The Black Regulars, 1866-1898

The Black Regulars, 1866-1898

by William A. Dobak, Thomas D. Phillips


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806157535
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 01/16/2017
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

William A. Dobak, retired from the National Archives, Washington, D.C., is the author of Fort Riley and Its Neighbors: Military Money and Economic Growth, 1853–1895 and Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867.

Thomas D. Phillips holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Read an Excerpt

The Black Regulars, 1866â"1898

By William A. Dobak, Thomas D. Phillips


Copyright © 2001 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5815-0


"I Much Wrother Souldier Then to Be Any Thing Else"

In the summer of 1866, a year after the Civil War ended and more than six months after the Thirteenth Amendment finally banned slavery throughout the country, the United States needed the largest peace-time army in its history for several tasks: to occupy the recalcitrant South, to patrol the Mexican border, to protect construction of transcontinental railroads, and to guard wagon roads to the Colorado and Montana goldfields. The expanded force would include some black soldiers, both because the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) had proved their worth during the Civil War and because emancipation had made available several hundred thousand potential recruits. The army reorganization act provided, among other innovations, for two new regiments of cavalry and four of infantry "composed of colored men."

Within a week, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant urged the Secretary of War to begin raising the new regiments at once. Grant wanted their ranks filled before winter and suggested that enough men could be found among the thirteen thousand Civil War veterans in the USCT regiments still in service. To speed enlistments, USCT officers would act as recruiters, serving temporarily with the new organizations until the War Department awarded them commissions in the regular army.

Orders went the next day to Major Generals William T. Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan for each to raise one black regiment of infantry and one of cavalry. In Sherman's command, the 38th Infantry would organize at St. Louis and the 10th Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, while Sheridan's Department of the Gulf would furnish the 39th Infantry and the 9th Cavalry. At the same time, Major General Nelson A. Miles would raise the 40th Infantry from U.S. Colored Troops still serving in Virginia and the Carolinas. Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Department of the Tennessee, was responsible for recruiting the 41st Infantry.

If enough veterans could be enrolled, the new regiments would not have to go through much training before being ordered into the field, and Grant gave instructions not to enlist civilians until the USCT no longer yielded recruits. Nor were army officers "to disturb labor contracts" (the infamous annual contracts by which Southern planters sought to substitute a year-long obligation for outright chattel slavery) in order to find men. The regular regiments would establish headquarters close to the USCT regiments from which their recruits came so that, as the new organizations grew in strength, they could take over the duties of military occupation.

While recruitment of the black regulars began, army boards reviewed the qualifications of applicants for commissions in the new regiments. The work of these boards did not keep pace with enlistments, and the regiments often ran short of officers. In August, Colonel Joseph A. Mower of the 39th Infantry began recruiting around New Orleans, although only ten out of the regiment's authorized strength of thirty-six officers had reported for duty. Nevertheless, Mower succeeded in enlisting more than three hundred men by the end of September. The 9th Cavalry's Colonel Edward Hatch also took advantage of the heavy concentration of U.S. Colored Troops in southern Louisiana and managed to enroll nearly seven hundred men by November. Disregarding the shortage of officers, Sheridan predicted that both regiments would be ready for service before Christmas.

The two regiments raised farther north took shape much more slowly. There were fewer U.S. Colored Troops in Sherman's command than in Sheridan's, and many of them were scattered by companies at isolated posts in New Mexico, where recruiters found it hard to reach them. By the end of October, Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson of the 10th Cavalry could report the enlistment of fewer than forty men. The 38th Infantry's Colonel William B. Hazen obtained equally bleak results: nearly a month's effort yielded only twenty-seven men.

Officers often had to seek out men in the countryside and small towns far from the army's usual urban recruiting stations. In October 1866 Captain James S. Brisbin of the 9th Cavalry reported the recent discharge of two regiments of U.S. Colored Cavalry that had been raised in Kentucky. He urged prompt action because "most of the men have returned to their homes in the Blue Grass region of that state. It would be greatly to the interest of the service if some of them could be re-enlisted as they are natural horsemen, and physically the finest black men in the country." The 9th Cavalry's chief recruiting officer asked Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas for permission to recruit in Kentucky, hoping to find "at least five hundred able bodied colored men who have seen two years service as volunteer cavalry ... within sixty days"; Thomas approved the request.

Former USCT officers and agents of the Freedmen's Bureau helped enlist men for the new regular regiments, telling recruiters where they might find prospective soldiers. In a chatty unofficial letter, the Bureau's assistant commissioner for Alabama remarked to Colonel Hazen that "there is nothing doing in this State to recruit colored troops though there are a good many discharged soldiers who would make good material," and he suggested that the Bureau agent at Selma "might attend to that matter in addition to his present duties. ... [H]e can come up [to Montgomery] occasionally, and I think we might secure him valuable cooperation at Mobile and perhaps elsewhere." Hazen wrote at once to army headquarters, Grant approved the request, and the project went forward within weeks.

Black soldiers also helped recruit others for their new regiments. A recruiting party usually consisted of an officer, two noncommissioned officers, and several privates. They rarely stayed in one place for long and moved on when the supply of applicants ran out. The shortage of officers, though, sometimes led commanding officers to use newly enlisted men to recruit others. Colonel Hazen reported in February 1867 that he could only use his own soldiers to recruit in St. Louis, near the 38th Infantry's headquarters, because "as yet they cannot be trusted to send away" to the offices that he wanted to open in Chicago and Memphis. Hazen had only been with his new regiment for a couple of months and had never before commanded black troops. He complained several times that "none of the Colored recruits received in the South and West can read or write ... well enough to perform any clerical duty." In a few more weeks, though, the Colonel had become better acquainted with his men. Urging his recruiting officer at Memphis to open stations in outlying towns, Hazen told him to "place the best men you have in charge of the branches."

The same difficulties dogged the 40th Infantry. In March 1867 Colonel Nelson A. Miles (acting in his regular army rank) complained that few of his men could "write a hand sufficiently neat and intelligible to allow them to be detailed upon clerical duty." By November, though, he was able to select a group of three men — Sergeant John Stanley and Privates James R. Cook, a company clerk, and John H. Hedgeman, an orderly at regimental headquarters — to accompany an officer to New York City to set up a regimental recruiting station. Stanley was a native New Yorker who had enlisted there; in the spring of 1868, he returned from recruiting duty to become the regiment's commissary sergeant. Private Frank Smith, who had served as an orderly at regimental headquarters, took Stanley's place in New York. In all of the new regiments, men like these showed ability, attracted the attention of officers, and assumed responsible positions. The men who helped recruit their regiments were the forerunners of those who later commanded the guards at isolated stagecoach stations and railroad water tanks and who carried the mail in the West.

The War Department furnished recruiting parties with funds and required each officer to report expenses. Losses due to carelessness or faulty bookkeeping were deducted from the officer's pay. Most of a recruiter's money went for office rent, enlistment bounties, and advertising, whether in local newspapers or by posters and handbills. Asked to explain his large printing bill, the 41st Infantry's Captain John C. Conner fumed: "I was sent to Shreveport to recruit, without instructions, without a Recruiting Party, without a flag, without any means whatever of advertising, and I deemed as an officer that the interests of the Service demanded that I should have the printing [of handbills] done that was done."

Government funds also paid for housing and feeding recruits. A commissary officer at Nashville supplied the 38th Infantry's Lieutenant William F. Spurgin with rations for his men but no cooking utensils. Spurgin had to hire a civilian cook to prepare the rations, he explained to the Adjutant General. Concern for the "health and comfort of the men" prompted Lieutenant H. Baxter Quimby of the 39th Infantry, recruiting in Boston, to ask permission to spend twenty dollars on repairs to his building because of "the rapid approach of cold weather in this latitude." It was late September of 1867 when Quimby wrote, and an outbreak of yellow fever in New Orleans kept him from sending recruits south. Rather than spend money to repair rented premises, the army shipped Quimby's recruits to David's Island in New York Harbor, where they waited out the epidemic.

Scarcity of medical officers also hindered recruitment. Army regulations specified that each applicant had to pass a thorough physical examination before enlisting. When the War Department proposed that regimental recruiting officers make the necessary examinations if no doctor was available, the 38th Infantry's Lieutenant Charles G. Penney protested from his station in Cincinnati that only a trained physician could diagnose "organic and incipient diseases, which ... if not discovered before enlistment, would probably cause the rejection of a recruit after he had been forwarded to the regiment. In this case the expenses of enlistment, transportation &c. would be an entire loss to the government." A few weeks later, after the surgeon at regimental headquarters rejected two of his recruits, Penney told how he had examined them. "I caused them to be entirely divested of their clothing, and then examined them as closely as was possible. ... I caused [them] to walk, run, and hop on either foot, twice across the room. These movements, requiring the free and unimpeded action of all the limbs, were made naturally, easily, and without evidence of discomfort." The Adjutant General finally authorized recruiters to hire civilian doctors at the rate of fifty cents per examination, warning that if no cheap doctor could be found, officers would have to examine applicants "to the best of [their] ability."

As might have been expected, this system admitted men with all sorts of disabilities. Examiners accepted Leonard Scott, although he had had trouble with his legs while serving with the 110th U.S. Colored Infantry (USCI) during the Civil War. "I got stiff some times and the veins on my leg began to puff up some but I could get around as well as any of them," he declared in a pension deposition thirty years afterward. Other recruits convinced the examiners to overlook their ailments. When Lorenzo George stripped "plum naked," the surgeon "said I had the piles," George told a pension examiner years later, "but I told him I wanted to go and he passed me." Lafayette Mundy ruptured his testicles while serving with the 4th U.S. Colored Cavalry in 1865, but examiners accepted him for the 40th Infantry the following year. William Henry did not mention his history of epileptic fits during the Civil War when he enlisted at Philadelphia in December 1866. The results of inept medical examinations would plague the new black regiments for years, and the Bureau of Pensions for decades.

Despite the disadvantages imposed by shortages of funds and doctors, recruiting for most of the new regiments proceeded steadily during the early months of 1867. Colonel Grierson, though, believed that "the quality is more important than the number" and continually reminded 10th Cavalry recruiters to enlist only the most capable men. Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie also wanted "the best black men in the country" for the 41st Infantry. As a result, the 10th had enrolled only 392 men by the end of May, and the 41st sailed for Texas in June with only eight of its ten companies organized.

The black regiments especially needed men who could read and write. Before the Civil War, state laws across the South had forbidden slave literacy. A few whites had taught their slaves to read out of a paradoxical sense of Christian duty to the souls of those whom they held in bondage; others did so from a contrary notion that it was not the state's business to dictate how they treated their property. Free black people too had sometimes risked punishment to teach slaves the rudiments of literacy. Yet everywhere in the South, the vast majority of the black population remained illiterate, and it was hard for recruiters to find men well enough educated to serve as clerks and noncommissioned officers. Daily reports, bimonthly muster rolls, requisitions for supplies, and a host of other documents required attention. Colonel Mower complained that in the 39th Infantry, "officers are compelled to perform the clerical duties ... which usually devolve upon a noncommissioned officer." All the commanders of the black regiments reported this difficulty.

Several colonels asked to hire civilian clerks, but the Adjutant General disapproved these requests, although he sometimes assigned white enlisted men to assist officers in the black regiments. Unsatisfied by such stopgap measures, officers pleaded for permission to enlist white recruits to serve as clerks and noncommissioned officers. One company commander recommended the transfer of ten sergeants "from some of the old [i.e., white] Infantry Regts" to serve as company first sergeants in the 40th Infantry. The 9th Cavalry's Captain George A. Purington asked that "nine intelligent white men ... from the recruits of the Cavalry Service" be sent to him to "assist in bringing the company to a proper state of discipline." But the War Department could not consider these suggestions and reminded officers that, under the law, white men could not be assigned to the black regiments.

Barred by law from enrolling whites, officers pondered the question of educating the men themselves. Colonel Miles believed that 40th Infantry recruits, properly trained, could fill the need for clerks. "During their leisure time the men should be required to study and practice in penmanship," he told company officers. If blank copybooks were not available "from some of the benevolent societies that have heretofore supplied many of the colored soldiers," Miles wrote, "the sutler at your post should be required to keep them on hand for sale." Despite these efforts, the post schools could not quickly transform illiterate recruits into qualified clerks and noncommissioned officers.

By late 1866 most recruiting officers admitted the futility of trying to enlist literate men in the South. Colonel Hatch reported in November that no 9th Cavalry recruits had "the necessary education for company clerks and sergeants." Officers from several of the black regiments had succeeded in enlisting literate men in some northern cities, and regimental commanders began increasingly to send their recruiters there. By the spring of 1867 all of the black regiments had established offices in the North.

Recruiting officers had explicit instructions to find literate men. Major George W. Schofield of the 41st Infantry told one of his recruiters that if "good, sound, active and intelligent men cannot be found in one section of the country, we must seek them in another. There is abundance of material from which to select men for the Colored Regiments of the Army; and though it may take a long time to complete a regiment from the best class of men, it will be better and cheaper in the end to accept no others." Men "who ... though uneducated are naturally intelligent" and "honorably discharged N.C. officers or good mechanics" might be enlisted even if they were illiterate.

Northern cities turned out to be a good source of manpower, and recruiters began to enlist literate black applicants as soon as they opened their offices. Captain Brisbin, recruiting for the 9th Cavalry in Ohio, found "seventeen very intelligent colored men"; ten of them could read and write, and "with a little training will make good clerks." From Philadelphia the 39th Infantry's Lieutenant Charles L. Cooper reported that twelve of his eighteen recruits were literate and that the rest were USCT veterans. A two-thirds literacy rate was far better than what recruiters could hope to find anywhere in the South.


Excerpted from The Black Regulars, 1866â"1898 by William A. Dobak, Thomas D. Phillips. Copyright © 2001 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Introduction. "Equally Entitled to Participate",
1. "I Much Wrother Souldier Then to Be Any Thing Else",
2. "How Would You Like to Command a Colored Regiment?",
3. "To the Colored Man the Service Offers a Career",
4. "A Minimum Number, Which Should Be of the Best",
5. "So Long a Service in the Wilderness",
6. "To Promote the Moral and Intellectual Welfare of the Men",
7. "Not So Varied and Filled with Pleasure",
8. "Serious Breaches of Discipline and Morality",
9. "A Trial Will Bring Out the Whole Matter",
10. "The Result of Outrageous Treatment",
11. "The Colored Troops Have Made a Favorable Impression",
12. "Some Regular Army Prejudice to Overcome",
13. "Just Chored around and Did Whatever He Could Get to Do",
Index of Personal Names,
General Index,

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