Conduct of the colored troops.
There has been much dispute and many exaggerations and misstatements in relation to the efficiency of the colored troops in the war. While one party have contended that they were all and always heroes, another have insisted that “Niggers wouldn't fight-they couldn't be made to — they had seen too much of them to believe that they wouldn't run at the very first sight of a hostile white man,” etc.
Both were in the wrong.
, in a review of the whole course of the war, asserts that there has been no perceptible difference between the conduct of the colored and the white troops; both have often displayed extraordinary bravery at some times, and at others, under incompetent leaders, have been affected by panic, and retreated, and in proportion to their numbers, one race have acted thus as much as the other.
This testimony is remarkably creditable to the negroes.
When we reflect that the greater part of the colored troops had been field hands, slaves, subject to the irresponsible will of their masters, till within a few weeks, and, in many instances, a few days of their entering the service, that they were almost entirely uneducated, and had no previous military drill or knowledge, it is astonishing that they should have done so well.
There was, indeed, a material difference between the intelligent free negro regiments of the North
, and those composed of freedmen recently emancipated in the South
, just as
there was a difference between some of the crack New England
or New York regiments, composed of highly intelligent men, men whose bayonets could think, and the more stolid and less intellectual regiments of some of the rural districts, in which one third or one half were compelled to sign their names to the roll with a cross.
There were not wanting, however, instances where individual companies and regiments of the colored troops covered themselves with glory.
It is the testimony of officers, not specially friendly to the negro, that no finer regiments went into battle in any part of the Union
than the Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts; and their charge at Fort Wagner
will be reckoned among the finest passages at arms in history.
Of the former of these regiments, in this terrible and bloody assault, an eye-witness (R. S. Davis
) says: “Who fight more valiantly than the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, as they struggle in the midst of this darkness and death to vindicate their race?
They lead the advance, and follow without faltering the brave Shaw
, as he ascends the wall of the fort.
The parapet is reached, and their lines melt away before the terrible fire of the enemy; but they fight on, though the voice of their colonel is heard no more, and their officers have fallen in the death struggle.
Their color sergeant
is severely wounded in the thigh, but falling upon his knees, he plants the flag upon the parapet, and lying down holds the staff firmly in his hands.
Half an hour the conflict has been raging, yet the storming column has been unable to capture the fort.
The supporting column (of which the Fifty-fifth
formed a part) comes up, and the battle rages more fiercely.
What a work of death is here!
The eastern angle of the fort is gained, and held by three hundred brave souls against the onsets of a superior enemy for over two hours. Who shall tell the history of these hours, with their deeds of valor more heroic than the thought of man can compass?
It will never be written; for the brave and good perished unseen, and the gathering darkness of death and night covered the wounds of heroes.
In the stronghold of the enemy the patriot died, God his companion, the storm of battle his death-knell. * * * * * The assault is repulsed.
The small band of heroes who have fought so long and so earnestly to drive the rebels from the fort, retire from Wagner
, and pass out of range over the heaps of their dead comrades.
For nearly three long hours they have fought and fought in vain; Wagner
cannot be carried by assault.
As our forces retire, Sergeant Carney
, who has kept the colors of his regiment flying upon the parapet of Wagner
during the entire conflict, is seen creeping along on one knee, still holding up the flag, and only yielding his sacred trust upon finding an officer of his regiment.
As he enters the field hospital, where his wounded comrades are being brought in, they cheer him and the colors.
Though nearly exhausted with the loss of blood, he says, ‘Boys, the old flag never touched the ground.’
In the disastrous fight near Guntown, Mississippi
, when the irresolution and mismanagement of the Union
commander, a mismanagement generally attributed to intoxication, resulted in one of the most disgraceful defeats an i retreats in the annals of the war, it
was the half drilled colored troops, most of them under fire for the first time, who, when the white troops were completely demoralized and panic-stricken by the failure of their commander, fought with the utmost desperation, and kept back the rebels until their white comrades and a portion of the train could make good their escape.
One of the ammunition wagons was near them, and the brave fellows, with the intention of maintaining their resistance to the last, filled the breasts of their.shirts with cartridges, and fired away till the cartridges had become so moist, with perspiration that they could not be fired.
But they accomplished their object, and having held the rebels at bay for some hours they finally retreated, bringing up the rear of the Union
In the Virginia
campaign of 1864, “Burnside
's Smoked Yankees,” as they were called in the Army of the Potomac, fought with a stubbornness and tenacity which was surpassed by no troops in the army.
Knowing that their doom was sealed if they were captured (for murder, or a slavery worse than death, was the fate reserved by the rebels for the colored troops), they fought to the death, and often accomplished more than their white comrades.
In the capture of the outer line of forts around Petersburg
they were particularly active and efficient.
It is related, in regard to their assault on one of these, that having carried it, and being with some difficulty restrained from avenging the massacre of Fort Pillow
on the rebel garrison, a colored lieutenant, who was just then the senior officer
in command, demanded the surrender of the fort from the rebel commander.
The latter, a pompous Virginian, replied, that “he would
be d-d if he would surrender as a prisoner to a nigger ;” the colored lieutenant remonstrated, and urged his surrender, but the Virginian
, probably hoping that a white officer would be summoned to receive his surrender, refused still more peremptorily.
“Very well,” said the negro officer, “I have offered you your life, and you wont have it; you may stay here ;” and seizing a musket from the hands of one of his men he pinned the rebel officer to the earth with the bayonet.
The most remarkable acts of heroism related of the colored troops, however, were those which occured at Port Hudson
At the time of the siege of that stronghold, there were but few colored troops in the army.
Two or three regiments had been raised in New Orleans, and had joined General Banks
' army before Port Hudson
Twice, it will be recollected, General Banks
attempted to carry the rebel fortress by assault.
On the second occasion, June 14, 1863, General H. E. Paine
, leading his troops, was severely wounded in the leg, while far in advance, and left upon the ground, while his troops were driven back several hundred yards by the constant and deadly fire of the enemy, who swept the whole field with their artillery.
It was of course of great importance to bring the general off the field, or if this should prove impossible, to furnish him with water and food, and to stanch the bleeding from his wound.
His adjutant.general called for volunteers to go to his relief and bring him off, if possible; but the men looked upon the wide plain, swept with a constant artillery fire under which nothing could live, and though the adjutant-general offered large rewards not a man could be found willing to risk the almost inevitable death which would follow
In vain the officer plead and urged; the men could not be induced to take the risk.
But now stepped forward a little squad of colored men from the “Corps d'afrique,” as General Banks
had named them, and one of them acting as spokesman for the rest said to the adjutant: “We'se been thinking, sar, dat dere's got to be a good many killed in this war, 'fore our people can get deir freedom, and p'raps it may as well be we as anybody else; so if you please, sar, we'll go after the general.”
, as may be supposed, readily accepted their offer, and there being sixteen of the volunteers, they formed into fours, and the first squad, with a stretcher and supplies of water, etc., moved off steadily across that fire-swept plain.
The first fifty yards were hardly passed when one of the four was struck down; his companions did not stop, but pressed forward, when another and another, and finally the fourth fell.
Without uttering a word or hesitating a moment, the second squad of four stepped out, similarly equipped, to traverse the field of death.
They, too, were all smitten down, though they had approached nearer to the general than the first.
Instantly and without a moment's delay, a third squad of four went forward on the perilous journey.
Two of these fell wounded, but the other two reached the general, and though unable to bring him off, allayed his thirst, and remained near him amid the fiery hail till evening, when he was carried to the bivouac of the troops.
These last two had also been wounded, but not severely.
We think it is no impeachment of the courage of the white troops to say that in no battle of the war have they ever exhibited a cool and deliberate courage surpassing this