I published a slightly different version of this article in "The Bugle - The Journal of the National Infantry Association" in 2011. Thanks to my friend Doug Cubbison who did most of primary research for this article.
The Charge of the 14th USCT at the Siege of Decatur, Alabama
October 26, 1864
"History has not yet done justice to the share borne by colored soldiers in the war for the Union. If the records of their achievements could be put into such shape that they could be accessible to the thousands of colored youth in the South, they would kindle in their young minds an enthusiastic devotion to liberty and manhood.” The words of COL Thomas J. Morgan, written almost 150 years ago, still ring true today.
|COLONEL THOMAS F. MORGAN|
Morgan knew of the courage and devotion of men of color first hand. Morgan, a 23 year-old Major at the time, helped to organize the 14th Regiment of United States Colored Troops (USCT). This regiment was part of 180,000 African American men who answered the call to save the Union and free their fellow slaves from the horrors of the "Peculiar Institution."
Brig. Gen. Robert S. Granger cobbled together a force of about 4,000 men, made up of garrison and newly recruited regiments, to block Hood’s crossing at Decatur. The 14th USCT was rushed from Chattanooga by rail. They were added to a feverish effort to prepare the defense. Two earthen redoubts and over 1,600 yards of rifle pits were dug around the little town in only two days of preparation.
The Confederate Army encircled the town on October 26, 1864 with 39,000 troops. Rifle fire and artillery crashed for three days in a Rebel effort to destroy the garrison and force a crossing of the river. The Federals held their ground behind their earthworks, but the artillery fire became unbearable. Six Confederate guns near the river were especially effective. The Union commander sent a message to the 14th USCT, who occupied that part of the line, to silence the Rebel guns. The former slaves would have to cross 450 yards of open ground, directly into the fire of the six cannon. COL Morgan remembered “They manifested no undue excitement or fear, but seemed anxious for the work.”
|Captain Henry Romeyn later won the Medal of Honor in 1877|
during the Indian Wars.
Morgan ordered the assault to begin at noon. Captain Henry Romeyn of Company B recalled: “…The order was at once given to charge, and with arms at the right shoulder 363 enlisted men and officers rushed to the assault. It required but little time to reach and go over the slight works, and driving off the artillerymen (to) spike the guns.” Men of the 14th drove files into the touch holes of the cannon, rendering them useless to the enemy. An overwhelming Confederate counter-attack and a hand-to-hand melee around the guns forced the Union solders to retreat back to their fortifications, under a shower of rifle bullets. They succeeded in bringing all their dead and wounded with them - no man was left behind. Cheering greeted them as they returned, and the men knew they had finally gained the respect of their white countrymen.
The mission was a success; the guns were disabled and silenced. The next day Hood’s Army abandoned its effort to cross at Decatur and marched up stream to Florence, where high water delayed their crossing even longer. The Union stand at Decatur and the gallant charge of the 14th USCT provided vital time for General George H. Thomas to concentrate two corps of Federal troops to defend middle Tennessee.
A soldier from the 102nd Ohio recalled of the 14th: “They are a splendid regiment of men, and would fight the devil if he would come at them in the shape of a ‘Johnny Reb’.” The commander of the 18th Michigan wrote: “The charge was most gallantly and successfully made. All honor to the colonel and his brave regiment of colored troops.”
|An unidentified African American soldier of the USCT|