Battles & Leaders of the Civil War
THE COLORED TROOPS AT PETERSBURG.
GUIDON OF THOMAS'S BRIGADE OF THE COLORED DIVISION--SHADED PARTS, GREEN; THE FIELD WHITE.
East of Petersburg, on high ground, protruding like the ugly horn of a rhinoceros, stood the Confederate earthwork, fortified as a battery, which we undermined and exploded July 30th, 1864. It did a good deal of goring before we destroyed it. Its position enabled the garrison to throw a somewhat enfilading fire into our lines, under which many f.
For some time previous to the explosion of the mine it was determined by General Burnside that the colored division (1) should lead the assault. The general tactical plan had been given to the brigade commanders (Colonel Sigfried and myself), with a rough outline map of the ground, and directions to study the front for ourselves. But this; latter was impracticable except in momentary glimpses. The enemy made a target of every head that appeared above the work, and their marksmanship was good. The manner of studying the ground w as this : Putting my battered old hat on a ramrod and lifting it above the rampart just enough for them not to discover that no man was under it I drew their fire ; then stepping quickly a few paces one side, I took a hasty observation.
We were all pleased with the compliment of being chosen to lead in the assault. Both officers and men were eager to show the white troops what the colored division could do. We had acquired confidence in our men. They believed us infallible. We had drilled certain movements, to be executed in gaining and occupying the crest. It is an axiom in military art that there are times when the ardor, hopefulness, and enthusiasm of new troops, not yet rendered doubtful by reverses or chilled by defeat, more than compensate, in a dash, for training and experience. General Burnside, for this and other reasons, most strenuously urged his black division for the advance. Against his most urgent remonstrance he was overruled. About 11 P. M., July 29th, a few hours before the action, we were officially informed that the plan had been changed, and our division would not lead.
We were then bivouacking on our arms in rear of our line, just behind the covered way leading to the mine. I returned to that bivouac dejected and with an instinct of disaster for the morrow. As I summoned and told my regimental commanders, their faces expressed the same feeling.
Any striking event or piece of news was usually eagerly discussed by the white troops, and in the ratics were as plenty and perhaps more voluble than among the officers. Not so with the blacks ; important news such as that before us, after the bare announcement, was usually followed by long silence. They sat about in groups, " studying," as they called it. They waited like the Quakers, for the spirit to move; when the spirit moved, one of their singers would uplift a mighty voice, like a bard of old, in a wild sort of chant. If he did not strike a sympathetic chord in his hearers, if they did not find in his utterance the exponent of their idea, he would sing it again and again, altering sometimes the words, more often the music. If his changes met general acceptance, one voice after another would chime in ; a rough harmony of three parts would add itself ; other groups would join his, and the song would become the song of the command.
The night we learned that we were to lead the charge the news filled them too full for ordinary utterance. The joyous negro guffaw always breaking out about the camp-fire ceased. They formed circles in their company streets and were sitting on the ground intently and solemnly " studying." At last a heavy voice began to sing,
"We-e looks li-ike me-en a-a-marchin' on ,
Over and over again he sang it, making slight changes in the melody. The rest listened to him intently ; no sign of approval or disapproval escaped their lips or appeared on their faces. All at once, when his refrain had struck the right response in their hearts, his group took it up, and shortly half a thousand voices were upraised extemporizing a half dissonant middle part and bass. It w as a picturesque scene - these dark men, with their white eyes and teeth and full red lips, crouching over a smoldering camp-fire, in dusky shadow, with only the feeble rays of the lanterns of the first sergeants and the lights of the candles dimly showing through the tents. The sound was as weird as the scene, when all the voices struck the low E (last note but one), held it, andwith a portamento as sonorous as it was clumsy. Until we fought the battle of the crater they sang this
(1) There was but one division of colored troops in the Army of the Potomac-the Fourth Division of the Ninth Corps, organized as follows : Brigadier-General Edward Ferrero, commanding division. First Brigade, Colonel Joshua K. Sigfried (of the 48th Penn.) : 27th U. S. colored troops, Lieutenant Colonel Charles J. Wright; 30th U. S. colored troops, Colonel Delevan Bates ; 39th U. S. colored troops, Colonel Ozora P. Stearns; 43d U. S. colored troops, Lieutenant Colonel H. Seymour Hall. Second Brigade, Colonel Henry Goddard Thomas, 19th U. S. colored troops : 19th U. S. colored troops, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph G. Perkins ; 23d U. S. colored troops, Colonel Cleveland J. Campbell; Battalion of six companies 28th U. S. colored troops, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles S. Russell; 29th U. S. colored troops, Lieutenant-Colonel John A. Bross ; 31st U. S. colored troops, Lieutenant-Colonel W. E. Ross.
This made a division of only nine regiments, divided into two brigades, yet it was numerically a large division. The regiments were entirely full, and a colored deserter was a thing unknown. On the day of the action the division numbered 4300, of which 2000 belonged to Sigfried's brigade and 2300 to mine.-H. G. T.