Thursday, January 16, 2020

"Subjected to the Vilest Insults"

In reviewing the service records for white officers in the 5th United States Colored Infantry (USCI), I came across a letter included in the compiled records of 2nd Lt. John B. Viers of Company F. The 5th USCI, a regiment in Brig. Gen. Charles J. Paine's Division of the XVIII Corps, Army of the James, joined with the 36th and 38th USCIs to form Col. Alonzo Draper's Brigade. Draper's Brigade made up the second wave of assaults at the Battle of New Market Heights on morning of September 29, 1864. Although the 5th USCI took terrible causalities at New Market Heights, later in the day they engaged many of the same foes at Fort Gilmer that they had battled in the morning, who had fallen back.

During the assaults on Fort Gilmer, Lt. Viers received a wound to his leg. Unable to fall back with his regiment, he was made a prisoner. However, he received a quick parole from the Confederates (probably because he was wounded) and was exchanged. He then went to the hospital complex at Fort Monroe for treatment and recovery. While being transported on a steamboat Viers related his story to a fellow Union soldier, Major William H. Hart of the 36th USCI. Major Hart in turn relayed Viers' account to Col. Draper. Here is Hart's letter to Draper transcribed to help you read it.

Camp 36th U.S. C. Troops
Army of the James
In the field, Oct. 12, 1864.

The following is a correct statement of the conversation held by me with Lieut. Viers , 5th U.S.C.T., who was wounded, and taken prisoner in the assault at Fort Gilmer, on the afternoon of the 29th ult. I saw Lieut. Viers on board the "City of New York," at Aiken's Landing on her last trip down the [James] river, Oct. 9. He stated to me that after the assaulting party had retired, the rebel soldiers (who he afterwards learned, belonged to the 15th Geo[rgia] Regiment came out of the Fort, and bayoneted all the colored soldiers who were so badly wounded that they could not walk; they also flourished their bayonets over him, called him the vilest names they could utter, and probably would have killed him on the spot had not the officers of these men came to his rescue, they (the officers) ordered the men to desist, and had Viers carried into the Fort, where he was again subjected to the vilest insults from the likes of a Confederate naval officer. This officer admitted, however, that the "damned niggers fought like devils."

I remain, Col.
Very Respectfully
Your Obt. Servt.
W. H. Hart
Maj. 36th U.S.C.T. 

Col. A. Draper
36th U.S.C.T.
Field Hospital, 18 A.C. 

As this piece of evidence attests, battlefield atrocities by Confederates toward black Union soldiers, and vice-versa, happened during the Petersburg/Richmond Campaign. Confederates did not view African American soldiers as legitimate combatants, despite fighting in uniforms and equipped the same as white Union soldiers and led by white officers. Instead, blacks in Union blue were perceived by Confederates as more akin to slaves in rebellion, whether they had been previously enslaved or not. After the example of Fort Pillow in April 1864, United States Colored Troops often assumed that Confederates would not give them the opportunity to surrender, and thus some did not give their Southern foes the chance either. 

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