“Let Them Go To the Devil”: Desertion Among USCTs

Continuing with the theme of desertion [and here] from the past week here is a fascinating passage from Heny McNeal Turner, who served as an army chaplain for the United States Colored Troops. The following excerpt was written at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia on September  18, 1864 and appeared in The Christian Recorder a week later.

The passage concerns reports that black soldiers were deserting and going over to Confederate lines.

Arriving at Deep Bottom in the afternoon, the night was very agreeably spent with Chaplain Stevens and Tho[ma]s Chester, the very efficient colored correspondent of the Philadelphia Press. I took a survey of the works, after visiting another detachment of my soldiers. I was informed that several colored soldiers of the Thirty-sixth United States Colored Troops had deserted from that post, only a few moments previous to my arrival, and had gone over to the rebels. Another soldier of the same regiment, in attempting to do the same thing, was caught and placed in custody. He was awaiting his doom, which I presume will be death. I can neither hear nor imagine the reason why these men desert to the rebels. Perhaps it is a mere wife-love, some of them having wives South to whom they feel much endeared, and not knowing any thing concerning their condition, it seems to prey upon their minds, until all fear, dread and manhood is lost. And thus they desert.

But the government is determined to shoot them as fast as detected in the attempt. This leads me to speak of three soldiers, with whom I conversed freely. They were laboring under much mental anguish on account of receiving intelligence that their wives at home had married or taken up with other men–the wives of two of them had remarried, and a third had absconded. My advice in the premises was asked, and I know of no answer which suited any feeling of indignation more than this, which I freely gave: “Let them go the devil!” (p. 150)

Turner’s correspondence was recently collected and published as Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner. The book comes with an introduction by Aaron Sheehan-Dean and is highly recommended.

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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8 comments… add one
  • Will Hickox Jun 11, 2014 @ 6:54

    The 36th USCT was recruited from North Carolina African Americans, most of whom must have been former slaves. Given that the Union military sometimes forcibly recruited blacks from Southern plantations, it doesn’t surprise me that at least a few of the unwilling recruits would run back to the lines of their former masters, probably hoping to see their homes again. (I hasten to add that I’m not a proponent of the “Black Confederate” silliness.) Turner mentions that concern for what their spouses were up to may have been a factor.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 11, 2014 @ 7:06

      Your point about recruitment is important and one that Turner himself overlooks. What I still find hard to believe is that these men somehow assumed that they would end up back on the same farm with their loved ones.

      • Will Hickox Jun 11, 2014 @ 7:15

        It would be interesting to see if Confederates encouraged black troops to desert. We have accounts of Federals at Petersburg calling out things like “Come over, Johnnies, we have hardtack and coffee,” and rebels deserted by the hundreds as their situation went south (pun intended). We hear all the time about how hostile rebels soldiers became when they learned USCTs were in the lines opposite them (and vice-versa), but obviously not all black POWs were killed.

      • The other Susan Jun 11, 2014 @ 12:22

        I was wondering the same thing. I don’t imagine it turned out so well for them, if they were wearing a uniform.

        • Forester Jun 11, 2014 @ 13:44

          Are there any accounts of these surrendering blacks from the Confederate perspective?

          Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but I doubt they were killed whether they were in uniform or not. Southern whites didn’t believe blacks were capable of being soldiers, and seeing USCTs give up and return “home” would vindicate their racist beliefs. The butchery at Petersburg was committed against blacks who fought, not blacks who deserted.

          • Kevin Levin Jun 11, 2014 @ 13:57

            Southern whites didn’t believe blacks were capable of being soldiers, and seeing USCTs give up and return “home” would vindicate their racist beliefs.

            Perhaps, but you may be downplaying the fact that these were men who had engaged in the ultimate act of rebellion. It’s difficult to believe that slaveowners would want to place these men within the general slave population. What do you think they are going to talk about?

            • Forester Jun 11, 2014 @ 14:06

              Agreed, Kevin. And maybe the whites did kill them. But remember that captured USCTs often claimed they were forced to fight, insisting that they hadn’t shot anyone or even fired their gun.

              Remember E.P. Alexander’s memoir. “Them lying stinking Yankees fetched us here and made us fight,” one USCT said at the Crater. “I never fired a gun, Master,” said another. “I’ve never pointed a gun at a white man in my life.”

              Blacks who deserted from USCT ranks might have said something similar. They probably claimed to be impressed conscripts, actively trying to AVOID the ultimate act of rebellion. Now whether the whites believed them is another matter …

              • Kevin Levin Jun 11, 2014 @ 14:40

                But remember that captured USCTs often claimed they were forced to fight, insisting that they hadn’t shot anyone or even fired their gun.

                I’ve seen plenty of such accounts from Confederates. I don’t mean to downplay them, but it is still difficult to imagine slaveholders overlooking the fact that their experience of freedom included time in uniform and armed.

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