Wednesday, September 4, 2013

September 4, 1863: George E. Stephens to the New York Weekly Anglo-African

This map shows the zig-zag approach trenches (in blue) dug by the Union troops besieging Fort Wagner (in red).
On this day 150 years ago, First Sergeant George E. Stephens of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry wrote his seventh letter to the New York Weekly Anglo-African. By this time, the 54th had been recognized as a crack regiment of hard-fighting infantry, and it was frequently assigned dangerous combat in the very front lines in front of Fort Wagner.
Morris Island, S.C.,
Sept. 4, 1863.

Mr. Editor: There is so much of exciting interest to communicate, and there is so much danger of violating the orders of Gen. Gillmore regarding “contraband information,” that one scarcely knows where to commence or where to end. The recent order from headquarters declares that “the severest punishment known to the military law and usage in the field, will be inflicted on any citizen or soldier who gives information that will be of service to the enemy, or without permission from headquarters of U.S. forces in this department.” I have no desire to do this thing, and if there were no order touching the matter, my earnest desire for the speedy triumph of the cause would be amply sufficient to deter me from saying anything that would, in the least, give aid or comfort to the enemy.

The first item of interest to be referred to is the grand review of Gen. Stevenson’s Brigade, to which the 5 4th belongs, on the 16th ult. Ours is the only colored regiment in this brigade, and were drawn up in line, colors flying and marched with the other Massachusetts and also New York’soldiers, and reviewed by Gen. Gillmore and staff, Gen. Terry, and Gen. Stevenson and staff. Gens. Gillmore and Stevenson expressed the utmost satisfaction at the fine appearance of the regiment, and when on the march from camp, Gen. Terry met Col. Littlefield and said that no other regiment in the brigade made a finer appearance or marched better than the 54th. Even the privates in some of the regiments conceded that we outmarched them. When we passed Gen. Gillmore, he sat uncovered and could not fail to discover that the desire of every soldier in our regiment was to create a favorable impression on his mind. The good and faithful soldiers courts the favor and approval of his superior officer. The question of our pay continues to be the topic of conversation and correspondence. Numerous letters have reached us from distinguished friends in the State of Massachusetts, all expressing the utmost confidence that we will receive all of our pay and have secured to us every right that other Massachusetts soldiers enjoy. His Excellency Gov. Andrew; in a letter dated “Executive Department, Boston, August 24th,” and addressed to Mr. Frederick Johnson, an officer in the regiment, says:

“I have this day received your letter of the 10th of August, and in reply desire, in the first place, to express to you the lively interest with which I have watched every step of the Fifty-fourth Regiment since it left Massachusetts, and the feelings of pride and admiration with which I have learned and read the accounts of the heroic conduct of the regiment in the attack upon Fort Wagner, when you and your brave soldiers so well proved their manhood, and showed themselves to be true soldiers of Massachusetts. As to the matter inquired about in your letter, you may rest assured that I shall not rest until you have secured all of your rights, and that I have no doubt whatever of the ultimate success. I have no doubt, by law, you are entitled to the same pay as other soldiers, and on the authority of the Secretary of War, I promised that you should be paid and treated in all respects like other soldiers of Massachusetts. Till this is done I feel that my promise is dishonored by the government. The whole difficulty arises from a misapprehension, the correction of which will no doubt be made as soon as I can get the; subject fully examined by the Secretary of War. 

I have the honor to be your obedient servant,John A. Andrew,Governor of Massachusetts.”

The trouble seems to be something like this: The Paymaster General, whoever that may be, has directed the paymasters to pay all negro troops, of African descent, $10 per month, the pay allowed to contrabands by statute when employed in the Commissary or Quartermaster’s Department. There seems to have been no provision made to pay colored soldiers. There may be some reason for making distinction between armed and unarmed men in the service of the government, but when the nationality of a man takes away his title to pay it becomes another thing. Suppose a regiment of Spaniards should be mustered into the service of the United States, would Congress have to pass a special law to pay Spaniards? Or, suppose, a regiment of Sandwich Islanders should do duty as soldiers of the United States, would it be necessary to pass a law to pay Sandwich Islanders? Does not the deed of muster secure the services and even life of the man mustered into the service, to the government? And does not this same deed of muster give a man a title to all pay and bounties awarded to soldiers bearing arms? I believe that “by law, we are entitled to the same pay as other soldiers,” and the “misapprehension arises” from this. The Paymaster General will not have the colored soldiers paid under the law which pay white soldiers, and virtually creates in his own mind the necessity for the passage of a special law authorizing them to be paid. Is there a special law on the statute books of the National Legislature touching the payment of colored men employed in the naval service?

In my last letter I made the types say that Col. Littlefield, our present commander, was of the 4th Connecticut Volunteers—it should have been 4th South Carolina; and for fear that my letter may create an impression that Col. Littlefield is not the friend of the colored soldiers, I will say that since Col. L. assumed command of our regiment he has done as much in the power of one man has, to maintain the character and discipline, as well as the comfort, of the men. Col. Littlefield is a martyr for the cause — an exile from his home, and holds a commission as Colonel of a negro regiment, the 4th South Carolina, now in process of formation. After the siege of Charleston he will make an active and efficient organizer of colored men. Few men are more capable of active, vigorous service, or have a higher appreciation of the services and efficiency of colored soldiers.

Since I wrote my last letter, the 54th has been assigned to a most perilous duty. A certain regiment in this department has been assigned to dig in the foremost parallels, but it was a new one and unaccustomed to sweeping grape and canister and bursting shells. The Commanding General sent word to Col. Littlefield that the aforesaid regiment, its officers as well as men, could not stand fire, and assigned the duty to the 54th. We are to do nothing else. It is a duty of the greatest danger. The men have to dig under the fire of rebel sharpshooters and all the rebel batteries on Morris and James Island. Every man “for duty” in our regiment has to suffer the ordeal eight hours out of every thirty two. We operate under the protection of our sharpshooters. You talk about your charges on Fort Wagner! It is a “pull Dick, pull Devil,” between them and the foremost parallels. But the labor must be done, and I feel proud that we are thus honored with the post of danger. Since we have been engaged thus we have been peculiarly fortunate. It seems that Divine Providence has willed that we have suffered enough in loss of life, for the 3d Pennsylvania Volunteers, colored, have lost considerably. The casualties in the 3d Pennsylvania up to this date are:

COMPANY A.
Corp. Edward Powell, killed.
Private Andrew Jackson, killed.
Private Joseph Harris, wounded.
Corp. Denny, wounded severely. All of Philadelphia.

COMPANY D.
Sergt. Hardy, wounded severely.
Corp. Denton Lox, killed.
Private Alfred Fenley, killed.
Private Alfred Rothwell, killed.
Private James Gray, killed.

COMPANY F.
Benj. Williams, slightly wounded.
Rich. Turpin, slightly wounded.
John Harris, slightly wounded.

COMPANY G.
Isaac Goddart, slightly wounded.

COMPANY K.
Daniel Jones, killed.
Israel Jones, wounded.
Francis Jackson, wounded slightly.
Benj. Bradley, wounded slightly.

Casualties in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

COMPANY D.
John Alfred Green, wounded.
COMPANY F.
Corp. Joseph Stilles, wounded slightly.
Private Horace Bennett, wounded slightly.
Private Jas. Postley, wounded slightly.
Private Aaron Croger, wounded dangerously in back.

COMPANY K.
Geo. King, leg blown off, since died.

COMPANY H.
Geo. Vanderpool, Coxsackie, N.Y., killed.
Alex. Hunter, wounded in head severely.

G.E.S.

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