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Letter from George E. Stephens to the New York Weekly Anglo-African, March 6, 1864

Title

Letter from George E. Stephens to the New York Weekly Anglo-African, March 6, 1864

Description

This is the text of a letter from George E. Stephens, a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, to the editor of the New York Weekly Anglo-African where he discussed the Union loss at the Battle of Olustee. Stephens was a well-educated free black from the North and he began his career in the Union Army as a cook and a personal servant of an officer. It was then that he began to send correspondences to the New York Weekly Anglo-American. He joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (the first infantry to accept free blacks) and worked his way to 1st Lieutenant and fought in many battles in the South. One of those battles was the Battle of Olustee, which is featured in this letter. The 1st North Carolina Regiment (35th United States Colored Troops) fought in this battle and Stephens comments on their role in this letter. Stephens summarized what happened in the battle and listed the regiments involved. He commented that the black troops suffered severely. He wrote about the 1st North Carolina position during battle and what happened to them during and after the battle. Stephens discusseed how the blame of the loss should not be put on the gallant black troops who fought, but the general in command. The second half of the letter discussed what Stephens perceived to be injustice in terms of military law because black Union troops were being hung or shot without criminal trial, unlike the situations of the white Union troops. He goes as far as to draw a comparison between this military injustice and slavery itself. He ended the letter by requesting that more copies of this magazine be sent to the soldiers.

Creator

George E. Stephens

Source

Letter of George E. Stephens to the editor of The Christian Recorder, March 6, 1864, in Donald Yacovone ed., A Voice of Thunder: The Civil War Letters of George E. Stephens, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 295-304.

Date

1864-03-06

Contributor

Danielle Brinton

Type

Document

Original Format

Correspondence

Text

Outpost or Camp, in the Field,
Near Jacksonville, Fla.,
March 6, 1864.

Mr. Editor: Actions and arduous duties since the 5th ult., the time of the sailing of the present expedition from Hilton Head, have caused the apparently studied silence on the part of your correspondent. A man who has very little to eat and very hard work, and who has for nearly twelve long months labored for nothing, nine of which have been in the very midst of perils of war and disease, is in no condition to write letters for papers or anything else. The first thing in order is the battle of Alicia, Fla., Feb. 20th, which, to say the least, was a stupendous ambuscade, into which the wily rebels drew our entire force, and routed it with a loss of seven pieces of artillery and upward of 1,300 killed, wounded and missing. The colored regiments particularly suffered severely. And what is still more unfortunate, the greater part of the wounded and all the killed were left on the field.

The circumstances preliminary to the fight are briefly these: Our forces had for several days previous to the battle been concentrating at a place called Barbour, near St. Mary’s Creek, for the grand march on Tallahassee, and everything had the appearances of complete preparation, and the men seemed in fine spirits and our success since the landing of Feb. 7th has been marked, though more from good luck than good management. The 40th Massachusetts mounted infantry and the Massachusetts cavalry, under command of Col. Henry, had inflicted considerable damage on the enemy’s property, and we anticipated nothing but victory. Our outpost had been established a little above Sanderson, a station on the line of the Jacksonville and Tallahassee Railroad, about six miles westward from and in advance of Barbour. The order was to march at 9 o’clock on the morning of the 20th. The day was a most delightful one. The springs and revulets along the line of march reminded us of the cool, refreshing waters at home. What a change from the brackish, feverish waters of the Sea Islands! The scenes are not here, however. You can see nothing but pine woods, marsh, and every five or ten miles a cluster of dilapidates, deserted hits, with no sign of agricultural thriftiness. But immense tracts of this pine-woods land are prepared for the collection of pitch. The trees are tapped, and near the roots cavities are hewn out, into which the pitch collects. Barbour is the only spot from Jacksonville to Alicia which possesses any beauty or rural charm. At about 9 o’clock on the 20th of February we took up the line of march, and by 1 o’clock had passed beyond Sanderson.

The advance consisted of the 7th New Hampshire, 7th Connecticut and 8th United States Colored Troops, Col. Hawley’s Brigade, and Battery M, 3d United States Artillery. The rear consisted of the 54th Massachusetts and 1st North Carolina (colored). The advance encountered the rebel line of skirmished about three miles beyond Sanderson, and they fell rapidly back to their entrenchments at Alicia. In such a pursuit lines are deranged, distances loose, so that by the time our troops reached Alicia there was considerable confusion amongst them, and the rebels, who thus planned their defeat, were duly prepared for battle. Our men fought well, but could not withstand, in their disorganized condition, the shock of battle.

The 7th New Hampshire was the first regiment to retreat. The 8th United States was the next having their gallant Colonel (Fribley) and nearly all the rest of their officers killed, and wounded. They are reported to have lost upward of five hundred, killed, wounded and missing, the greater portion of which are prisoners at the hand of the enemy. This was their first battle, and they had been but two or three months from home. They are spoken of in the highest terms. When within about three miles of the field of battle, an aid came riding up to the Colonel of the 54th Massachusetts, saying, “For God’s sake Colonel, double quick, or the day is lost.”

The 1st North Carolina were in light marching order, the 54th Massachusetts was in heaving marching order, with knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, and every other appurtenance of the soldier. But off went everything, and they double-quickened on to the field. At the most critical juncture, just as the rebels were preparing for a simultaneous charge along the whole line, and they had captured our artillery and turned it upon us, Col. Jas. Montgomery, Col. Hallowell and Lieut.-Col. Hooper formed our line of battle on right by file in line. As the men came into line they opened fire. The 1st North Carolina came unto line handsomely, and did splendid execution. They lost their Lieutenant Colonel, who was in command, and a great man other officers. They were under a much heavier fire, I think, than the 54th Massachusetts. Johnny Reb could not stand. He gave way, leaving his colors and guns on the field. But we did not have sufficient force to attempt to storm their works, so the order to retreat came. And it was a sorrowing spectacle to see our little army, so hopeful and so gallant, in such precipitate retreat after a battle of four short hours. We can learn of nothing in regard to the prisoners of war. We reached the vicinity of Jacksonville on the 23rd ult., having marched over one hundred miles in about five and a half days. We brought off the greater part of our provisions and munitions of war, and are now awaiting an attack on the part of the rebels. The 54th Massachusetts lost some one hundred killed, wounded and missing, the greater part wounded. Gen. Seymour says that the Fifty-fourth “is the only colored regiment that is worth a d—n.” The other regiments are just as good at the Fifty-fourth, but they are yet unbaptized with the fiery flood of battle. The Fifty-fourth received its baptism at the siege of Charleston, and it was no delicate, fastidious sprinkling, but an old genuine immersion. When the colored regiments here are accustomed to the business of war (and it is certainly a business), they will be able to stand up in the face of death with strong nerves. But everybody know this.

I heard an artillery officer say to Col. Hallowell, as our regiment was running into the fight, “Colonel, you will have to do your best to keep your men from running to-day. Your men (meaning the colored soldiers) all ran to-day.” Now, there was but one colored regiment, at the time he said this, in the fight-the 8th U.S. Colored Troops, which had its Colonel killed; while the 7th New Hampshire, 7th Connecticut, 115th New York, 40th Massachusetts, Battery, M. 3d U.S. Artillery and Cavalry, all white, were with them-and this their initiatory fight at that-almost raw recruits.

Will somebody ask who guarded the rear in the retreat from Alicia to Jacksonville, over a distance of nearly fifty miles, thus saving our army, perhaps from complete annihilation? Until he answers, I will say the negro troops. The blame, if there be any, of the failure of the attempt to penetrate into the interior of Florida must fall of the head of the General in immediate command of the forces engaged.

Had Col. Hallowell not seen a glance the situation of affairs, the 54th Massachusetts volunteers would have been killed or captured. When they entered the field with the 1st North Carolina, which is a brave regiment, they (the 1st N.C.) fired well while they remained, but they gave way, thus exposing the right. On the left rebel cavalry were posted, and as the enemy’s left advanced on our right, their cavalry pressed the left. Both flanks were thus being folded up, and slaughter or capture would have been the inevitable result. We fell back in good order, and established new lines of battle until we reached Sanderson. Here a scene that beggars description was presented. Wounded men lined the railroad station, and the roads were filled were artillery, caissons, ammunition and baggage wagons, infantry, cavalry and ambulances. The only organized bodies ready to repel the attack were a portion of the 40th Massachusetts mounted infantry, armed with the Spencer Repeating rifle, and the 54th Massachusetts volunteers.

I cannot account for the rebels failing to harass our retreat, the 54th Regiment being the last the leave the field, and leaving it in such a good order led them to suppose that we intended to renew the attack. Had our utter helplessness been known, few of the officers or men of this army would have been able to have returned to Jacksonville. We reached Barbour on the retreat about 3 ½ o’clock on the morning of the 21st, and at daylight again marched in retreat to Baldwin. Just as we were about to start for the latter place, the 55th Massachusetts volunteers came up to re-enforce us, but they were twelve hours too late. This regiment, with the 3d U.S. Colored Troops and 2d and 3d South Carolina volunteers (colored), were not engaged. The only colored soldiers engaged were the three colored regiments above mentioned, and two of those were never under fire before. I am this explicit because it had been industriously circulated by those high in authority that the colored regiments cause the defeat by failing to support the white regiments, and running away.

There are, by some strange means, a great many soldiers shot under military law. I mean colored soldiers. I know of but one such execution since my advent here. Two colored soldiers were shot at St. Simons by some of the officers of 2d South Carolina, and another was shot on St. Helena that I am a partner in the guilt of his execution, for I am the man who brought him to justice or injustice. It was by my hand that he was arrested. I arrested him on Saturday morning and on Sunday morning the poor fellow was shot, by the order of some superior office. Another has since been execusted, I think, at Beaufort, and since the arrival of our expedition there have been four colored men executed: one, a sergeant in the 3d South Carolina Vols., Col. M.S. Littlefield, and three privates in the 55th Massachusetts Vols. This Sergeant is charged, so far as I can learn, with having to do duty on account of the government refusing to pay them their wages. I suppose it required a victim to show the colored soldiers in [the] government offers them, however paltry. The other three men were hung for the base crime of rape, second, in its heinousness to willful murder. They were executed at Camp Finegan on the 19th Feb. I refer to this matter because I do not think a black man should be hung for a crime if a white man is not treated with the same punishment for a like crime. I know in the South the negro is hung sometimes for mere pastime to his bloody executions, and it may be that we are so far South that its Southern atmosphere has so far tainted our moral sensibility – our regard for the man’s life and our respect for the rights of even the basest criminal; for if men are to be shot or hung without a legitimate trial under the civil or military law, the life of no man is protected or safe, and we are living under a tyranny inexorable as slavery itself, more absolute and fearful than the inquisition, which knew no law except its own behests and the perpetuation of its power.

I can feel the utter hopelessness of the condition of slavery though never a slave. I can imagine with what ecstatic joy the slave receives his manumission, and becomes a free man. I know now how gnawing to the feelings slavery in any form must be. We have served in the United States navy several terms, and was there treated like our white mess-mates; but the army every pledge made our enlistment has been broken – every promise remains unfulfilled. We are unprotected and there is no refuge – no appeal. Those to whom we looked for the fulfillment of these promises, the maintenance of those pledges, and for that protection secured by every nation for its defenders, have not any longer indulge in any false hope. We may as well look at facts which cannot admit of but one solution, viz.: the fixed determination of the people of the United States to maintain a line of demarkation between the white and black race, and to deny to the black equal rights and justice as enjoyed by the white. Late news from the North show already that there will be a division in the ranks of the party in power. If this be true, we are on the threshold of a pro-slavery reaction. In that event the world will witness the deep perfidy and criminal meanness of a nation which is so lost to duty, dignity, and a sense of national greatness as to call to its defense the victims of its own cruel oppression, and then spurn and spit upon them. One year in the service of the United States has purged me of the major part of my patriotism.

In conclusion I would call the attention of the friends to the fact that we have little or no reading matter and no money to pay for it. Your paper is the only journal which furnished a complete summary of current events, especially those which directly interest us. Will they not send us copies of The Anglo? There are a great many colored soldiers here and they all desire to have The Anglo-African. Your humble servant gets a copy pretty regularly, but it is worn into pieces before a hundredth part of the boys get through reading it.

G.E.S.
WAA, 25 March 1864.

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George E. Stephens, Letter from George E. Stephens to the New YorkWeekly Anglo-African, March 6, 1864, Civil War Era NC, accessed April 26, 2017, http://cwnc.omeka.chass.ncsu.edu/items/show/929.