Remembering USCTs at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

I am pleased to report that I am making steady progress on revising my Crater manuscript.  In fact, I recently contacted the publisher to inform them that I plan to mail the manuscript no later than the first week of August.  It’s nice to finally be in the home stretch.  Much of my time has been spent cutting content that detracts from the core issue of race and historical memory, which I am now convinced is this project’s most important contribution to the literature.  One section that I am adding is a discussion of the black counter-memory of the battle. It’s not that I didn’t have any references to African American accounts, but there are so few that it was very difficult to weave them together as a coherent analysis.  One of my reviewers suggested that I take another shot at it.

One of the more fruitful sources is the postwar accounts written by white officers from USCT units.  I still don’t necessarily consider these sources to constitute a counter-memory, but they did help to preserve memory of the participation of African Americans at the Crater at the turn of the twentieth century.  The problem for the historian is that so few of these articles actually tell the story of the men in the units or address the larger issues that defined the service of African Americans.  The cultural and social divide between the two groups made it difficult for these individuals to relate to one another and very few officers remained in touch with the men in their units after the war.  I have accounts in which the officers go on and on about the battlefield heroics of their fellow white officers, but say nothing about the men in the ranks.  A few that do end up minimizing their claims to manhood by continuing the argument that black soldiers needed their white officers to control their innate emotional excesses.  One account focuses specifically on denying claims that white officers were drunk during the battle without addressing continued claims that black soldiers were as well.

The few accounts that do attempt to tell the story of the men in Ferrero’s Fourth Division are very important primarily because they preserved a memory of the war at a time when the nation was moving away from a narrative of emancipation and embracing reunion.  The majority of these articles can be found in The National Tribune, which was in publication between 1877 and 1917 and functioned as the principal Grand Army of the Republic’s weekly newspaper.  Two officers in particular stand out for their contributions to this newspaper.  The first is Lt. Freeman Bowley, who served in the 30th USCT.  His writings and memoir were recently compiled and edited by Keith Wilson as Honor in Command (University Press of Flordia, 2006).  The second is Colonel Delavan Bates, who also served in the 30th USCT.

Bates’s article of January 30, 1908 is worth mentioning for a number of reasons.  First, I love the image that accompanied the article, which you can see above. [I apologize for the fuzziness, but I took the photograph with my iPhone.]  Bates is one of the few authors who attempts to capture a conversation that took place on the eve of the battle of the Crater.  The speaker was a sergeant who had worked as a preacher on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay before the war:

My deah bredern, dis am gwine to be er gre’t fite de gre’tes’ we’uns hab eber seen if we’uns tek Petrsburg mos’ likly we’l tuk Richmun, and derstroy Mars Gin’ul Lee’s big ahmy and den clos de wah.  Ebery man hed orter lif up hiself in praher fur er strong hyart.  O, bredern, ‘member de pore cullud fokses ober yer in bondage.  En ‘member Marse Gin’ul Grant, en Marse Gin’ul Burnside, en Marse Gin’ul Meade, en all de uder ob de gre’t Gin’uls ober yunner watch’n yer, en, moreover, de fust nigger dat goes ter projeckin’ es gwine ter git dis byarnut inter him. ‘Fore Gawd, hits sho nuff trufe Ise tellin’ yer.

I have to admit that it’s difficult not to project yourself into the audience when reading this account.  Even more interesting is the poem by George H. Baker that closes out this article:

Dark as the clouds of even,/Banked in the western heaven,/Waiting the breath that lifts/All the dread mass and drifts;/Tempest and falling brand/Over a ruined land;/So, still and orderly,/’Arm to arm, knee to knee,/Waiting the great event,/Stands the Black Regiment.

Down the long dusky line/Teeth gleam and eyeballs shine;/And the bright bayonet,/Bristling and firmly set,/Flashed with a purpose grand,/Long ere the sharp command/Of the fierce rolling drum/Told them their time had come,/told them what work was sent/For the Black Regiment.

‘Now,’ the brave Colonel cried,/”Tho death and hell betide,/Let the whole Nation see/If you are fit to be/Free in this land, or bound/Down with red stripes of pain/In you, old chains again!’/Oh, what a shout there went/From the Black Regiment.

‘Charge!’ Trump and drum awoke,/Onward the bondmen broke;/Bayonet and saber stroke/Vainly opposed their rush,/Thru the wild battle’s crush,/With but one thought aflush,/Driving their lords like chaff,/In the guns’ mouths they laugh;/Or at the slippery brands,/Leaping with open hands,/Down they tear man and horse,/Down in their awful course;/Trampling with bloody steel,/All their eyes forward bent,/Rushed the Black Regiment.

‘Freedom!’ their battle cry,/’Freedom or leave to die!’/Ah, and they meant the word/Not as with us ’tis heard,/Not a mere party shout;/They gave their spirits out;/Trusted the end to God,/and on the gory sod/Rolled in triumphant blood;/Glad to strike one free blow,/Whether for weal or woe;/Glad to breathe one free breadth,/Tho on the lips of death,/Praying alas! in vain,/That they might rise again/So they could once more see/That fight for liberty!/this was what ‘freedom’ lent/To the Black Regiment.

Hundreds on hundreds fell,/But they are resulting well;/Scourges and shackles strong/Never shall do them wrong./Companions, be just and true;/Oh, the living few/Hall them as comrades tried,/Stand with them side by side;/Never in field or tent/Shun the Black Regiment.

Hope you enjoyed that.

5 comments… add one

  • Margaret D. Blough Jul 7, 2010

    The dialect was a little incomprehensible, but the poem was magnificent.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2010

      I had to read it a few times to get it, but it will come.

  • Dan Wright Jul 7, 2010

    Thanks for posting the Baker poem. It has a nice “Charge of the Light Brigade” lyricism.

  • Peter Jul 7, 2010

    The George H. Boker poem (perhaps the _Tribune_ printed a typo with the attribution Baker) refers to the charge of the black troops at Port Hudson in May of 1863, and is often cited in connection with laudatory accounts of the USCT (and at in connection with black troops in later wars).

    • Kevin Levin Jul 7, 2010

      Thanks for pointing that out, Peter.

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