Thursday, October 25, 2012

One Black Regiment’s Victory Over the Enemy and the Prejudice of Their Comrades

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The second part of "With the Black Scarves at the Battle of Bong Trang" will be presented in my next blog post. Tomorrow is the 148th anniversary of an important historical event that occurred near my home.  So I will offer this story to coincide with that anniversary.

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.

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." 

After the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the US Army began the organization of black regiments.  Thousands of young black men fled from farms across Tennessee and Northern Alabama to answer the call.  The 14th USCT was one of seven black regiments organized in Middle Tennessee in the late fall of 1863.  White volunteer regiments were commanded by officers who were politically appointed by their home states, often without experience or military training.  In contrast, USCT regiments were commanded by white officers, but those assigned to USCT units had to pass exhaustive tests on tactics, military discipline and logistics. It was considered a privilege to lead black troops.  Only the best candidates were allowed to have that responsibility. 

The regiment guarded supply lines around Chattanooga and Northern Georgia for the first eight months of its career and had its baptism of fire at a skirmish near Dalton, Georgia, in August 1864.  The following October, John B. Hood's Confederate Army of Tennessee left Georgia and began a move towards middle Tennessee in an unfruitful effort to lure away Sherman's army from its famous march from Atlanta to the sea.  Hood knew that only scattered garrison units stood in his way and that he had to strike quickly towards Nashville before an effective combat force could be formed to oppose him.  Hood crossed into northern Alabama and raced towards Decatur, Alabama, where a strategic rail and pontoon bridge offered the closest point to cross the Tennessee River.

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.”
Captain Romeyn later recalled: “. . . the white soldiers mounted the parapet and gave three rousing cheers.  I shall never forget the glad look of my first sergeant as, marching by my side, he turned his face to me and said ‘Captain, we’ve got it at last.’  Our victory was complete.”

An unidentified African American soldier of the USCT


  1. Thanks for having this website. I just found out that one of my ancestors was one of these brave men.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. You should be very proud of any ancestor who served, but especially those brave men of the USCT. They faced much more uncertainty and adversity than any of the other Civil War era soldiers. I hope you will check back often to my blog.