Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Zooming in on USCTs at Fort Harrison

Following fierce combat during Gen. Grant's Fifth Offensive north of the James River, a number of the United States Colored Troops, who had battled at New Market Heights and Fort Gilmer on September 29, 1864, and then held off a determined Confederate counterattack on September 30, settled into garrison duty in captured Fort Harrison. Renamed Fort Burham by its new occupants, the black troops, who became part of the XXV Corps during the winter of 1864-65, held the position until they pushed into Richmond on April 3.

The photographer probably unknowingly captured a number of things happening in this image. This photograph  provides some impressive scenes of men at rest in the fort, while others are on picket duty in rifle pits in the background.

In the left center stand two soldiers. The one at the left rear is standing still and appears to be wearing an oversize fatigue blouse. The one on the right front has his hands in his pockets and moved, which blurred his image. He seems to be wearing a shell jacket, as it only comes to his waist.

Behind the main structure are a couple of rows of canvas-topped winter quarters. Standing behind one of the quarters are four men. One without a jacket stands on the stick chimney getting a good view, while two others stand on the ground to left and right sides of the chimney. Another soldier looks toward them.

In the background near the tree line is a line of rifle pits. Several black soldiers man the pits as another stands to the right. 

In the far distance the Confederate obstacles and earthen fortifications can be seen. In addition, a Confederate sentry appears to be standing on the rampart in the center. How many Civil War photographs show belligerents in the same view? Not many that I've seen.

A group of three soldiers stand beside or sit on what appears to be a hitching rail. I would guess that the structure behind the men served as the regimental or brigade officers' headquarters. All seem to be enlisted men, as no NCO insignia are visible and all appear to be aware that their photograph is being taken. 

While one common soldier punishment was to ride a rail for a set period, this man only appears to be using it as a temporary place to rest and chat.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Bacon Tait - Richmond Slave Trader

Yesterday I received the latest addition to my personal library in the mail. I'm presently working my way through another volume so I have not yet dived into it, but the title had me hooked from my first reading it: The Secret Life of Bacon Tait, a White Slave Trader Married to a Free Woman of Color, by Hank Trent, and which was published just this year from LSU Press.

I won't write out a biography of Tait, as that has been completed well by the folks at the Encyclopedia of Virginia. However, I thought I'd share a couple of advertisements that it took me only a couple of minutes to find in the Richmond Daily Dispatch in the August 27, 1852, edition.

Although one is for a family of three and the other is for a woman on her child, the two advertisements have a commonality in that both notices state that the enslaved individuals are not to be removed from Richmond. Apparently, Tait had no compunction with participating in the interstate slave trade in other instances, but for whatever reason, these bond people were apparently not to be removed from the city.

Perhaps the former owners had sold them to Tait with that strict stipulation, or perhaps Tait was serving as the selling agent for the owners who only agreed to sell them under that condition. We cannot know for certain.

The end wording of the first shown advertisement is interesting: "all of excellent character, strictly honest and sold for no fault." This domestic enslaved family's sale was only enhanced by such a description. Having honest servants was something all masters desired. A statement of "excellent character" only increased Tait's chance of a successful sale.

The other notice, for a forty-two year old woman and her eight year old child (interestingly no gender given), who were also domestics, seems to have a bit of conditional statement on the non-movement request: "if early application is made." Does this mean that if the woman and child do not quickly sell, they are not subject remain in "Richmond or the neighborhood?" With domestic house skills such as "plain cooking and washing and the dairy," one suspects that in an urban environment like Richmond, a new owner could be quickly found. But, that just a suspicion.

I'm looking forward to reading the Trent book to see if any insight is given into advertisements like these two posted by Tait and learning more about his relationship with free woman of color Courtney Fountain. Isn't history just fascinating?

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Milton Holland - Promotion Denied

Men in the United States Colored Troops faced a plethora of obstacles. How they dealt with them all and still fought as well as they did is difficult to understand. It was bad enough that these men were required to fight in segregated regiments, sometimes with inferior weapons, and for part of the war, receiving inferior pay. To top it all off, gaining advancement beyond the rank of sergeant major was nearly impossible, despite the best of combat performances.

An excellent example of a promotion denied is that of Sgt. Major Milton Holland (pictured left). Holland was born enslaved in 1844 in Texas. His African American mother, Matilda, was owned by Spearman Holland, the brother of his white father, Bird Holland, as were Milton's two brothers, William and Johnson. Bird Holland purchased Milton and his brothers, freed them, and sent them to the free state of Ohio to learn a vocation at the Albany Manual Labor Academy in Athens County.

Bird Holland appears in the 1860 census as a forty-five year old clerk in Austin, Travis County, Texas. He was born in Tennessee and owned $500 in real estate and $10,000 in personal property. Holland is shown as owning a thirteen year old mulatto boy, likely another son.

Milton apparently learned the skill of shoe making because he is listed in the 1860 census in the household of John J. Shots, who was apparently a thirty-five year old white shoe and book maker. Milton is not listed as black or mulatto and was the only non-Shots in the household. He is listed as a sixteen year old and born in Texas.

Milton enlisted on June 22, 1863 in Athens, Ohio in Company C of the 5th  USCI. He had previously attempted to enlist in a white unit, but was denied admission due to being of mixed ancestry. His enlistment describes his complexion as "yellow." Milton was five feet, eight inches tall. He was mustered in at Camp Delaware. Milton earned the position of 1st Sergeant on July 23, 1863, was reduced to private on April 4, 1864, promoted to 1st Sergeant again on July 1, then to Sergeant Major on September 6, 1864, and finally reduced to 1st Sergeant on November 6.

During the desperate charge at New Market Heights on September 29, 1864, the 5th USCI, as part of Draper's Brigade, Paine's Division, attacked the position held by the Texas Brigade and took terrible casualties. Although wounded in the fight, Milton did not leave the field of combat and was later recognized for talking "command of Company C after all the officers had been killed or wounded and gallantly led it." For his courage, Milton received the Medal of Honor. Any white man would likely have received the opportunity of a commission to lieutenant or captain for a similar action, but Milton was denied because he was not fully white.

However, Milton's army limitations did not hold him back as a civilian after the war. In an environment without the rigid rules of of the military, Milton went on to graduate from Howard University, become an attorney, banker, and business man. He died in 1910 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Milton's father, Bird Holland, who had been the Texas Secretary of State at the time of the state's secession, served as adjutant of the 22nd Texas Infantry and died fighting for the Confederacy on April 9, 1864 at the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Louisiana.

Image in the public domain.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Corporal Miles James - A Superior Soldier

The last few weeks I've been spending the time I normally fill with reading by doing some research on the Battle of New Market Heights for a tour I will be giving on Friday. In the September 29, 1864, battle fourteen African Americans in Brig. Gen. Charles J. Paine's Division of the XVIII Corps (Army of the James) earned the Medal of Honor.

To fill in these men's stories I've been searching their service records for information that tell something about their Civil War experience. Most of the fourteen soldiers' records only contain basic data and dates. However, when I paged through the records of Corporal Miles James, who served in Company B of the 36th United States Colored Infantry, I was surprised to find more.  

As for the basic information, James was a thirty-four year old farmer when he enlisted in his regiment. He was five feet, seven inches tall, and was described as "black" complexioned. He was born in Princess Anne County, Virginia, and had enlisted in Norfolk on November 16, 1863. James was officially mustered into service at Fort Monroe on December 28, 1863. No mention is made if he was free before the war, so he was likely enslaved prior to the conflict and Union occupation of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina.

The 36th USCI was originally designated the 2nd North Carolina Colored Infantry Volunteers. Miles James must have exhibited soldierly qualities early on, as he received his promotion to corporal on February 15, 1864.

James was listed as always present for duty until that fateful September 29, 1864 day. During the charge made by Col. Alonzo Draper's brigade (5th, 36th, 38th USCI), Miles James was shot in the left humerus (upper arm) as he got within thirty yards of the Confederate breastworks. The minie ball that stuck the bone shattered it. Despite this grievous wound, James continued to load and somehow discharge his rifle with one arm, all while urging his comrades onward. The courageous soldier received a field amputation and was sent to a hospital facility at Fort Monroe for recovery. For his bravery James received the Medal of Honor on April 6, 1865. He also received a promotion to sergeant on April 27, and the "Butler Medal."  

Normally such a wound provided a soldier with his ticket home. But Miles James was not an ordinary soldier. His service records contain a letter written by his brigade commander, Col. Alonzo Draper, on February 4, 1865, to the chief surgeon at the hospital at Fort Monroe. It reads:

"Sir - 
Sgt. Miles James, Co. B, 36th U.S.C.I. writes me from your Hospital to urge that he may be permitted to remain in the service.
He lost his left arm in the charge upon New Market Heights, Sept., 29, 1864.
If it be possible, I would most respectfully urge that his request be granted.
He was made a Sergeant and awarded a silver medal by Maj. Gen. Butler, for gallant conduct.
He is one of the bravest men I ever saw; and is in every respect a model soldier.
He is worth more with his single arm, than half a dozen ordinary men.
Being a Sergeant, he will have very little occasion as a file closer to use a musket.
He could be Sergt. of my Provost Guard or Hd. Qtr.Guard, and could do full duty in many ways.
If consistent with your views of duty, I shall be greatly obliged if you can make it convenient to return him to his Regiment.
I have the honor to be 
Very Respectfully
your Obt. Svt.
A. G. Draper
Bvt. Brig. Gen. Comdg."

One might think that the surgeon would dismiss such a request, but it appears that it was honored, because another letter appears in Miles's file. In it Draper issued a special order from "near Petersburg" on April 18, 1865. It reads:
"The following named enlisted man is hereby detailed for duty at these Hed. Qrs. and will report at once - The commanding officer of the 36th U.S.C.I. will furnish him with a sergeant's sword instead of a musket.

Sergt. Myles [sic] James 36 USCI"

Miles James continued to serve until he received a disability discharge on October 13, 1865, at Brazos Santiago, Texas, where his regiment was serving out its enlistment.

As the fictional character Silas Trip, played by Denzel Washington in the film Glory claimed, the USCTs had to prove themselves and "kick in like men." Miles James kicked in like a man, and then a great measure more. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Helping Make Ancestor Connections

If you are like me, too often, you receive those emails from unfamiliar senders that makes one wonder if your spam catcher is up to date or not. But, yesterday I received an unrecognized email in my mailbox that put a genuine smile on my face.

I did not remember seeing the sender's name before, but the title certainly rang a bell. "Corporal Harrison Graham." I figured the email was in relation to my blog, so I searched it and found this post I made back in May 2015.

This lady's email read: "Hello I am Harrison's great great great granddaughter. My mother and I have been wanting to know more about our family and your article took our breath away. I was wondering if may have had any pictures or any information about his wife Sara and their children. Thank you so much!!!"

Finally! One of my objectives for posting these soldier-focused USCT stories was now happily realized. I replied and returned her thanks with appreciation of my own for letting me know that I had helped with a piece of the historical puzzle. And I explained that, unfortunately, I did not have further information on Corp. Graham or his family. Of course, another objective was to bring a measure of attention to these largely forgotten men who gave their lives for the United States. Its seems that I achieved both goals with at least one reader. My day was made. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

The ties between the Civil War and the Reconstruction eras and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950-60s are indisputable, and fascinating . Curious to learn more about the attempts to restrict integration in nearby Prince Edward County led me to purchase this book. For a time, the county's schools closed their doors rather than allow African American students to attend. This looks to be an educational and inspiring story of the perseverance of the black community in effort to achieve an equal learning opportunity for their children. 

Sgt. Marion Hill Fitzpatrick of the 45th Georgia Infantry was mortally wounded on April 2, 1865, during the Union VI Corps breakthrough, not a couple of stone throws away from where I live. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Fitzpatrick's descendant and one of the co-editors of this collection of letters when he came to visit the Park for a custom tour. In appreciation, he kindly gifted me a copy. I am sure reading these "Letters to Amanda" will better inform me of yet another common soldier's experience.    

Dr. Stephen Rockenbach of nearby Virginia State University presented a talk on September 16 at the Park on his recently published book. This work examines and compares the experiences of the Ohio River Valley border region communities of Frankfort, Kentucky, and Corydon, Indiana. Having lived in Frankfort for six years I am sure to find many familiar names and issues. While there I developed a fondness of border region scholarship and this book promises to add to that growing field.

I have not posted much the last few weeks or so due to much of my time being consumed with research for a special tour of the New Market Heights battlefield that I will be giving on October 20. I've tried to read as much as I could find on the fight (both primary and secondary sources) which brought distinction to fourteen African American Medal of Honor recipients. This book covers the 5th USCT, which was part of Col. Alonzo Draper's brigade and who made the second and ultimately successful charge of the Confederate earthworks at New Market Heights. Raised in Ohio and made up largely of free men of color, the 5th served in the XVIII Corps and then XXV Corps.

In Tennessee, William G. Brownlow is either hated or loved. In Unionist East Tennessee he brazenly criticized the state and national Confederate governments and often found favor with his fellow natives of the hills. In Middle and West Tennessee, not so much. Brownlow went on to become governor of the state during the early Reconstruction years and then served as a U.S. Senator from the Volunteer State. His hatred toward secessionist for breaking up the Union knew few limits. I've not read much of Brownlow's own writings, so this should be an excellent opportunity to look into the mind of this Southern Unionist. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Different Points of Views Result in Different Accounts

As shown in my last post, there was a great deal of skepticism concerning the black man's combat ability within the Union army. Despite showing well in earlier fights at Battery Wagner, Milliken's Bend, Port Hudson, and the first days of the Petersburg Campaign, many were still not convinced that when faced with fighting Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia' battle-hardened veterans, the USCTs would be measured and found wanting. Others, however, were thoroughly convinced the black soldiers would fight when given an equal chance and were properly led.

Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, commander of the Army of the James, was in the later camp. In fact, in his memoirs, Butler claimed that the fight at New Market Heights was placed almost wholly on the back of the USCTs to show they could take hot fire and not wilt. Butler wanted to prove to the white Union soldiers that they need not worry when fighting alongside blacks.

The United States Colored Troops were of course fighting to abolish slavery. Many of them, even free men of color, felt their race would not advance with the weight of the "peculiar institution" slowing them all down. Many were also fighting to preserve the Union. Black soldiers, especially those from loyal border slave states, were fully aware to the fact that slavery remained in those regions, but with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and the Radical Republicans in control of Congress, progress in the United States was slowly being made. But, many black men enlisted, chanced death, and braved shot and shells to prove they were the equal to any man. If they could prove they were men, citizenship and its accompanying political and social rights should come next.

With skepticism rife in the Union army, one can imagine what most Confederate soldiers thought about their African American adversaries and the motivations or (perceived lack there of) of the USCTs. An interesting example of how preconceived notions can cloud one's interpretation of events comes from the Battle of New Market Heights, where fourteen black soldiers showed such courage that they received the Medal of Honor for their actions.

Before the USCT attacks the morning of September 29, 1864 kicked off, they were instructed to fix their bayonets, load their rifles but not prime them with percussion caps. They were instructed to keep moving forward, not matter what happened, not stopping to fire less they break their formations, and take the Confederate earthworks, driving out the defenders.

First, the 750 or so men of 4th and 6th USCT regiments which made up Steven A. Duncan's small brigade went in. They took horrific casualties when they encountered a line of abatis and then a line of chevaux de frise, which broke their formations, slowed them down, and made them perfect targets for the Texans defending the position. Despite losing over 50% killed, wounded, and captured, some continued on up the works, apparently only a few firing occasionally in desperation; most following orders to the end. After about half an hour the handful of white officers no killed or wounded ordered the men to withdraw. Five black soldiers in Duncan's Brigade received the Medal of Honor for their heroism shown in rescuing their flags or rallying men.

The Texans, however, interpreted the black troops's lack of firing differently. Some of the Confederates, not believing that African American men had the steel in their nerves to attack such a fortified position believed that the USCTs were being forced forward by white soldiers. Pvt. Benjamin Fitzgerald of the 5th Texas stated: "When the men learned who were advancing, scorning the use of of breast works, they mounted them and quietly waited their approach. Goaded by the bayonets of the white troops in rear they advanced with great desperation and were slaughtered like sheep." The problem with Fitzgerald's account is that there were no white troops "in rear." The attacking black troops were only later supported by other black troops. I'm sure he could not fathom black men, who he had only known as slaves, could fight like the men at New Market Heights did.

Another interesting statement comes from Thomas L. McCarty of the 1st Texas. He noted about that morning: "Up in our line at break of day, about 5 1/2 o'clock. In a few moments we were heavily engaged, the negroes crossed the second line of abatis, and into the first, when the fight raged for a few minutes, men firing on them at about 25 steps. They soon broke and fled with heavy loss." So far McCarty's account appears to match other accounts, but then he saw something from his view point. McCarty wrote, "They [USCTs] seemed as if they did not know how to use their guns. . . ." The Texan, naturally, did not know the black soldiers had been ordered not to fire, but instead of thinking of that possibility for why they were not shooting, he likely reasoned they had either not been trained properly or were too scared to work their rifles correctly.

During the Civil War the USCTs found themselves in a unenviable position. Doubted by many on their own side and often put in difficult situations to prove their manhood and ability, they were also despised by their enemies, who found any other reason than black bravery to justify USCT displays of courage.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Theodore Lyman's Early View on Black Soldiers

United States Colored Troops faced an enormous uphill battle to gain the respect of some of their white officers. Preconceptions of racial inferiority clouded the ability of many whites, both inside the army and out, to give them a fair chance to prove themselves in battle. When they finally got their opportunity they fought not only to end slavery and preserve the Union, they also sought to wipe away the stain of prejudice and stake a claim to acceptance and equality as men and citizens. One perfect example of this prejudice comes from Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman (pictured on the far right), who served on Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's staff  from the late summer of 1863 to the end of the war.

As the Army of the Potomac kicked off its attempt to destroy Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and capture Richmond, Lyman noted some brief thoughts on a group of black troops he observed following the Battle of the Wilderness. To give Lyman some benefit of doubt, he had yet to see USCTs in combat, as they had not been afforded the opportunity with the Army of the Potomac as yet. He wrote:

"A division of black troops, under General Ferrero, and belonging to the 9th Corps, marched up and massed in a hollow near by. As I looked at them, my soul was troubled and I would gladly have seen them marched back to Washington. Can we not fight our own battles, without calling on these humble hewers of wood and drawers of water, to be bayonetted by the unsparing Southerners? We do not dare trust them in the line of battle. Ah, you may make speeches at home, but here, where it is life or death, we dare not risk it. They have been put to guard the trains and have repulsed one or two little cavalry attacks in a creditable manner; but God help them if the grey-backed infantry attack them!"

Lyman's preconceived thoughts, and probably his limited experiences with African Americans, formed his belief that black troops could not be trusted in battle. Their limited opportunities as free men of color and as enslaved individuals, their imposed subservient status as "hewers of wood and drawers of water," as he referred to them, kept Lyman from thinking that they could stand up to a fierce fight from veteran Confederate infantry. He could not fathom depending upon a black man to stick in line of battle when the bullets and shells started flying and the rebel yell was released.

The Lt. Colonel's doubts proved false when black troops were finally given the chance, and when provided with competent leadership. African American men fought just as well as white soldiers, often while laboring under disadvantaged circumstances like less pay, sometimes with inferior weapons, and often put in unenviable situations, time and time again. The historical record proves it.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.