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History & Genealogy

The
BLACK PHALANX;

A History of the

NEGRO SOLDIERS OF THE UNITED STATES
in the Wars of
1775-1812, 1861-'65,
By
Joseph T. Wilson
Late of the 2nd Reg't. La. Native Guard Vols. 54th Mass. Vols.
Aide-De-camp to the Commander-In-Chief G. A. R.
Author of
"Emancipation," "Voice of a New Race,"  "Twenty-Two Years of Freedom," etc., etc.
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56 Illustrations
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Hartford, Conn.:
American Publishing Company
1890

PT II.

CHAPTER III. -
RECRUITING AND ORGANIZING IN SOUTH CAROLINA
pg. 145

     "Private Miles O'Reilly" was the nom de plume of a talented literary gentleman of the city of New York, who wrote much in humorous prose and verse. His real name was Charles G. Halpine.  After an honorable service in the war, rising to high rank, he was elected Register of New York, and died suddenly while in office, in 1808.  The following sketches from his pen, published during the war, give an account of matters connected with the recruiting and organizing of negro troops in South Carolina, and are quoted here as interesting historical facts connected with the subject:
     "Black troops are now an established success, and hereafter—while the race can furnish enough able-bodied males—the probability would seem that one-half the permanent naval and military forces of the United States will be drawn from this material, under the guidance and control of the white officers.  To-day there is much competition among the field and staff officers of our white volunteers—more especially in those regiments about being disbanded—to obtain commission of like or even lower grades in the colored regiments of Uncle Sam.  General Casey's board of examination cannot keep in session long enough, nor dismiss incompetent aspirants quick enough, to keep down the vast throngs of veterans, with and without shoulder-straps, who are now seeking various grades of command in the colored brigades of the Union.  Over this result all intelligent men will rejoice,—the privilege of being either killed or wounded in battle, or stricken down by the disease, toil and privations incident to the life of a marching soldier, not belonging to that class of prerogative for the exclusive enjoyment of which men of sense, and with higher careers open to them, will long contend.   Looking back, however, but a few years, to the organization of the first regiment of black troops in the departments of the South, what a change in public opinion are we compelled to recognize!  In sober verity, war is

[Pg. 146]
not only the sternest, but the quickest, of all teachers; and contrasting the Then and Now of our negro regiments, as we propose to do in this sketch, the contrast will forcibly recall Galileo's obdurate assertion that 'the world still moves.'
     " Be it known, then, that the first regiment of black troops raised in our recent war, was raised in the Spring of 1862 by the commanding general of the department of the South, of his own motion, and without any direct authority of law, order, or even sanction from the President, the Secretary of War, or our House of Congress. It was done by General Hunter as ' a military necessity ' under very peculiar circumstances, to be detailed hereafter; and although repudiated at first by the Government as were so many other measures originated in the same quarter, it was finally adopted as the settled policy of the country and of our military system; as have likewise since been adopted, all the other original measures for which these officers, at the time of their first announcement, was made to suffer both official rebuke and the violently vituperative denunciation of more than one-half the Northern press.
     "In the Spring of 1862, General Hunter, finding himself with lees than eleven thousand men under his command, and charged with the duty of holding the whole tortuous and broken seacoast of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, had applied often, and in vain, to the authorities at Washington for reinforcements.  All the troops that could be gathered in the North were less than sufficient for the continuous drain of General McClellan's great operations against the enemy's capital; and the reiterated answer of the War Department was:  'You must get along as best you can.  Not a man from the North can be spared.'
     "On the mainland of three States nominally forming the Department of the South, the flag of the Union had no permanent foothold, save at Fernandiua, St. Augustine, and some few unimportant points along the Florida coast. It was on the Sea-islands of Georgia and South Carolina that our troops were stationed, and continually engaged in fortifying — the enemy being everywhere visible, and in force, across the narrow creeks dividing us from the mainland; and in various raids they came across to our islands, and we drove them back to the mainland, and up their creeks, with a few gunboats to help us—being the order of the day; yea, and yet oftener, of the night.
     "No reinforcements to be had from the North; vast fatigue duties in throwing up earthworks imposed on our insufficient garrison; the enemy continually increasing both in insolence and numbers; our only success the capture of Fort Pulaski, sealing up of Savannah; and this victory offset, if not. fully counter-balanced, by many minor gains of the enemy; this was about the condition of affairs as seen from the headquarters fronting Port Royal bay, when General Hunter one fine morning, with twirling glasses, puckered lips, and dilated nostrils, (he had just received another ' don't-bother-us-for-reinforcements ' dispatch from Washington) announced his intention of ' forming a negro regiment, and compelling

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every able-bodied black man in the department to fight for the freedom which could not but be the issue of our war.'  This resolution being taken, was immediately acted upon with vigor, the General causing all the necessary orders to be issued, and taking upon himself, as his private burden, the responsibility for all the irregular issues of arms, clothing, equipments, and rations involved in collecting and organizing the first experimental negro regiment.  The men he intended to pay, at first, by placing them as laborers on the pay-roll of the Chief Quartermaster; but it was his hope that the obvious necessity and wisdom of the measure he had thus presumed to adopt without authority, would secure for it the immediate approval of the higher authorities, and the necessary orders to cover the required pay and supply-issue of the force he had in contemplation. If his course should be endorsed by the War Department, well and good; if it were not so indorsed, why he had enough property of his own to pay back to the Government all he was irregularly expending in this experiment.
     "But now, on the very threshhold of this novel enterprise, came the first—and it was not a trivial—difficulty. Where could experienced officers be found for such an organization ? ' What ! command niggers? ' was the reply—if possible more amazed than scornful—of nearly every competent young lieutenant or captain of volunteers to whom the suggestion of commanding this class of troops was made. ' Never mind,' said Hunter, when this trouble was brought to his notice; 'the fools or bigots who refuse are enough punished by their refusal. Before two years they will be competing eagerly for the commission they now reject.  'Straightly there was issued a circular to all commanding officers in the department, directing them to announce to the non-commissioned officers and men of their respective commands that commissions in the 'South Carolina Regiment of Colored Infantry,' would be given to all deserving and reputable sergeants, corporals; and men who would appear at department headquarters, and prove able to pass an examination in the manual and tactics before a Band of Examiners, which was organized in a general order of current date.  Capt. Arthur M. Kenzie, of Chicago, aid-de-camp,—now of Hancock's Veterans Reserve Corps—was detailed as Colonel of the regiment, giving place, subsequently, in consequence of injured health, to the present Brig.-Gen. James D. Fessenden, then a captain in the Berdan Sharpshooters, though detailed as acting aid-de-camp on Gen. Hunter's staff. Capt. Kenzie, we may add, was Gen. Hunter's nephew, and his appointment as Colonel was made partly to prove —so violent was then the prejudice against negro troops—that the Commanding General asks nothing of them which he was not willing that one of his own flesh and blood should be engaged in.
     "The work was now fairly in progress, but the barriers of prejudice were not to be lightly overthrown. Non-commissioned officers and men of the right stamp, and able to pass the examination requisite, were scarce articles. Ten had the hardihood or moral courage to face the

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screaming, riotous ridicule of their late associates in the white regiments.  We remember one very striking instance in point, which we shall give as a sample of the whole.
     "Our friend Mr. Charles F. Briggs, of this city, so well known in literary circles, had a nephew enlisted in that excellent regiment the 48th New York, then garrisoning Fort Pulaski and the works of Tybee Island.  This youngster had raised himself by gallantry and good conduct to be a non-commissioned officer; and Mr. Briggs was anxious that he should be commissioned, according to his capabilities, in the colored troops then being raised.  The lad was sent for, passed his examination with credit, and was immediately offered a first lieutenancy, with the promise of being made captain when his company should be filled up to the required standard, - probably within ten days.
     "The inchoate first-lieutenant was in ecstasies; a gentleman by birth and education, he longed for the shoulder-straps.  He appeared joyously grateful; and only wanted leave to run up to Fort Pulaski for the purpose of collecting his traps, taking leave of his former comrades, and procuring his discharge-papers from Col. Barton.  Two days after that came a note to the department headquarters respectfully declining the commission!  He had been laughed and jeered out of accepting a captaincy by his comrades; and this - though we remember it more accurately from our correspondence with Mr. Briggs - was but one of many scores of precisely similar cases.
     "At length, however, officers were found; the ranks were filled; the men learned with uncommon quickness, having the imitativeness of so many monkeys apparently, and such excellent ears for music that all evolutions seemed to come to them by nature.  At once, despite all hostile influence, the negro regiment became one of the lions of the South; and strangers visiting the department, crowded out eagerly to see its evening parades and Sunday-morning inspection.  By a strange coincidence, its camp was pitched on the lawn and around the mansion of Gen. Drayton, who commanded the rebel works guarding Hilton Head, Port Royal and Beaufort, when the same were first captured by the joint naval and military operations under Admiral DuPont and General Timothy W. Sherman, - General Drayton's brother, Captain Drayton, of our navy, having command of one of the bet vessels in the attacking squadron; as he subsequently took aprt in the first iron-clad attack on Fort Sumpter.
     "Meantime, however, the War Department gave no sign, and the oracles of the Adjutant-General's office were dumb as the statue of the Sphynx.  Reports of the organization of the First South Carolina infantry were duly forwarded to army headquarters; but evoked no comment, either of approval or rebuke.  Letters detailing what had been done, and the reason for doing it; asking instructions, and to have commissions duly issued to the officers selected; appeals that the department paymaster should be instructed to pay these negro troops like other soldiers; demands that the Government should either shoulder the respon-

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FORTIFICATIONS AT HILTON HEAD.
Genl'. Hunter's black regiment in the distance.

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sibility of sustaining the organization, or give such orders as would absolve Gen. Hunter from the responsibility of backing out from an experiment which he believed to be essential to the salvation of the country, - all these appeals to Washington proved in vain; for the oracles still remained profoundly silent, probably waiting to see how public opinion and the politicians would receive this daring innovation.
     "At length one evening a special dispatch steamer plowed her way over the bar, and a perspiring messenger delivered into Gen. Hunter's hands a special despatch from the War Department, 'requiring immediate answer.'  The General was just about mounting his horse for his evening ride along the picket line, when this portentous missive wa brought under his notice.  Hastily opening it, he first looked grave, then began to smile, and finally burst into peals of irrepressible laughter, such as were rarely heard from 'Black David,' his old army name.  Never was the General seen, before or since, in such good spirits; he literally was unable to speak from constant interruption of laughter; and all his Adjutant-General could gather from him was:  'That he would not part with the document in his hand for fifty thousand dollars.'
     "At length he passed over the dispatch to his Chief of Staff, who on reading it, and re-reading it, could find in its texts but little apparent cause for merriment.  It was a grave demand from the War Department for information in regard to our negro regiment - the demand being based on a certain resolution introduced by the Hon. Mr. Wickliffe, of Kentucky, asking for specific information on the point, in a tone clearly not friendly.  These resolutions had been adopted by Congress; and as Hunter was without authority for any of his actions in this case, it seemed to his then not cheerful Adjutant-General that the documents in his hands were the reverse of hilarious.
     "Still Hunter was in extravagant spirits as he rode along, his laughter startling the squirrels in the dense pine woods, and every attempt that he made to explain himself being again and again interrupted by renewed peals of inextinguishable mirth.  'The fools!' he at length managed to say; 'that old fool has just given me the very chance I was growing sick for!  The War Department has refused to notice my black regiment; but now, in reply to this resolution, I can lay the matter before the country, and force the authorities either to adopt my negroes or disband them.'  He then rapidly sketched out the kind of reply he wished to have prepared; and, with the first ten words of his explanation, the full force of the cause he had for laughter became apparent.  Never did a General and his Chief-of-Staff, in a more unseemly state of cachinnation, ride along a picket-line.  At every new phase of the subject it presented new features of the ludicrous; and though the reply at this late date may have lost much of the drollery which then it wore, it is a serio-comic document of as much vital importance in the moral history of our late contest as any that can be found in the archives under the care of Gen. E. D. Townsend.  It was received late Sunday evening, and was answered very late that night, in order to be in time for the steamer.

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Arago, which sailed at daylight next morning, - the dispatch-steamer which brought the request 'for immediate information' having sustained some injuries which prevented an immediate return.  It was written after midnight, we may add, in a tornado of thunder and tempest such as has rarely been known even on that tornado-stricken coast; but loud as were the peals and vivid the flashes of heaven's artillery, there were at least two persons within the lines on Hilton Head who were laughing far too noisily themselves to pay any heed to external clamors.  The reply thus concocted, and sent, from an uncorrected manuscript copy now in our possession, ran as follows:

                                                        "HEADQUARTERS, DEPARTMENT OF THE SOUTH.
                                                                                                  Hilton Head, S. C., June, 1862.
"To the HON. E. M. STANTON, Secretary of War, Washington, D. C.
     "SIR: - I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of a communication from the Adjutant-General of the Army, dated June 13, 1862, requesting me to furnish you with the information necessary to answer certain Resolutions introduced in the House of Representatives June 9, 1862, on motion of the Hon. Mr. Wickliffe, of Kentucky; their substance being to enquire:
     "1st - Whether I had organized, or was organizing, a regiment of 'fugitive slaves' in this department.
     "2d - Whether say authority had been given to me from the War Department for such an organization; and
     "3rd - Whether I had been furnished, by order of the War Department, with clothing, uniforms, arms, equipments, and so forth, for such a force?
     "Only having received the letter at a late hour this evening, I urge forward my answer in time for the steamer sailing to-morrow morning, - this haste preventing me from entering, a minutely as I could wish, upon many points of detail, such as the paramount importance of the subject would seem to call for.  But, in view of the near termination of the present session of Congress, and the wide-spread interest which must have been awakened by Mr. Wickliffe's resolutions, I prefer sending even this imperfect answers to waiting the period necessary for the collection of fuller and more comprehensive data.
     "To the first question, therefore, I reply:  That no regiment of 'fugitive slaves' has been, or is being, organized in this department.  There is, however, a fine regiment of loyal persons whose late masters are fugitive rebels - men who everywhere fly before the appearance of the national flag, leaving their loyal and unhappy servants behind them, to shift, as best they can, for themselves.  So far, indeed, are the loyal persons composing the regiment from seeking to evade the presence of their late owners, that they are now, one and all, endeavoring with commendable zeal to acquire the drill and discipline requisite to place them in a position to go in full and effective pursuit of their fugacious and traitorous proprietors.
     "To the second question, I have the honor to answer that the instructions given to Brig.-Gen. T. W. Sherman by the Hon. Simon Cameron, late Secretary of War, and turned over to me, by succession, for my guidance, do distinctly authorize me to employ all loyal persons offering their service in defence of the Union, and for the suppression of this rebellion,' in any manner I may see fit, or that circumstances may call for.  There is now restriction as to the character or color of the persons to be employed, or the nature of the employment - whether civil or military - in which their services may be used.  I conclude, therefore, that I have been authorized to enlist 'fugitive slaves' as soldiers, could say such fugitives be found in this department.  No such characters, however, have yet appeared within view of our most advanced pickets, - the loyal negroes everywhere remaining on their plantations to welcome us, aid us, and supply us with food, labor and information.  It is the masters who have in every instance been the 'fugitives,' running away from loyal slaves as well as loyal soldiers; and these, as yet, we have only partially been able to see  - chiefly their heads over ramparts, or

[Pg. 153]
dodging behind trees, rifles in hand, in the extreme distance.  In the absence of any 'fugitive master law,' the deserted slaves would be wholly without remedy had not the crime of treason given them right to pursue, capture and bring those persons of whose benignant protection they have been thus suddenly and cruelly bereft.
     "To the third interrogatory, it is my painful duty to reply that I have never received any specific authority for issue of clothing, uniforms, arms, equipments and so

 

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Building Roads

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from Hunter spoiled the prettiest speech I had ever thought of making.  I had been delighted with Wickliffe's motion, and thought the reply to it would furnish us first-rate Democrat's thunder for the next election. I made up my mind to sail in against Hunter's answer—no matter what it was—the moment it came; and to be even more humorously successful in its delivery and reception than I was in my speech against War Horse Gurley, of Ohio, which you have just been complimenting.  Well, you see, man proposes, but providence orders otherwise.  When the Clerk announced the receipt of the answer, and that he was about to read it, I caught the Speaker's eye and was booked for the first speech against your negro experiment.  The first sentence, being formal and official, was very well; but at the second the House began to grin, and at the third, not a man on the floor—except Father Wickliffe, of Kentucky, perhaps—who was not convulsed with laughter.  Even my own risibles I found to be affected; and before the document was concluded, I motioned the Speaker that he might give the floor to whom he pleased, as my desire to distinguish myself in that particular tilt was over.' "

[Pg. 166 ] - CHAPTER IV. - OFFICERS OF THE PHALANX
 

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