The March 1865 Review of the Union’s Black Soldiers: “President Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops”

Union Troops enter Richmond VA Leslie's Illustrated
“The Union Army Entering Richmond, VA., April 3,” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 25, 1865.
As depicted in the illustration, African American soldiers led the way into Richmond when it was captured near the end of the Civil War. Just a week earlier, these same soldiers had marched in review for President Abraham Lincoln.
This is a colorized versions of an image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News by the postcard publisher Southern Bargain House of Richmond, VA.

Image Source: From MetroPostcard.com

For the Confederates, it was time to do the unthinkable: enlist slaves in their war to create a slaveholders’ nation. For the Union, it was time for black soldiers to strut their stuff in front of the president of the United States.

Such was the state of the American Civil War in March 1865. These two very different stories are discussed in the book HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS IN THE WAR OF THE REBELLION 1861-1865, by George Washington Williams. The historian Williams was a veteran of the Union army as a member of the United States Colored Troops, or USCT. The section of his book which is cited below shows how the contrasting policies of the Union and Confederacy toward black enlistment played out in the closing months of the war.

By March 1865, the Confederate States of America (CSA) was on the verge of military defeat, and desperate times dictated desperate measures. After several months of intense debate, the Confederate Congress approved a measure that allowed slaves to enlist in the Confederate army. The administration of Confederate president Jefferson Davis added rules which required that slaves be conferred the status of freemen by their owners prior to enlisting; although I have seen some debate as to whether slaves so enlisted were to be temporarily free during their enlistment, versus being  permanently free both during and after their time as soldiers. In any case, it was a way to gain manpower at a time when the Confederacy was critically short of men to fight.

As it turned out, the new policy of enlisting slaves was too little too late. In April of 1865, CSA General in chief Robert E. Lee would surrender his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, and the remaining Confederate forces would follow his example over the next few months. But for a moment, African American soldiers were the great black hope of the white men in grey.

For the Union, meanwhile, hopes had been realized. In July of 1862, the Union Congress passed laws which allowed African Americans to enlist in the military, and gave freedom to slaves who did so. Eventually, some 200,000 black men would join the Union army and navy and they were a key part of the Union war effort.

By March 1865, Union forces that included black soldiers were on the brink of capturing Richmond, Virgina, the capital of the Confederacy. Indeed, on April 3, 1865, members of the USCT would take the lead in capturing the fallen city. With the end of the war so close, president Abraham Lincoln came to the Richmond area from Washington, DC, to see the events unfold.

On Lincoln’s itinerary was a review of the black troops. (A review is basically a military parade. In a military review, soldiers march in a formation that has been practiced through drilling.) As noted by George Washington Williams in HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS, some 25,000 black soldiers, “well drilled, well armed, and well officered, passed in review before the President, General (Ulysses) Grant, and the general officers of the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac.” While noting the irony that Lincoln had initially “protested” against the use of black soldiers early in the war, Williams said that now, “Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops.”

This was the last such review of black troops that Lincoln would see; an assassin’s bullet cut his life short on April 15. But for that one bright moment, the president was presented “one of the most magnificent military spectacles of the civil war.”

From the book HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS IN THE WAR OF THE REBELLION 1861-1865, page 292-293:

On the 28th of January the Lower House of the Confederate Congress had resolved to employ Negroes as soldiers, but on the 7th of February the Senate refused to concur in the action of the House. On the 18th of February General Lee urged his plan of the military employment of Negroes, and on the 20th the Confederate House passed a bill authorizing the employment of two hundred thousand Negroes in the armed service of the Government, but the Senate promptly rejected the measure. The Negro, who had been manifestly and confessedly the cause of the war, was now the hope of both Union and Confederate governments. Fair hands that had been stained with the blood of bondmen, but which were now impotent in disaster, were outstretched to Ethiopia. But “Ethiopia’s hands long stretching mightily had plead with God,” and the cause of the despised Negro had become the cause of humanity and civilization the world over.

But the movement finally received the force of law, as shown in the following, which is the last part of the last Special Order issued from the Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office at Richmond :

“Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office,

” Richmond, April 1, 1865.
“Special Orders No. 78.

“XXIX. Lieutenant John L. Co wardin, Adjutant Nineteenth Battalion Virginia Artillery, is hereby relieved from his present command and will proceed without delay to Halifax County, Virginia, for the purpose of recruiting Negro troops, under the Act of Congress approved March 13th, and General Orders No. 14, Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office, current series.”

On the 23d of March the first company of Negro State troops was mustered into the Confederate service, and by a strange coincidence President Lincoln left Washington city to review his Negro soldiers on the James River on the same day. (NOTE: A company is a group of 75-100 soldiers.)

The review was one of the most magnificent military spectacles of the civil war. The weather was fair and the atmosphere pleasant for the moving masses of troops. Twenty-five thousand Negro soldiers, in bright, new uniforms, well drilled, well armed, and well officered, passed in review before the President, General Grant, and the general officers of the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac. The troops were reviewed between General William Birney’s headquarters and Fort Harrison, in full view of the enemy at Fort Gilmer.

The troops marched with company front, with banners flying and bands playing. Nearly every slave State had its representatives in the ranks of this veteran Negro army, while Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, of the Northern States, had regiments in the line. President Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops, against whose employment he had early and earnestly protested. Hundreds of white officers and thousands of white soldiers witnessed the review with keen interest, and were loud in their praise of the splendid soldierly bearing of their Negro comrades in arms.

The entire review was highly satisfactory, and made a deep impression upon the minds of the civil and military chiefs who witnessed it.

Health Care, such as it was, for Civil War Veterans

A Bit of History partial Thomas Waterman copy
“A Bit of History – The Veteran” by Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1865-6. This is one of three images by Wood that shows the transformation of a man from a slave into a newly-recruited soldier for the Union army and finally into a veteran. Many soldiers wore the wounds and scars of the American Civil War into post-war life. Sadly, there were not always resources in their communities or beyond to help them with their health issues.
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

I’ve been ill the past few days, and I wound up having to make a long visit with the doctor. Unlucky me – I have an abdominal condition that will probably require surgery. But at least I have health care, so I can go to a doctor and get back to wellness.

Today, US military veterans have access to health care via the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and its Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 152 VA Medical Centers and approximately 1400 community-based outpatient clinics in the US. In 2014, the Veterans Health Administration was “rocked by scandal” due to “major problems with scheduling timely access to medical care.” But at least there is a system in place to attend to the health needs of our veterans.

Compare that to the circumstances for veterans, and especially black veterans, of the American Civil War. In the book Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files, edited by Elizabeth Regosin and Donald Shaffer, the editors note that

The vast majority of former slaves were poor… .medical problems (of Union veterans who were former slaves) both contributed to and were compounded by poverty. Illness left former slaves with the medical bills that they could not pay or without access to proper medical care, leaving them in a position where they had to treat to themselves with herbal remedies or patent medicine, forms of therapy that sometimes ameliorated symptoms but rarely provided a permanent cure.

The book goes on to site the case of black Union veteran Isaac Petteway, who served in the US Colored Troops, 37th Infantry Regiment, and his wife Rosa Pettetway. In 1889, Rosa filed for a pension after her husband passed away. The following is from the deposition that was filed with the pension request and found in the National Archives:

Q. After coming out of the Army did your husband the soldier ever have any fever or pneumonia or was he troubled with any cough or lung disease?

A. He had a bad cough and after he was taken down with his fatal illness he had a desperate cough. He was always subject to cold and he had the chills bad often.

Q. Tell me all you can about his condition from the time you say he was taken down until he died?

A. He was down in his bed three years, helpless as a child, and I nursed [him]. He was full of pains and misery, and that leg would pain him. He would holler so you could hear him holler along way. He had a very bad cough and complained of his side and chest, and I’ll cross his breast and stomach. The ulcer on the leg would run part of the time and there again would break out again. The sore or a corruption did not [intelligible] above the knee. There were no running sores on his body only the old one.
I didn’t think he had any hemorrhage or bleeding, not as I knows of.

Q. What did you believe was the immediate cause of his death?

A. That leg, the pain in it run up into his body and took his life away from him

Q. How do you know that it was not pneumonia or consumption he died of?

A. I don’t know, only I think it was the leg.

Q. When you found your husband was dying was there no way you could have secured a doctor, is there no State or county provision for Doctors for the poor?

A. No Sir, You can’t get a doctor here [Beaufort, N.C.] without the cash… We were not able to employ any doctor. I just treated my husband with herbs and such like—we never had any Doctor

It doesn’t seem right that a veteran should go out this way, to use a colloquial expression. Dignified service should have resulted in dignified care. But our health care policies have evolved for the better since then, and thankfully so. I hope Isaac and Rosa Petteway are resting in peace with the knowledge that their country is trying to do better by the soldiers who followed him.

Contrasting Icons of Anti-slavery Art: Richard Ansdell’s “The Hunted Slaves” and Eyre Crowe’s “Slaves Waiting for Sale Richmond, Virginia”

Richard_Ansdell_-_The_Hunted_Slaves_-_Google_Art_Project-2
“The Hunted Slaves,” 1861, by English artist Richard Ansdell
From here: “Painted in 1861, the year of the outbreak of the American Civil War, this picture portrays two runaway slaves, turning to face the pack of mastiffs which has pursued them. When the painting was first exhibited the artist included a quotation in the catalogue from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem ‘The Dismal Swamp,’ which describes the flight of an escaped slave. The painting… is now in the ‘Legacies’ section of the International Slavery Museum.”
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Slaves for Sale Crowe
“Slaves Waiting for Sale Richmond, Virginia,” 1861, by English artist Eyre Crowe
From here: “Inspired and outraged by a visit he made to slave auction rooms in Richmond, Crowe commemorated the subject first in an engraved sketch which appeared in the Illustrated London News on 27 September 1856 (Slave Auction at Richmond, Virginia), and then by this oil painting which was exhibited at the British Academy in 1861. The original sketch, made on 3 March 1853, was published by Crowe in his book ‘With Thackeray in America’… “Slaves Waiting for Sale” is now held in the Heinz private collection in Washington D.C., United States.”
Image Source: Eyre Crowe.com;
a high-resolution image is here.

The above paintings are icons of anti-slavery art, although quite different in their approach to the subject. Both pictures are the work of English artists; they show that interest in American slavery and anti-slavery extended beyond the boundaries of the United States. Both were made just as the American Civil War was beginning; these artists may have perceived that the war was about slavery, and were keen to show the stakes involved. Continue reading

A Reunion in Richmond, VA, April 1865: “This is your mother, Garland, who has spent 20 years of grief about her son.”

NatlRep491
It was the beginning of the end of the American Civil War: The National Republican, a Washington, DC newspaper, reports that the city of Richmond, VA, which was the capital of the Confederacy, was captured by Union forces on April 3, 1865. And the US Colored Troops – the “black troops”  – led the way.
The US Colored Troops consisted primarily of African American soldiers. One of those soldiers experienced an unexpected family reunion which exemplifies the meaning of the war to African Americans, especially those who had been enslaved. See the blog post below.
Source: From the April 3, 1865 extra edition of The National Republican, a Washington, DC newspaper; as noted in the African American Civil War Museum blog.

On April 3, 1865, Richmond, Virginia – the capital of the Confederate States of America – was captured by the Union army. Soldiers in the United States Colored Troops (or USCT –  Union regiments primarily composed of African American soldiers) were the first to enter the city. Meanwhile, other USCT and Union regiments continued to pursue Confederate forces in the area led by General Robert E. Lee. General Lee would finally surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9th, 1865, at Appomattox, Virginia. By the end of June 1865, almost all of the Confederate forces had surrendered and the Civil War, for all practical purposes, was over.

One member of the US Colored Troops that entered Richmond was a chaplain named Garland White, of the 28th US Colored Infantry. Chaplain White wrote for the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) church. In the North, the AME was the most important church organization for free blacks. Garland White was a runaway slave from the Richmond/Petersburg area who fled to Canada, returned to the US, and joined the Union army  after policy changes by the federal government allowed black enlistment. In a Christian Recorder article (1), he wrote about the fall/liberation of Richmond; the joyous reactions of the city’s black residents; the presence of Abraham Lincoln; and an unexpected family reunion:

I have just returned from the city of Richmond; my regiment was among the first that entered that city. I marched at the head of the column, and soon I found myself called upon by the officers and men of my regiment to make a speech, with which, of course, I readily complied. A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him.

In this mighty consternation I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart. I refired to gain strength, so I lost many important topics worthy of note.

Among the densely crowded concourse there were parents looking for children who had been sold south of this state in tribes, and husbands came for the same purpose; here and there one was singled out in the ranks, and an effort was made to approach the gallant and marching soldiers, who were too obedient to orders to break ranks.

We continued our march as far as Camp Lee, at the extreme end of Broad Street, running westwards. In camp the multitude followed, and everybody could participate in shaking the friendly but hard hands of the poor slaves. Among the many broken-hearted mothers looking for their children who had been sold to Georgia and elsewhere, was an aged woman, passing through the vast crowd of colored, inquiring for one by the name of Garland H. White, who had been sold from her when a small boy, and was bought by a lawyer named Robert Toombs (2), who lived in Georgia. Since the war has been going on she has seen Mr. Toombs in Richmond with troops from his state, and upon her asking him where his body-servant Garland was, he replied: “He ran off from me at Washington, and went to Canada. I have since learned that he is living somewhere in the State of Ohio.” Some of the boys knowing that I lived in Ohio, soon found me and said, “Chaplain, here is a lady that wishes to see you.” I quickly turned, following the soldier until coming to a group of colored ladies. I was questioned as follows:

“What is your name, sir?”
“My name is Garland H. White.”
“What was your mother’s name?”
“Nancy.”
“Where was you born?”
“In Hanover County, in this State.”
“Where was you sold from?”
“From this city.”
“What was the name of the man who bought you?”
“Robert Toombs.”
“Where did he live?”
“In the State of Georgia.”
“Where did you leave him?”
“At Washington.”
“Where did you go then?”
“To Canada.”
“Where do you live now?”
“In Ohio.”

“This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son.”

I cannot express the joy I felt at this happy meeting of my mother and other friends. But suffice it to say that God is on the side of the righteous, and will in due time reward them. I have witnessed several such scenes among the other colored regiments.

Late in the afternoon, we were honored with his Excellency, the President of the United States, Lieutenant-General Grant, and other gentlemen of distincfion. We made a grand parade through most of the principal streets of the city, beginning at Jeff Davis’s mansion, and it appeared to me that all the colored people in the world had collected in that city for that purpose. I never saw so many colored people in all my life, women and children of all sizes running after Father, or Master Abraham, as they called him.


RECEIVING THE PRESIDENT. Abraham Lincoln riding through Richmond, April 4th, 1865, after the evacuation of the city by the Confederates.
Source: The Black Phalanx: African American soldiers in the War of Independence, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, p 452, by Joseph T. Wilson; published 1890; book is available online at Project Gutenberg.
Continue reading

Colored Troops enter Charleston, SC; “I’s waited for ye, and prayed for ye, long time… an ye has done come at last”

US Colored Troops enter Charleston
“Marching on!”–The Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Colored Regiment singing John Brown’s March in the streets of Charleston, February 21, 1865
Photo Source: Drawing from Harper’s Weekly, March 1865; image is at the Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-105560 (w film copy neg.) LC-USZ62-117999 (w film copy neg.)

The Record of the Service of the Fifty-fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry – a book about the history of this majority black regiment during the Civil War – tells of an event that was miraculous for the times. It is hard for us, today, to realize how sublime and surreal it was that on February 21, 1865, African American soldiers entered the city of Charleston, South Carolina, liberating the enslaved people there from bondage. It was an event that was unthinkable just several years earlier. But 1865 was the Year of the Unthinkable – and for the enslaved people of Charleston, the Year of Jubilee. And freedom came with the face of black men in blue suits.

For northerners, South Carolina was considered the Cradle of the Confederacy. It was, after all, the first state to secede from the Union; ten other states would follow her lead and combine to form the Confederate States of America. The shooting war between the Union and Confederacy started on April 12, 1861, when Fort Sumter – a United States military fort that protected the entrance to Charleston harbor – was attacked by Confederate forces. The fort surrendered to the Confederates after two days of artillery shelling. Four years of fighting followed; anywhere from 620,000 to 750,000 men died, and that doesn’t include those who were injured or  missing in action. The American Civil War was an American bloodbath.

But African Americans saw South Carolina in a different negative light. At the start of the war, South Carolina was the blackest state in the Union: 57% of its residents were slaves, and another 1.4% were free blacks. Working conditions throughout the state could be harsh, especially in the rice fields along the Atlantic coast. Although the coastal town of Charleston was something of an outlier in this overwhelmingly rural state: it was an urban enclave with a white majority (in 1860, Charleston had a population of 23,000 whites, 14,000 slaves, and 3,200 free blacks). As the state’s major trading center, it was bustling with economic activity, including slave trading businesses that engaged in the sale of property in human beings. This place of white wealth was the site of many black broken hearts.

And if it had been South Carolina’s choice, it would remain that way. In its 1860 secession declaration, the state asserted that “we affirm that these ends for which (the United States) government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.” A new, Confederate nation would remove these threats to their system of bondage, but the war with the Union would have to be won first. A loss to the Union might make the state’s worst nightmares come true.

Over the course of the war, the Union made attempts to capture Charleston and the military forts around it. Most famously, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment – a majority black regiment – was repulsed in its attack on Fort Wagner in July 1863. The unit suffered heavy casualties. Although defeated, their spirited attack and sacrifice was recognized and celebrated throughout the northern states. Many years later, in 1989, the  54th Massachusetts became the focus of a movie named Glory.

But the Union would finally have its day. In January 1865, Union forces led by General William Sherman entered South Carolina from Georgia, and the Confederates could not give them much opposition. In February 1865, Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard ordered that Charleston be evacuated, although many residents remained thereafter. On February 15, the mayor of Charleston surrendered the city to Union General Alexander Schimmelfennig. This was followed by a procession of nearby Union troops into the city, which was headed by regiments of black troops.

The 55th Massachusetts Infantry and 21st United States Colored Infantry regiments led the way. The 21st USCI, formerly known as the 3rd and 4th Regiments of the South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (African Descent), included former slaves from the South Caroline Low Country, not too far away. The significance and symbolism of their actions – that they were black men who were freeing black people from slavery – was neither lost on them, nor on the enslaved people they liberated. Jubilee was indeed at hand.

The Record of the Service of the Fifty-fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which charts the history of the regiment, recounted the arrival of black troops into Charleston. It was an event, they said, that would live in memory forever:

…after a short delay to await the return of foraging parties, the line of march was resumed for (the town of) Mount Pleasant, opposite Charleston… the Fifty-fifth was the first body of troops to enter the town after its evacuation. Words would fail to describe the scene which those who witnessed it will never forget, — the welcome given to a regiment of colored troops by their people redeemed from slavery, As shouts, prayers, and blessings resounded on every side, all felt that the hardships and dangers of the siege were fully repaid. The few white inhabitants left in the town were either alarmed or indignant, and generally remained in their houses; but the colored people turned out en masse. Assiduously had they been taught to regard the ” Yanks ” as their enemies ; carefully had every channel of information been closed against them : but all to no purpose.

“Bress de Lord,” said an old, gray-haired woman, with streaming eyes, and hands clasped and raised toward heaven, “bress de Lord, I’s waited for ye, and prayed for ye, long time, and I knowed you’d come, an ye has done come at last;” and she expressed the feelings of all…

Daylight was fading when the line was formed to march through the city to a camping ground on Charleston Neck. Before the march commenced, three rousing cheers were given by the men of the Fifty-fifth, and given with a will. They were then told that the only restriction placed on them in passing through the city, would be to keep in the ranks, and that they might shout and sing as they chose.

Few people were on the wharf when the troops landed, or in the street when the line was formed; but the streets, on the route through the city, were crowded with the colored population. Cheers, blessings, prayers, and songs were heard on every side. Men and women crowded to shake hands with men and officers, Many of them talked earnestly and understandingly of the past and present. The white population remained within their houses, but curiosity led even them to peep through the blinds at the ‘black Yankees.”

On through the streets of the rebel city passed the column, on through the chief seat of that slave power, tottering to its fall. Its walls rung to the chorus of manly voices singing “John Brown,” ” Babylon is falling,” and the “Battle-Cry of Freedom”; while, at intervals, the national airs, long unheard there, were played by the regimental band. The glory and the triumph of this hour may be imagined, but can never be described. It was one of those occasions which happen but once in a lifetime, to be lived over in memory for ever.

On BET TV tonight: debut of “The Book of Negroes” Miniseries, about 18th Century slavery and freedom

Tonight (2/16/2015), “The Book of Negroes” miniseries, about 18th Century slavery and freedom, will debut on the BET TV cable network. The film, based on the novel of the same name by Canadian author Lawrence Hill, is about a woman from western Africa who is sold into bondage in the British American colonies; escapes from Manhattan at the end of the Revolutionary War; emigrates to Nova Scotia, Canada; and finally returns to Africa. The cast includes lead actress Aunjanue Ellis, Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr., and Academy Award and Primetime Emmy Award winner Lou Gossett Jr. This is a 6-part miniseries, with parts 1 and 2 airing tonight.

Although it is not well known, many African Americans were supportive of the British during their war – the Revolutionary War – with the American Patriots. When the War ended, some 3,000 African American slaves and loyalists (persons who were loyal to Britain) fled Manhattan in British ships and were resettled in Nova Scotia; the British had promised freedom to the slaves, and for these people at least, the promise was kept. If memory serves me, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among the Patriots who lost slave property during the War. A ledger called the Book of Negroes was used to record the names of those who left the American colonies to have their freedom.

This looks to be an interesting film, for at least a couple of reasons. First, the lead character is an African woman (she’s born in Africa and eventually returns there), and we don’t see that much in American film. (The film’s director,like the author of the novel, are Canadians of African descent.) Second, it covers the 18th Century, including the Revolutionary War. Not too many people are aware that many historians believe that more Africans supported Britain over the American colonists, in this war that created the United States.

The BET website has details of the miniseries here.

Remembering Willis Howcott: a Civil War monument to a Mississippi slave

Howcott-memorial copy
Monument in Memory of Colored Servants of Harvey Scouts. Canton Miss. Erected by W. H. Howcott Click here for a larger image.
Per here: Monument erected by William H. Howcott, a veteran of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit. The base reads “To the memory of the good and loyal servants who followed the fortunes of Harvey’s Scouts during the civil War.”
Image Source: Howcott Memorial, from the blog Finding Josephine; photo courtesy Joel Brink.

The blog Confederate Digest – which claims to provide “historically accurate” commentary about the Confederate States – has a blog entry about a rare type of monument in Canton, Mississippi: it was erected in honor of a Confederate slave.

The monument honors Willis Howcott, who was the slave of William Howcott. William Howcott was a member of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit from Mississippi made up of around 128 soldiers. A history of Harvey’s Scouts, written by John Claiborne and published in 1885, is here. While the names of the Scout’s soldiers are listed, neither the names of the slaves who were with the soldiers, nor a count of those slaves, is indicated in Claiborne’s history.

The Confederate Digest blog entry says that “William was 15 years old when he joined Harvey’s Scouts in 1864. Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend. Willis was, tragically, killed in combat sometime in 1865 at the age of 14.” This is based on family memoirs and memories.

This same blog entry makes the claim, which is largely discredited, that an “estimated 65,000 or more African American men, both free and slave, were Confederate soldiers.” Was Willis Howcott one of these black Confederate soldiers?

First, some quick background. During the Civil War, many masters took their slaves with them as they went off to war. These slaves performed a number of tasks: they cooked, foraged for food, washed laundry, cut hair, cared for animals, etc. These slaves were not enlisted in the army; slave enlistment was prohibited by the Confederate government until March 1865. (One month later, Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia.)

I read through Claiborne’s history of the Scouts, and found no mention of Willis Howcott. Claiborne’s list of the unit’s dead (12 men in all) does not include Willis Howcott’s name. If Willis Howcott did die in battle, it is not recorded in this history, which was developed “out of a considerable amount of material furnished by different persons, and placed at his (Claiborne’s) disposal.”

In fact, Claiborne’s history of Harvey’s Scouts makes no mention of the unit’s slaves at all. Interestingly, Claiborne does document an encounter the Scouts had with a group of US Colored Troops, black men who enlisted in the Union army. Claiborne writes that the “Scouts fell in with a long wagon train from Natchez, guarded by a colored regiment. A desperate fight ensued. The negroes had been taught that we would show them no quarter, and fought like devils.” But there is no mention of the negroes who were with the Scouts. In Claiborne’s history, the slaves are not soldiers, but rather, invisible men.

Regardless of Willis Howcott’s role in his master’s army unit, there is no doubt that his death was heartfelt by William Howcott: in the 1890s, William paid for a 20-foot high granite obelisk monument to the memory of Willis in Canton, MS. While there are hundreds of monuments to Confederate soldiers, monuments recognizing slaves who accompanied Confederate military units are quite rare. (Consider the monuments here and here.) The inscription on the monument William Howcott dedicated to Willis Howcott poignantly reads, “A tribute to my faithful servant and friend, Willis Howcott, a colored boy of rare loyalty and faithfulness, whose memory I cherish with deep gratitude.” Of note is that Willis Howcott is identified as a servant who was loyal to his master, not as a soldier who was loyal to his country. And there is no mention of how Willis died. In any event, William Howcott was clearly hurt by the loss.

Did William Howcott ultimately blame himself for the loss of his slave and friend? Should he have?

The monument raises the question: how should we, today, look at the death of Willis Howcott? When soldiers fight and die for a great cause – such as the independence of their country, or liberation from bondage – we thank the soldier and honor his sacrifice. But Willis Howcott died a slave. He died because his master chose to bring him into a war zone, for the master’s convenience. In death, Willis Howcott paid the highest price that could be paid by a slave in his service to his master. Is it honorable or right that a slave master should put his slave in that position? Beyond his master’s respect and gratitude, what did the slave stand to gain by being placed in such hazardous conditions… is what the slave stood to gain “worth” the loss of his life? Is the death of this exploited laborer much more tragic than it was possibly heroic (assuming that the 14 year old Willis did die in battle)?

(The Confederate Digest post says “Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend.” Really?… a 13 year old slave boy had the authority to dictate that he would join his young master in a military unit? Willis Howcott’s presence in the unit was surely not his decision to make, and probably not solely William Howcott’s decision; William’s parents or guardians at least would have approved it. The parents/guardians of William no doubt felt better about William’s military service with servant Willis at his side to help out with the rigors of camp life. And it’s not unlikely that young Willis wanted to accompany his master. The idea of going off to war might have been a thrill for both these young teenagers. It is unknown if Willis’s parents approved, or had veto power over, the taking of their son.)

The black man in the above picture is unidentified. He stands almost like a sentinel, as if he was guarding the memory of Willis Howcott itself. Was he a relative of Willis?  African Americans, in Mississippi and elsewhere, typically lacked the resources to erect their own such monuments. So the family’s feelings about Willis’s death were not etched in stone, for us to see. This possible relative might well have been thankful that Willis received due recognition for his sacrifice, no matter what the circumstances of his death. This, as opposed to so many unnamed and unnoticed black men and women, who did the very best they could do under trying times, and yet have nothing in the commemorative landscape to show for the lives they lived. Willis Howcott’s death is worth remembering. As to how that death should be remembered… that is another question.

EDIT: As noted in a response from Francis Howcutt (see comments below), the Willis Howcott monument was moved a few years ago from the site shown in the picture to a burial ground near the Old Jail at Canton, Mississippi.