receive their pay, and that numbers of them would desert if they had a chance…

O. STEELE, Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding

****Being fired on by their own troops was not unheard of, having their officers deny that they ever knew them was also not unheard of, and there are several instances (Olustee, Brice’s Crossroads and Saltville) where, in battle, white troops ran off and left the black troops to fend for themselves:

“Southern Negroes 1861 – 1865,” By Bell Irvin Wiley

Page 325 – “At Ship Island, Mississippi, the Federal gunboat Jackson was called upon to support 3 colored companies. Instead of training its guns upon the Confederates, it directed shots into the midst of the Negroes when they retreated. Some of the gunboat’s crew had been killed a short time before in an altercation with a colored sentry.”

Page 339 – “A Northern white soldier who took part in the fight [the Crater] and who was sympathetic toward the Negroes said in a letter written two days after the battle: “Worse still, the 13th Indiana white…deliberately shot down many of the retreating soldiers. When I say there is a fearful mortality among the dusky heroes you will readily understand how it happened.” The New York Herald correspondent reported that after their repulse the Negroes “ran, a terror stricken, disordered mass of fugitives, to the rear of the white troops. In vain their officers endeavored to rally them with all the persuasion of tongue, saber and pistol.”

Pages 311–312 – “General [David] Hunter found great difficulty in getting white officers to command the units of his regiment. “Private Miles O’Reilly” said that the reply Hunter received from almost every competent young lieutenant or captain he approached on the subject was, “What! Command Niggers?” General Weitzel refused to command Negro troops raised by Butler in New Orleans. Ullmann, an officer of Negro troops at Port Hudson, said in an address delivered shortly after the termination of the war: “Officers of the Ullmann Brigade will ever have occasion to remember with bitter feelings the contemptuous treatment they received at the siege of Port Hudson, from General and other officers who had heaped indignities upon “Nigger Officers” as they were wont to courteously style us.””

Page 312 – “Some of the officers of Negro troops who were captured at Petersburg, when asked what regiments they were attached to, gave the numbers of certain white ones for fear they would be molested. One of them, more courageous than the rest, answered. “Lemuel D. Dobbins, Nineteenth Negroes, by God!” His frankness won for him more consideration than that received by his associate officers.”

FEBRUARY 5-22, 1864.–The Florida Expedition.

No. 18.–Report of Lieut. M. B. Grant, C. S. Engineers, of engagement at Olustee.

This fight occurred upon ground which furnished a fair field to both parties, and no advantage to either. The advantage of the enemy upon this occasion consisted in the superiority of numbers and equipment. Their force was, at the lowest estimate, twice that of ours. As usual with the enemy, they posted their negro regiments on their left and in front, where they were slain by hundreds, and upon retiring left their dead and wounded negroes uncared for, carrying off only whites, which accounts for the fact that upon the first part of the battle-field nearly all the dead found were negroes.

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