Update: In 2010 the Georgia Historical Society dedicated a marker commemorating the 44th USCT and their treatment at the hands of Confederate soldiers near Dalton, Georgia.
As Confederate officials in Richmond and citizens throughout the country debated whether to recruit slaves into the army as soldiers, black Union soldiers were being massacred on battlefields throughout the South. As I discuss in my book on the battle of the Crater, upwards of 200 black Union soldiers were massacred both during and following the battle. After the battle Confederates paraded white and black prisoners together through the streets of Petersburg to highlight for all civilians just what was at stake in the war.
The sight of black men in uniform and wielding rifles constituted one of the darkest fears for white southerners, who went to great lengths to defend against slave rebellions before the war. The letters and diaries of Confederate soldiers at the Crater and elsewhere suggest that this is exactly what they saw themselves doing on these battlefields.
Yesterday, historian Andrew Bledsoe tweeted out a thread on a massacre of black soldiers committed in Georgia in the Fall of 1864, again at the same time that Confederates were debating the enlistment of slaves.
Been writing about the Army of Tennessee’s fall 1864 operations in Georgia and came across a rather chilling encounter between Confederate troops and United States Colored Troops at Dalton. In the process of attacking Sherman’s supply lines, Hood encountered the 44th United States Colored Troops garrisoning a Federal position at Dalton. Hood demanded their surrender. Refusal, he promised, would be met with no quarter.
The 44th USCT’s CO, Col. Lewis Johnson, worried about the lives of his men and, under a truce flag, asked Hood whether his African-American troops would be treated as prisoners of war or slaves if surrendered. Col. Johnson reported:
I was told by General Hood that he would return all slaves belonging to persons in the Confederacy to their masters, and when I protested against this…he said I might surrender them as whatever I pleased. Although assured by General Hood in person that the terms of the agreement should be strictly observed, my men, especially the colored soldiers, were immediately robbed and abused in a terrible manner. The treatment of the officers of my regiment exceeded anything in brutality I have ever witnessed, and a General Bate distinguished himself especially by meanness and beastly conduct. This General Bate was ordered to take charge of us, and immediately commenced heaping insults upon me and my officers. He had my colored soldiers robbed of their shoes (this was done systematically and by his order), and sent them down to the railroad and made them tear up the track for a distance of nearly two miles. One of my soldiers, who refused to injure the track, was shot on the spot, as were also five others shortly after the surrender, who, having been sick, were unable to keep up with the rest on the march. A number of my soldiers were returned to their former masters. This I know was done, because I saw it done in a number of instances myself. When about to be paroled, I tried to get the free servants and soldiers in the regiment… released, but to no avail. From the treatment I received, and what I observed after my capture, I am sure that not a man would have been spared had I not surrendered when I did, and several times on the march soldiers made a rush upon the guards to massacre the colored soldiers and their officers. Mississippians did this principally (belonging to Stewart’s corps), and were often encouraged in these outrages by officers of high rank. I saw a lieutenant colonel who endeavored to infuriate a mob, and we were only saved from massacre by our guards’ greatest efforts.
There are reasons why it took so long for Confederates to finally approve a plan to enlist slaves as soldiers in the final weeks of the war and why it was such a divisive debate. White southerners were being forced to lay aside their deepest fears about arming black men as well as a deeply rooted white supremacist ideology that was framed around the institution of slavery.
This is a salient aspect of the history that is all too often overlooked by advocates of the black Confederate myth.