Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Ambrose Bierce “On Black Soldiering”

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on October 29, 2010

A skeptical correspondent asks me for an opinion of the fighting qualities of our colored regiments. Really I had thought the question settled long ago. The Negro will fight and fight well. From the time when we began to use him in civil war, through all his service against Indians on the frontier, to this day he has not failed to acquit himself acceptably to his White officers. I the more cheerfully testify to this because I was at one time a doubter. Under a general order from the headquarters of the Army, or possibly from the War Department, I once in a burst of ambition applied for rank as a field officer of colored troops, being then a line officer of white troops. Before my application was acted on I had repented and persuaded myself that the darkies would not fight; so when ordered to report to the proper board of officers, with a view to gratification of my wish, I “backed out” and secured “influence” which enabled me to remain in my humbler station.

But at the battle of Nashville it was borne in upon me that I had made a fool of myself. During the two days of that memorable engagement the only reverse sustained by our arms was in an assault upon Overton Hill, a fortified salient of the Confederate line on the second day. The troops repulsed were a brigade of Beatty’s division and a colored brigade of raw troops which had been brought up from a camp of instruction at Chattanooga. I was serving on Gen. Beatty’s staff, but was not doing duty that day, being disabled by a wound — just sitting in the saddle and looking on. Seeing the darkies going in on our left I was naturally interested and observed them closely. Better fighting was never done. The front of the enemy’s earthworks was protected by an intricate abatis of felled trees denuded of their foliage and twigs. Through this obstacle a cat would have made slow progress; its passage by troops under fire was hopeless from the first — even the inexperienced black chaps must have known that. They did not hesitate a moment: their long lines swept into that fatal obstruction in perfect order and remained there as long as those of the white veterans on their right. And as many of them in proportion remained until borne away and buried after the action. It was as pretty an example of courage and discipline as one could wish to see. In order that my discomfiture and humiliation might lack nothing of completeness I was told afterward that one of their field officers succeeded in forcing his horse through a break in the abatis and was shot to rags on the slope on the parapet. But for my abjuration of faith in the Negroes’ fighting qualities I might perhaps have been so fortunate as to be that man!

San Fransisco Examiner, June 5, 1898. From Russell Duncan and David Klooster, Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce. Image: “Battle of Nashville,” Kutz & Allison Lithograph, Library of Congress.

“The negro has no qualities out of which a soldier can be manufactured”

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on October 26, 2010

On June 15, 1864, the Galveston Daily News reprinted this brief editorial from the Richmond Whig & Public Advertiser, excoriating the value of slaves as soldiers, and boasting that the Federal army’s “unnatural and diabolical” enlistment of black troops “renders their overthrow more certain and speedy.”

NEGRO TROOPS. — The catastrophe of the Yankees at Fort Pillow, like their rout at Ocean Pond [Olustee, Florida], and other mishaps that have befallen them of late, is attributed by themselves to the cowardice of their negro [sic.] allies. We are well satisfied that the result in each of the cases would have been the same, if the places of the negroes had been held by Yankees. But at the same time we believe that the presence of the negroes hastened our victories and made them easier. We need not say to Southern readers that the negro has no qualities out of which a soldier can be manufactured. Any reliance on him in that way is sure to bring disappointment and disaster. An army composed in any degree of such troops is an army with a weak point, that may always be beaten through by an adversary who knows how to use his opportunities. Hence it is that we hold that the enrollment of negro troops has brought into their armies an element of positive weakness, and given us a great advantage. The unnatural and diabolical attempt to turn slaves against their own masters reacts upon those who conceived the villany, and renders their overthrow more certain and speedy. In this as in other ways, the institution of slavery is being miraculously vindicated by the events of the war.

It would seem that the Richmond Whig was unfamiliar with that famous “integrated” local militia unit, the Richmond Howitzers. It’s another case where real Confederates didn’t know about Black Confederates.

It’s worth noting, too, that the writer makes a distinction (second sentence) between “Yankees” and “negroes” [sic.] — revealing quite clearly that, in his view, U.S. Colored Troops are not just inferior to, but completely different from, conventional, white Federal troops; the color of their uniform is not what defines them. Black Confederate orthodoxy requires one to believe that large numbers of African Americans were enlisted into Confederate service, and that their race was considered irrelevant to their skill as soldiers. It’s hard to imagine the author of this editorial being convinced of either premise.

“I know of no other way for us to end the war than to retaliate”

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on August 24, 2010

Running through the 1865 compilation, Soldiers’ Letters from Camp, Battlefield and Prison, I was struck by this letter’s clarity and direct, matter-of-fact language.

Vidalia, La.
May 17th, 1864

There has been a party of guerrillas prowling about here, stealing horses and mules from the leased plantations. A scouting party was sent out from here, in which was a company of colored cavalry, commanded by the colonel of a colored regiment. After marching some distance, they came upon the party of whom they were in pursuit. There were seventeen prisoners captured and shot by the colored soldiers. When the guerrillas were first seen, the colonel told them in a loud tone of voice to “Remember Fort Pillow.” And they did: all honor to them for it.

If the Confederacy wish to fight us on these terms, we are glad to know it, and will try and do our part in the contest. I do not admire the mode of warfare, but know of no other way for us to end the war than to retaliate.

Lieut. Anson T. Hemingway
70th U.S. Col. Regiment

I’ve seen no better example of the way one atrocity is used to justify another in wartime, fueling an endless, violent spiral of reprisal and revenge. And yet, knowing what happened at Fort Pillow, I cannot be sure I’d have tried to stop those cavalrymen. The desire for retribution is very strong, and very human.

Anson Tyler Hemingway was born in East Plymouth, Connecticut in 1844. He moved to Chicago with his family at age ten. Hemingway enlisted in Company D of the 72nd Illinois Infantry and served with that regiment at Vicksburg. Mustered out of the service, he later joined Company H, 70th USCT as 1st Lieutenant and also served as provost martial of the Freedman’s Bureau in Natchez. Hemingway was mustered out of the service in March 1866, after which he attended Wheaton College. Two of Hemingway’s brothers had died in the war. After two years at Wheaton, Hemingway took a position as general secretary of the Chicago YMCA. He later established a real estate business in Oak Park. He died in 1926 at the age of 82.

Anson Hemingway’s grandson Ernest also enjoyed some success as a writer.


Image: Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections