United States Colored Troops and their Normal School Officers
by Liana D. Martino

     Three men of the Normal School Company, Co. E., went on to lead United States Colored Troops. These were Andress B. Hull, a Captain in the 20th U.S.C.T., James Oscar Blakeley, a 1st Lt. in the 19th U.S.C.T. (commissioned Captain Dec. 20,1863 in the 20th United States Colored Infantry) and Thompson Barrick 1st Lt. 39th U.S.C.T. (commissioned Captain August 25, 1864). These men served among the 186,097 black troops that served in the Union Army. Of these U.S.C. Troops, 36,847 or nearly 20% were killed or died in the hospitals. The U.S.C. Troops participated in 449 engagements.[1] 

The 20th U.S.C.T.

     On November 20, 1863 the Union League Club of New York City adopted the resolution to recruit the state's first colored regiment to be entered into service in the Civil War. They appointed a committee that consisted of Alexander Van Rensselaer, Le Grand B. Cannon, James a. Roosevelt, Elliot C. Cowdin, Charles P. Kirkland, Sherman J. Bacon, and George Bliss, Jr. November 22, members of the committee communicated their intent to Governor Horatio Seymour and asked for his authorization.[2] 

     By denying any authority to do so, Governor Seymour may have been communicating to the Club that he did not wish to be connected with such an action. According to the Club report, the Governor was well aware that the Secretary of War would not grant authorization to raise any new regiment in any state unless the Governor gave his consent. Furthermore, once authorization had been given by the Adjutant General's Office, the Club communicated their want for Governor sanction again, this time to receive no response at all.[3]  This again may indicate the Governor's refusal to be associated with the plan of raising colored troops.

     Governor Seymour was not the last to communicate his distaste for the plan. The committee would have difficulties simply finding a place to rent as headquarters. Even finding a band to play during the ovation as the 20th left New York would prove difficult. The report states that many musicians would not work for black troops. Eventually both the 7th Regular Infantry and 22nd Regimental bands applied, the former being chosen.[4] 

     There were many difficulties and inequities in recruitment that the Club had to overcome, some more successfully than others. For instance, when initially authorized to recruit, the Adjutant General's office communicated certain guidelines. The recruits would only receive the $75 state bounty, whatever local bounty there might be, but there would be no U.S. bounty to collect. Also, the government refused to pay the usual $15 per man to recruiters. The Club was thus forced to pay $10.[5] 

     While the Adjutant General's office specifically stated that the pay of the soldiers would be only $10 per month with $3 subtracted for food and clothing allowance (less than half of what the white soldiers were paid), the City of New York was to pay relief funds to the families of the black recruits the same as for white soldiers.[6]  However, according to Vincent Colyer's report, the Supervisors in many towns and in New York City refused to pay relief money "to wives of colored men." After "earnest remonstrances were made" only some instances were corrected.[7] 

     Discovered later were the many recruits who had be defrauded of their bounties. Also the report states that "in some cases there was every reason to suppose that the men had been drugged before enlisting, while others not drugged, had been deceived as to the service expected of them."[8] ' Most of these cases came from General Spinola in Lafayette Hall. When alerted by the Club Major General John A. Dix, Commanding Department of the East, made many "arbitrary arrests."[9]  According to Vincent Colyer, General Superintendent of Recruiting, the New York Herald, after hearing of this, printed editorials attacking the Club. The editorials stated that this was the only way to fill the state quota.[10] 

     John Habberton, 2nd Lt., eventually to reach the level of 1st Lt., mentions the deceptions in his February 12, 1864 diary entry. He refers to it as "shameful" and describes that while some never received bounty, others enlisted on the promise of a 30-day furlough at which time they would receive their bounty. Yet morale among the recruits was not diminished. ..."none of these mope and grumble, and wish their three years were up."[11] 

Yet another obstacle to overcome was the physical condition of the camp.

     "For a considerable time the quarters provided for the colored men were insufficient and improper. Tents were furnished by the Government, but ... the men were greatly crowded; they were also without floors or means of warming, causing great suffering from cold. Disease began to appear to an alarming extent, while there was no proper hospital in which to treat it. The Club provided floors for the tents, and small stoves for each. It also built a building to serve as a hospital."[12] 

     Habberton recalls the cold weather as being so cold it was necessary to drill at double quick.[13]  He also describes the condition of the arms available to the men at the end of January. According to Habberton, the guard has twenty muskets and it takes sixteen to arm the men on post. "Of these four, one has no bayonet, another has the bayonet broken, another has about seven loads and no tubes, and the fourth is minus...." -the last word remains illegible.[14]  According to the report, officers were a little more forthcoming than other things. Secretary of War Stanton was willing to provide any officers the Club might choose, even several at a time. The Club, however wanted to make it clear that the officers of the regiment were not merely to have passed the examination given by General Casey's board.

     We feel that a peculiar class of officers is needed for such a regiment - that mere ability to pass an examination is not enough, that there should be experience in the field, undoubted personal courage, and above all, a heart in the peculiar work they undertake.[15] 

     There were many commissioned officers in black units that did not have any field experience. (In white units as well) But by virtually hand-picking the officers, the 20th U.S.C.T. was endowed only with officers who had been "baptized in blood". In fact the New York Times wrote, "No regiment ever went from this City with a more experienced or gallant set of officers."[16]  Habberton remembers his fellow officers in his diary. In fact he describes all four who were commissioned to the 20th from the 44th N.Y.V.I. Of them he writes:

     "Capt. Foster is another Army of Potomac lad, who was unfortunate enough to spend most of his time in the hospital. He is very well-educated, a good soldier, the champion player of the regiment, and a valuable man for ally."

     "Capt. Barnaby is very handsome, rather vain, well-informed, slightly mean at times."

     "Capt. Hull is one of the most honest men alive, does his business right up to the handle, enjoys a joke or a game of chess, and lives about as decent, honorable and honest life as any man I am acquainted with."

     "Lt. Pillsworth has been brought up among the lowest class of men, but is himself honest, smart and conscientious."[17] 

     Habberton mentions Capt. Hull one other time as someone with whom he was able to thoroughly discuss readings with.[18] 

     Habberton himself may be said to be one of those with a "peculiar heart". He does not seem to see the black recruits as anything but soldiers. In fact he has every confidence in them that they will be equal to the white soldiers. After describing the high morale of the recruits after having been defrauded of their bounties, he writes, "Now the man who declares that a man possessing devotion to his cause, fidelity, and soldierly pride, cant make a soldier, is simply, a hopeless ass."[19]  In another entry discussing the first drilling with arms he states that the men "were about as graceful as men ... are when they first handle arms."[20]  He makes no comment that there exists a difference with black soldiers.

     On May 5, 1864 the Twentieth United States Colored Infantry departed Rikers Island "amid such an ovation as had not been seen since the early days of the rebellion."[21]  According to the New York Times it was a grand spectacle amid cheers and waving handkerchiefs. This came only months after the previous July's race riots. Charles King, LL.D. spoke and presented the colors to Colonel Bartram, who then stood to speak as well.[22] 

     The fact that the New York Times carried this article might tell us a lot. Being on page eight it was not buried as some might have thought. That gives it some level of importance to the public. Also, it was a fairly large article, being almost three full column widths. This grants it even more importance. Thought not enough greatness to make the second page, we must agree that it was important enough not to be buried in the middle.

     Other newspapers carried articles on the even as well. The New York Independent wrote, "Thus equal in every essential particular to their white comrades in arms, they go-and they are aware of it-to face far greater dangers and to reap a far lesser reward.[23]  Horace Greeley wrote that the Twentieth "was the first that was really treated as the defenders of their country's life and honor are entitled to be."[24]  George William Curtis, Esq., wrote in Harper's Weekly that such a grand regiment will "help to life the bitter prejudice from the national heart."[25] 

     In the field the Twentieth United States Colored Infantry finds praise, as well. While in the Carrollton District, they are said to have been a "soldierly" group and that their "camp is the finest in the district.[26] 

     The 20th U.S.C.T. did not participate in any major campaigns. It performed garrison duty in New Orleans as well as some fighting at Port Hudson. . A complete service record can be found in Frederick Dyer's A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, Vol. 2 on p. 1727. On October 7, 1865 it was mustered out of service.

The 19th U.S.C.T. and 39th U.S.C.T. at the Battle at the Petersburg Crater

     Considered one of the most disastrous battles that the Ninth Corps participated in, the Battle at the Crater included nine U.S.C. Infantry units, two of which were the 19th and the 39th. The 39th participated fought in the First Brigade of the Fourth Division and the 19th fought in the Second Brigade of the same Division.

     Commanding the Fourth Division was General Edward Ferrero. After discussion with General Ambrose Burnside, it was concluded that his division would lead the charge. The plan was simple. A mine had been dug under the Confederate stronghold Elliots Salient near Petersburg, VA. The mine was filled with 4 tons of gunpowder and set to explode at 3:30 AM on July 30, 1864. Immediately following the explosion, Ferrero's 4 th Division would lead the charge, with the 1st Brigade (Col. Joshua K. Sigfried, commanding) sweeping left and right to clear the Confederate trenches and the 2 nd Brigade (Col. Henry G. Thomas, commanding) to follow pushing straight through the crater to secure Cemetery Hill.[27] 

     According to Trudeau the two brigades drilled with these intentions for nearly a month. Col. Thomas confirmed this, as did Col. Sigfried. The latter would later state that the 1st Brigade, "daily drilled from two to three hours with special view of making the assault..."[28]  The only other statement made was a disagreeing statement from Captain R.K. Beecham, 23rd U.S.C.T., saying that the "only duty assigned to the division for more than a month before the battle ... was work upon our trenches and fortifications." Trudeau attributes this to the fact that the drills Beecham might have practiced were not out of the ordinary since the most critical movements were to be executed by the First Brigade, of which the 23rd was not a part.[29] 

     By July 29th, Burnside's plan was ready to be put in effect. Only three Confederate divisions remained in the area, thanks to Union infantry-cavalry that had drawn out the others three days prior. However, as of July 28 Gen. George Meade rejected Burnside's plans saying that the Fourth Division should not lead the attack. They were still green, he reasoned, and untried. A more experienced group should lead the charge. Meade then sent for confirmation from Grant, who upheld his decision. On the evening of the 29th, Meade arrived at Burnside's headquarters to "drop this bomb"[30] 

     After drawing lots, it is decided that General James H. Ledlie, 1st Division, will lead the attack, followed by General Willcox, 3rd Division, on the left and General Potter, 2 nd Division, on the right. Trudeau says that this may have been the best course of action at the time, but what should have been taken into consideration was Ledlie's prior record. Not only had he performed poorly, but the white divisions had been on the front lines since July 18th, morale and combat effectiveness was low. To add to the problems, Ledlie was a known drinker and his officers and men frequently grumbled about it.[31]  None of this Meade took into consideration when he changed the plans.

     But as these plans were discussed, it is not widely believed that the black units were told of the change. Colonel H. Seymour Hall, 43rd U.S.C.T., 1st Brigade, later stated that

     "No hint of change of plans had reached me and General Ferrero does not state when he was informed of it.... [Col. Thomas] says that he was not informed of any change till near midnight of July 29...his line officers ... were not aroused to be informed.... I did not know of any change till the morning of July 30th." According to Trudeau, this is the only statement concerning the notification of changes .[32] 

     Between 4:30 and 4:40 AM the mine exploded creating a crater 150-200 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. Though Ledlie ordered the two brigades of the 1st division forward, Trudeau believes that they were not informed to press immediately forward for Cemetery Hill. (With Meade's new plan, no units would flank left and right to clear the Confederate trenches.)[33] 

     The explosion and the pit awed the troops. Major William H. Powell writes, "every man crowd[ed] up to look into the hole, and being pressed by the 1st Brigade,.... Before the brigade commanders could realize the situation, the two brigades became inextricably mixed in the desire to look into the hole. "[34] 

     To add to the confusion, fire from the Confederate trenches forced the disorderly troops into the crater. Powell states that there was not a single division, corps, or army commander present to give orders to clear the trenches. After the white troops had been fighting an hour and a half without accomplishing a single objective, Ferrero's division was ordered into the chaos. Burnside's orders were to push forward to Cemetery Hill: "advance at all hazards" past the three white divisions trapped in the crater.[35] 

     Somehow, Sigfried was able to lead his brigade, including the 39th , around the masses in the crater to the other side. There the 39th participated in short range sweeping of the enemy trenches trying to clear a way for Thomas' brigade. Two regiments of the second brigade were caught in the crater. The 19th, after crossing no-man's land, stopped short of entering the pit. They were partially sheltered from the fire and refused to move forward, thought they could not return over no-man's land.[36]  Observing Sigfried's unit cross the crater, Powell believes that "had they led the attack, fifteen or twenty minutes from the time the debris of the explosion settled would have found them at Cemetery Hill, before the enemy could have brought a gun to bear on them."[37] 

     The New York Times dispatch actually read that the black troops fell out of range of fire after a several advances forward.[38]  The fact that it notes the heavy loses, the fact that the black troops were out of range may only be true for the 19th and the few others who ran to Union lines. Both Powell and Trudeau write that two units were stuck in the crater. In later years Thomas would remember the aftermath as there being, "no distinction of color now."[39]  This indicates to us that there were black units, or at least parts of black units who remained trapped in the crater. Otherwise there would have been no black soldiers for some of the white soldiers to bayonet out of fear of Confederate reprisals. (Described at later point.)

     Powell writes that failure came when the black troops made their advance forward and had no support as well as no commander to order support. They were subjected to a "galling fire from the batteries on the flanks". At this point they fell back into the crater breaking all organization and many passing on to the Union Lines with many of the white troops as well.[40]  What Powell is unaware of is that around this time Burnside and Meade are arguing over a flanking corps' attack. Meade finally wins and issues a halt to that support corps. Meade also wants Burnside to pull the troops out, but Burnside refuses to admit that his plan had failed.[41]  (The irony of course being that this had ceased to be "his" plan when first rejected by Meade.)

     Union racism is shown by the white troops caught in the crater. Knowing that confederates would give no quarter to black troops if taken prisoner, white soldiers feared that they would suffer the same if caught with black soldiers. They thus began to bayonet their own comrades in arms.[42] 

     By 2 PM, the Confederate forces began their final assault on the crater. They were units from General Mahone's troops, who had told the units that the black troops holding the crater had fought with the battle cry, "No quarter for rebels!" Because of this many black soldiers were not allowed to surrender, and were killed by the Confederates. Union officers, in fear of "rebel vengeance", ripped off their unit insignias.[43]  A total of 180 black prisoners were taken, and most went to a detention at Danville. Of those, seven survived.[44] 

     The numbers are staggering. Of the 4500 blacks that fought, 1327 were hit or injured. There were more casualties from the black division than from any of the white divisions. The reader needs to bear in mind that the white divisions had been fighting for an hour and a half prior to the entry of the black division. A total of 3475 can be listed as casualties.[45] 

A revised table for the Official records reads as the following:

50 officers 423 men Killed

124 officers 1522 men Wounded

79 officers 1277 men Captured

Total = 3475[46] 

     An article in the New York Times listed the 39th as having several officers and about 250 men killed, wounded or missing. It lists no losses for the 19th, but the omission might be do to the lack of facts available at the time.[47]  Another article in the New York Times lists the losses: "In the hospitals of the Ninth Corps, the First Division has 206; the Second Division, 307; The Third Division, 341; and the Fourth, the Colored Division, 626."[48]  This is an extraordinary difference.

     Who is to blame for such a defeat? Trudeau states that the farther one looks from a situation, the more racist the blame. One New York cavalryman wrote to a friend that the Ninth Corps "would have done something if it hadn't have been for the nigger troops, but it was too warm for them and they took the back track, leaving the gap open and the Johnnies rushed in..."[49]  A Military Court convened and Burnside was relieved of his command as was General Ledlie. Willcox and Ferrero were reprimanded for basically not having attended to charge or kept accurate information with which to issue orders.[50] 

     An editorial in the New York Times blames the selection of the divisions. According to this editorial, for such an expedition only the elite forces should be selected. It refers to the divisions as "ill-disciplined."[51]  It states that the "Ninth Corps can not only no be considered the elite corps of the army, but is really considered far from equal to the others that might be mentioned.... "[52]  Specifically referring to the colored troops, the unnamed Special Correspondent writes that their conduct "was as disgraceful as it proved disastrous to themselves."[53]  This may also be attributed to lack of information at the time written.

     Powell blames the lack of authority figures readily available to give orders. He states many times that had there been orders for support, or commanders available to order units to sweep the trenches, a success would have been possible. Grant, however, withdraws his initial decision to not allow the 4th Division to lead the charge. Grant later tells the Inquiry, "I believe ... it would have been a success" had the black troops led the charge. But, at the time, he agreed with Meade that "'should [the attack] prove a failure, it would then be said, and very properly, that we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put the white troops in front."[54]  This may be the position that Grant felt he was in - the proverbial rock and a hard place. In either case, everyone suffered. Maybe the true blame should be on the Meade's orders not to sweep the left and right. Had this been done, it is possible that The Battle of the Petersburg Crater would have been a success.

The 19th U.S.C.T. Continues

     The 19th U.S.C.T., made up of mostly of slaves from southern Maryland, was organized December 15, 1863. (With the recruiting of the first two Maryland black units, the slaveowners of Maryland were given 30 days, later increased to 60, to enroll their slaves. A compensation of $300 per man was promised.)[55]  The unit fought in eleven engagements including Cold Harbor, Spottsylvania, Tolopotomy, Old Church, Hatchets' Run, Bermuda Hundred, Weldon Railroad, Cemetery Hill, Petersburg, the Wilderness Campaign and the entry into Richmond. Its killed and died of wounds amounted to 3 officers and 47 enlisted men; of disease 1 officer and 242 enlisted men. The 19th was also in service garrisoning Tennessee until it was mustered out on January 12, 1866.[56] 

The 39th U.S.C.T. Continues

     The 39th U.S.C.T. was organized at Baltimore from March 22 to 31, 1864. Most of the men came from Baltimore itself. It has been credited with 10 engagements, according to The History and Roster of the Maryland Volunteers, including Petersburg, Federal point, Bermuda Hundred, Hatcher's Run, Fort Fisher, Sugar Loaf, Cox Landing, N.C., Wilderness, Spottsylvania, and Weldon Railroad. The casualties of the regiment read as follows: 30 enlisted men killed in battle (although Dyer lists 38), 3 officers died of wounds, disease, etc. and 239 enlisted men died of disease.[57]  One enlisted man received a Congressional Medal of Honor for the fighting of The Battle of the Crater. Decatur Dorsey, Sgt., received the honor for saving the company colors and rallying his unit to advance.[58]  The 39 garrisoned the southern states until it was mustered out December 4, 1865.[59] 


[1]  James H. Rickard, Service with the Colored Troops in Burnsideís Corps,(Providence, R.I.: Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society, 1894), p. 8-9 Return to Text

[2]  Union League Club, Report of the Committee on Volunteering, October 13, 1864, pp. 3, 4 Return to Text

[3]  Ibid., pp. 7-9 Return to Text

[4]  Ibid., pp. 10, 40-41 Return to Text

[5]  Ibid., p. 12 Return to Text

[6]  Ibid., p. 11 Return to Text

[7]  Ibid., p. 39 Return to Text

[8]  Ibid., p. 14 Return to Text

[9]  Ibid., p. 14-15 Return to Text

[10]  Ibid., p. 36 Return to Text

[11]  John Habberton Diary, February 12, 1864 Return to Text

[12]  Union League Club, p. 13 Return to Text

[13]  Ibid., February 9, 10, 11, 1864 Return to Text

[14]  Ibid., January 30, 1864 Return to Text

[15]  Union League Club, p. 16 Return to Text

[16]  New York Times, March 6, 1864, p. 8, Col. 3 Return to Text

[17]  John Habberton Diary, undated entry, possibly August 8, 1864 Return to Text

[18]  Ibid., February 1, 1864 Return to Text

[19]  Ibid., February 12, 1864 Return to Text

[20]  Ibid., February 25, 1864 Return to Text

[21]  Union League Club, p. 21 Return to Text

[22]  New York Times, March 6, 1864, p. 8, Col. 1 Return to Text

[23]  Union League Club, p. 42. By the phrase "far great dangers" the article goes on to say that it is referring to the dangers of being taken prisoner. "If North Carolina be their destination, they expect, when taken prisoners by General Pickett, to be hung on the spot: if South Carolina, death awaits them in various forms of torture; if the Mississippi Valley, massacre in cold blood is their exemplified fate." Return to Text

[24]  Ibid., p. 43 Return to Text

[25]  Ibid., p. 43-44 Return to Text

[26]  Ibid., p. 47 Return to Text

[27]  Noah Andre Trudeau, Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865, (Boston: Little Brown, 1998), p. 231 Return to Text

[28]  Ibid., p. 232 Return to Text

[29]  Ibid., p. 232 Return to Text

[30]  Ibid., p. 234 Return to Text

[31]  Ibid., p. 235 Return to Text

[32]  Ibid., p. 235 Return to Text

[33]  Ibid., p. 238 Return to Text

[34]  William Powell, "The Battle of the Petersburg Crater" Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, (New York: Century Company, 1888), p. 552 Return to Text

[35]  Ibid., p. 556 Return to Text

[36]  Trudeau, Like Men of War, p. 239-242 Return to Text

[37]  Powell, Petersburg Crater, p. 556 Return to Text

[38]  New York Times, August 2, 1864, p. 1, Col. 1 Return to Text

[39]  Thomas, p. 29 Return to Text

[40]  Powell, Petersburg Crater, p. 556-557 Return to Text

[41]  Trudeau, Like Men of War, p. 245 Return to Text

[42]  Ibid., p. 245 Return to Text

[43]  Ibid., p. 245-247 Return to Text

[44]  Ibid., p. 247 Return to Text

[45]  Ibid., p. 247 Return to Text

[46]  Powell, Petersburg Crater, p. 560 Return to Text

[47]  New York Times, August, 2, 1864, p. 1, col. 1 Return to Text

[48]  Ibid., August, 3, 1864, p. 1, col. 3 Return to Text

[49]  Trudeau, Like Men of War, p. 249-250 Return to Text

[50]  Ibid., p. 250 Return to Text

[51]  New York Times, August 3, 1864, p. 1 col. 3 Return to Text

[52]  Ibid., p. 1 col. 2 Return to Text

[53]  Ibid., p. 1 col. 2-3 Return to Text

[54]  Powell, Petersburg Crater, p. 551 Return to Text

[55]  James H. Whyte, "Marylandís Negro Regiments--How, Where They Served", Civil War Times Illustrated (July 1962), p. 41 Return to Text

[56] State Commissioners, History and Roster of Maryland Volunteers, War of 1861-1864 (Baltimore: Guggenheimer, Weil , 1898-99), p. 207 Return to Text
[57]  Frederick H. Dyer, A Compedium of the War of the Rebellion, Vol. 2 (Dayton: Morningside, 1979) p. 1730 Return to Text

[58]  R.J. Proff, United States of America's Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients and Their Official Citations (Columbia Heights, Minn.: Highland II, 1997), p. 759 Return to Text

[59]  Maryland Volunteers, p. 261