In the early part of 1863 the main portion of General Grant's army for the reduction of Vicksburg was camped about twenty miles above that stronghold on the Louisiana side of the river, at a place called Milliken's Bend. Some time in April, General Lorenzo Thomas, adjutant general of the U. S. army, arrived at the Bend with orders from President Lincoln for the organization of colored troops.
The outlook for such an innovation was not propitious by any means. The sentiment all through the army was much like that expressed by you in the Century, and if that sentiment did not manifest itself conspicuously it was due to General Thomas's threat that opposition to the president's policy by any officer, high or low, would be visited by immediate dismissal.
Being as far from racial prejudice then as now, and heartily in sympathy with the president's order and eager to demonstrate that all the clamor raised about the "d- Nigger" was based upon the most stupid prejudices, I resigned my position of major in the Eighth Illinois Infantry and accepted the colonelcy of one of these regiments.
No difficulty was encountered in securing the necessary number of officers, but colored recruits were scarce; and as the army was moving to the front, most of the available negroes had been enlisted in the pontoonier corps. Also, as two other regiments were being organized, the prospect of completing my own was not encouraging.
Under the circumstances, I obtained permission, accompanied by two of my officers, to follow in the wake of the army, moving up within ten miles east of Grand Gulf, some fifteen miles below Vicksburg. Meeting with my old friend, General John D. Stevenson, commanding the Third Brigade of General Logan's division, of which my former regiment, the Eighth Illinois, formed part, I told him that recruiting negroes was my object.
"The devil," he replied in disgust. "We shall have a fight in a day or two. You've just come in time to take charge of the skirmishers of my brigade. Your officers can do the recruiting."
I readily assented provided permission from General Grant could be obtained. That was easily procured. Sure enough, two days later the battle of Raymond was fought. There, and in all succeeding engagements, at Jackson, Champion's Hill, on to the assault on Vicksburg on the 22d day of May, I had charge of the skirmishers. The day after that unsuccessful attempt I returned to my command at Milliken's Bend.
My two officers had done splendidly; my regiment now numbered some 350 able-bodied colored men, while the two other regiments had done as well, bringing the total force to some 1,100 men, of which as senior officer present I assumed command. Our armament consisted of very indifferent Australian muskets, but the officers, with untiring zeal, had brought the recruits, all of them raw plantation hands, to an efficiency in four and six weeks' drill which could not have been surpassed by white recruits.
On the 7th of June we were attacked by about 2,500 Texas Rangers and 200 cavalry under the command of the Confederate General McCulloch— "General Taylor's army"— which ended, after an unprecedented slaughter, with the enemy repulsed, our loss being twelve officers and ninety men killed and seventeen officers and 268 men wounded—the highest percentage of loss in battle on record.
In his official report of that battle the Confederate commander, McCulloch, says: "The line was formed under a heavy fire from the enemy, my troops charging the breastworks. This charge was resisted with obstinacy by the negro portion of the enemy's forces, while the white portion ran like whipped curs almost as soon as the charge was ordered." In this latter stricture McCulloch probably meant a detachment of white cavalry, as an Iowa regiment was sent to our assistance and did good service. But that battle has gone into history and the question, "Will the Negro Fight?" was then and there settled for good.
Having been wounded, I obtained leave and went north.
Upon my return early in July I found orders from General Grant to report at headquarters. Boarding the same steamer that brought me down, I met the general next day. He received me very cordially and effusively complimented the officers and men for the gallantry they had displayed at the Bend, finally instructing me to reorganize my regiment into one of heavy artillery for the defense of Vicksburg. A steamboat was placed at my disposal to proceed to Natchez, where a large camp of negro contrabands offered a splendid opportunity for recruiting the regiment to the full standard of 1,800 men. I secured about 500 volunteers whom I took to Vicksburg. The remnant of the Ninth Louisiana Infantry at Milliken's Bend was added, and the new organization, under the designation of Fifth United States Heavy Artillery, colored, I promptly took in hand.
While the new line of fortifications around Vicksburg was being erected by my force, under General Grant's chief engineer, I was looking out for an additional supply of colored recruits for the complement of the regiment. I was informed that General Sherman, who had pursued the Confederate forces about Jackson into Alabama, was expected to return to Vicksburg with a great number of contrabands. General McPherson insisted I should have the pick.
Their arrival caused a general turnout of citizens and garrison through which the endless cortege passed. Such a sight was never seen since the exodus of the Jew from Egypt. Hundreds of vehicles of the most varied description, from the mule cart to the family equipage of their former masters, loaded promiscuously with women and children, household and kitchen furniture, while their male protectors, not so naked as you saw them in Omdurman, but just as dirty and uncivilized, marched in file on both sides of the caravan. In apparel they presented a most laughable spectacle, the majority in bedraggled plantation clothing, some with boots, some in shoes, most barefoot, in parts of Confederate and Union uniforms, a few here and there with stovepipe hats, caps or colored handkerchiefs on their heads; in short, the whole cavalcade could not better be characterized than by calling them a lot of black savages returning from a pilfering expedition.
From this motley crew the army surgeons selected a sufficient number of recruits to fill my regiment to the full quota. After a bath in the Mississippi with a scrubbing with brush and soap, and after shearing off their braided curls, they were given their military outfits and enrolled in one of the twelve companies. Clad in Uncle Sam's uniform, their physical appearance was all the most critical could wish, and after a few weeks' drill, the company officers were unanimous in their opinion that never had they met with a body of white recruits more willing and more amenable to military discipline than these lately collected half-savages from Alabama. They all had heard of the fine conduct of their comrades at Milliken's Bend, and now met their white brothers in arms with the proud feeling of equality.
But to make out of this material an effective military force was not the end of my aims. They had enlisted for three years, at the end of which time they would be thrown out into the more or less prejudiced world, to stand upon their own feet. I felt that I was upon trial as much as these half-civilized recruits. After a consultation with my officers I resolved to impart to all of these negroes as much elementary education as would be required for a discriminating American citizenship. A number of carpenters were selected from among them to erect a commodious school house; through the aid of the commanding general of the post of Vicksburg a bevy of school ma'ams was secured from the north; the chaplain was charged with the superintendency, and shortly all the school rooms were in full operation.
In addition I wish to state that with aid of a German band master, I organized a brass band of musicians, the proficiency of which challenged the admiration of all privileged to hear it—the army inspectors from Washington included.
I was convinced that it would be of great use if this finely drilled regiment could be kept in the service, as I believed the army is a civilizer. With this view in mind, I went to Washington shortly before our muster out and saw General Grant, then acting secretary of war. "I agree with all you say," said the general. "I know all about your regiment; but it would require an act of congress." And so my splendid regiment broke up and turned to the task of earning a living for which they had been fairly prepared.