Civil War: A History of the
1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers
The Last Test
After the Battle of Olustee, the 1st NCCV, renamed the 35th USCT in February, spent much of its time in Florida marching from one post to the next. Col. Beecher drew attention to the shortage of clothing and supplies in his regiment because of constant duty and losses at the Battle of Olustee. He noted, "since the first organization of my command at Newbern, S.C. [sic] June 1863, it has without rest or intermission been engaged, either in heavy fatigue as at Charleston, S. C. from July 1863 to Feby.1864, or in constant harassing marches as in Florida from Feby.1864 to this date [July 22, 1864]." 1
Though black troops continually demonstrated their worth on the battlefield, they commonly received excessive fatigue duty. White officers saw each battle that incorporated blacks as a test of their ability no matter how often they had proven themselves. Though the 35th USCT performed admirably in the Battle of Olustee, the Union army used it only to garrison posts until it was transferred to South Carolina, nine months after the battle. Amidst the harassing marches in Florida, however, the 35th occasionally participated in raids and excursions.
One Federal excursion resulted in the capture of the Union steamship, Columbine, along with several soldiers from the 35th USCT. On May 21, 1864, Brig. Gen. George H. Gordon departed Jacksonville with two hundred men on the steamer Charles Houghton, accompanied by two gun boats, the Ottawa and the steam-tug Columbine, in response to a distress call. The Federal force steamed up the St. John's River to Picolata where Gordon added six companies of the 35th USCT and all available troops of the 157th New York Regiment to his force, providing a total of about seven hundred men. Gordon ordered a guard of two officers and several men from Col. Beecher's regiment on board the Columbine. The distress call came from Col. William H. Noble, commander of forces east of the St. John's river. Rebel forces had pushed Noble's small detail across the Haw Creek to Volusia.
Gordon sent the Columbine directly to Volusia to assist Noble. Gordon considered it too much of a threat for his troops to sail farther up the St. John's, thus he disembarked his men opposite Palatka. He planned to move his force toward the road from St. Augustine to the Haw Creek crossing and then on to Volusia, a march of considerable distance.
When Gordon arrived at Volusia on May 23rd, he found Noble's force safely garrisoned. He learned that the Rebels no longer remained on the east side of the river, thus he sent the Columbine and the 157th New York back to Jacksonville. Instead of pursuing the enemy reported to be near Haw Creek, Gordon also made his way back to Jacksonville. Three days later he received a report that the Columbine had been captured. Capt. J. J. Dickison of the 2d Florida Cavalry engaged the Federal gun boat on its way back from Volusia at Horse Landing, above Welaka, with a section of Milton Artillery and twenty riflemen from his cavalry. The Rebel artillery disabled the boat with the second barrage. Within forty-five minutes, the Columbine raised a white flag and Dickison's men boarded her. A total of seven commissioned officers, nine seamen, and forty-seven black soldiers were captured, and twenty-five soldiers were killed or drowned. Dickison ordered his men to burn the boat to prevent its recapture by the enemy. 2
Two officers and thirty-nine men from company E of the 35th USCT were either killed, wounded, or listed as missing during the rescue attempt. Col. Beecher requested authority to fill the decimated company. 3 Beecher also inquired about a flag of truce concerning the captured men, but the Columbine prisoners were not returned until June 25, 1865. 4
As 1864 came to a close, the Union army withdrew Federal troops from Florida. Late in November, the 35th USCT received transfer orders to Hilton Head, South Carolina. The regiment was to participate in Federal operations in support of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's march to the sea. In South Carolina, the 35th engaged in its second fiery battle, the final test of its ability to withstand exposure to enemy muskets.
Battle of Honey Hill
Maj. Gen. John G. Foster, who replaced Maj. Gen. Gillmore as head of the Department of the South, prepared his troops, including the 35th USCT, for a raid on the Charleston and Savannah Railroad above Savannah. If successful, this raid would destroy the railroad somewhere between Grahamville and Coosawhatchie and would prevent Rebel reinforcements from reaching Savannah. This would allow General Sherman to cross the Savannah River below Augusta and establish communication lines with Port Royal, the main Federal depot on the coast. 5 Foster placed General John P. Hatch in charge of the operation.
Lt. Gen. W. J. Hardee, commanding the Rebel forces in the Southern Department, requested help from Maj. Gen. Gustavus W. Smith, commander of the First Division, Georgia Militia, to prevent the Federals from disrupting the railroad lines. Hardee asked Smith to move his Georgia militia into South Carolina and hold the enemy in check until relief troops could arrive. 6 Smith arrived in Grahamville at 8 a.m. on November 30 with his Georgia troops. There he joined Col. Charles J. Colcock of the 3d South Carolina Cavalry, also commander of the military district in South Carolina.
The two commanders arranged for Smith to take up position behind a parapet and rifle pits previously constructed on the hillside above a small creek bordered by heavy brush. Called Honey Hill, the rise extended one-hundred yards above the creek. A dense forest bordering the Rebel line made a natural barrier on the right, and open woods with large pines and deep marshes anchored the left. A grassy region overlaying the hillside directly in front of the earthworks provided an unobstructed view of the oncoming Federals. Heavy forests skirting both sides of the road would funnel the Union troops directly to the Rebel fortifications. Colcock planned to advance from Honey Hill with a portion of the cavalry and one gun to support his pickets in drawing the enemy into the Rebel line. 7
Hatch left Hilton Head late in the evening on November 28 with two brigades of infantry, cavalry and artillery, and five hundred sailors and marines bound for Boyd's Neck on the Broad River. General E. E. Potter commanded the first brigade of infantry consisting of the 56th, 127th, 144th, and 157th New York Regiments, the 25th Ohio, and the 32d, 34th, and 35th USCT. The second brigade, commanded by Col. Alfred S. Hartwell, included the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments (black), and the 26th and 102d USCT. Lt. Col. William Ames led the artillery, Batteries B and F, 3d New York, and Battery A, 3d Rhode Island. Capt. George P. Hurlbut commanded a detachment of the 40th Massachusetts Cavalry and Commander George H. Preble, U.S. Navy, commanded the marine brigade. The Union force numbered a total of about 5,500 men. 8
A thick fog and incompetent pilots caused some of the Union vessels to sail up the Chechesee River instead of the Broad River, while others became grounded. The bulk of the Federal troops did not reach the landing until late on the 29th. Hatch arrived around 11 a.m., but the steamer Canonicus, carrying the engineer troops and materials, did not show up until 2 p.m. Thus it was impossible to build the necessary landing for the troops and artillery to disembark until late in the afternoon. Still, had they marched directly to Grahamville, they would have met with little resistance. All available Rebel troops were engaged with Sherman's advance to the sea.
Once the Federal detail made its landing, faulty maps and overconfident guides misled the Union troops. They did not reach the road to Grahamville until 2 a.m. the next morning. The men had marched fifteen miles the night of the 29th, twice the distance to Grahamville. The confusion allowed Colcock and Smith adequate time to prepare their defenses. 9
Before daybreak, Hatch's command marched on the direct road to Grahamville. Potter's brigade led the troops with the 127th New York in front as skirmishers, supported by the 25th Ohio and the 144th and 157th New York Volunteers. Col. Hartwell's brigade followed. The 26th and 102d USCT had not arrived at this point.
Thick undergrowth prevented widening the formation to the left and a grass fire set by the enemy acted as a barrier on the right. Potter's men met the enemy's pickets, pushed them back, and silenced their artillery. The advance appeared to be going well, when suddenly around a bend in the road the Union army found itself before an entrenched enemy.
The parapet on the crest of Honey Hill served as the center of the enemy's line and protected four Rebel guns. Seven more guns protected the rifle pits extending on both sides of the redoubt. The 127th New York, supported by two companies of the 54th and all of the 55th Massachusetts, assaulted the left flank of the Rebel line as Mesereau's artillery shelled the redoubt. Twice, they came within two hundred yards of the fortifications, but were repelled with significant losses.
The 157th New York, the 25th Ohio, the 32d USCT, and the marines formed a new line on the right flank and the 157th New York filled in on the left. Battery F, 3d New York Artillery, opened a rapid fire from the center of the line and Potter ordered his right flank to assault the enemy. Heavy forests and deep swamps prevented access to the enemy line.
The 35th USCT entered the battle. Col. Beecher bravely led his men around the right of the Union artillery. The heavy and relentless fire of the enemy, added to the difficult terrain, made Beecher's advance hopeless. Beecher repeatedly charged the enemy, however. In the midst of galling musketry fire, his horse was shot from under him, and Beecher was hit with two musket balls, one seriously injuring his thigh. In spite of his wounds, he remained on the field until the close of the day. 10
Meanwhile, Col. Hartwell rallied the 55th Massachusetts and advanced toward the left flank of the Rebel line with the marine battalion. The 55th met with no more success than did Beecher's men. Hartwell charged the Rebel line twice, resulting in the loss of over one hundred dead in five minutes. At that point, the Confederates charged Potter's left flank, nearly dividing his men. The 56th and 157th New York regiments quickly came to Potter's aid and together they held off the Rebel advance. Perceiving it fruitless to continue, General Hatch ordered a retreat.
Beecher's regiment saw only brief action during the Battle of Honey Hill, but it received its share of casualties. 11 The Union troops lost an aggregate of 746 killed, wounded, and missing. 12 General Potter praised Beecher for his gallant stand on the field after being wounded twice. 13 Lt. Col. Reed's father wrote to Beecher's brother:
All colored troops behaved nobly, and especially your brother's regiment . . . never breaking or flinching under the severest fire. Your brother is reported to have distinguished himself for his bravery, and to have been dangerously wounded. He is said to be idolized by his men, so much so that there is not one in the regiment who would not sacrifice his life for him. 14
As in the Battle of Olustee, by the time Beecher's men entered the fight, momentum favored the Confederates.
General Foster claimed in his report that the Rebel force of over four thousand infantry nearly matched General Hatch's strength. General Smith, however, reported that the Federal army "largely exceeded" the Confederates when all troops were engaged. The actual number, taken from Confederate reports, puts the Rebels at fourteen hundred effective muskets. 15 Their losses were only eight dead and forty-two wounded. The smaller Rebel army achieved success largely because of its strong defensive position and its ability to catch the Federals off guard. Thick forests and marshes prevented flanking maneuvers for the Union troops who were forced into a frontal attack on the Rebel fortifications. The Georgia volunteers held off the Union forces long enough for the South Carolina and North Carolina troops to arrive and take up defensive positions.
The Battle of Honey Hill was the last opportunity the men of the 35th USCT would have to prove themselves as able, brave fighters. No doubt remained as to the capability of the 35th. The following February, Col. Beecher reported to General Hatch at Hilton Head, South Carolina, after recovering from his wounds. He rejoined his regiment at Combahee Ferry, where his men received him with cheers of joy. Beecher and his men were transferred to Charleston in March, and there Beecher was promoted to the rank of brevet brigadier general. He was placed in command of the northern half of the city and his regiment received orders to occupy the citadel on the central square. 16
The 35th USCT participated in the affairs of Reconstruction in the military district of Charleston until June of 1866, when the three year enlistments ended. The regiment assembled in Charleston and each soldier was quietly discharged from the United States Army. Several of the men wrote Frances expressing their love for Col. Beecher and thanking him for his devotion. They also requested and received a life-size portrait of their Colonel from Frances and placed it in their Charleston headquarters. 17 The portrait and the noble flag presented by the black women of New Bern would serve as memorials for the men of the 35th USCT.
Lincoln's attempts to organize a loyal government in eastern North Carolina made the state peculiar in terms of recruiting blacks. Brig. Gen. Edward Wild confronted hostile whites and unsympathetic Union officials in his efforts to recruit the North Carolina black brigade. Nevertheless, he and his staff raised 5,035 black troops for the Union army, and a total of 1,098 enlisted men and 62 commissioned and noncommissioned officers comprised the 35th USCT. 18 Though conditions for recruiting the 35th USCT were unique, the regiment encountered prejudicial attitudes from white officers and soldiers that were typical of all black regiments that served, free blacks and ex-slaves alike.
The majority of northern whites wanted a "white man's war" and were opposed to arming African-Americans. The racism displayed in South Carolina, while the 35th USCT was stationed on Folly Island, simply reflected northern opinion of blacks. Similar treatment of black soldiers continued long after the Civil War. 19 Society was slow in changing its racial attitudes.
The 35th USCT bolstered northern confidence in ex-slaves. The recruitment and performance of the North Carolina regiment indicated that the quality and quantity of freedmen equalled that of free blacks. It also permitted southern slaves to see that the fruits of Emancipation were genuine and that the Union army would allow them to fight. This is confirmed by the dramatic increase of black soldiers in the Union army and the number of major battles in which they participated. In October 1863, a total of 37,482 black troops served in 58 regiments. By October 20, 1864, the number of black troops had tripled, and the number of black regiments had increased to 140. In one year there was an increase of 62,243 troops and 82 regiments. 20 The fact that the Union army recruited large numbers of African-Americans in 1864 and 1865 indicates that northern opinion of black soldiers was progressing.
According to the Official Army Register published in 1865, black troops participated in only one engagement in 1862, and in twenty-eight engagements in 1863. Although these figures are inaccurate, they show that prior to 1864, the Union army generally retained black troops for noncombat roles. The black regiments in the Florida Expedition, for example, were sent on the mission only to man newly established posts. Their participation in the Battle of Olustee was unanticipated. As the fourth year of the war progressed, commanders employed black troops more as soldiers than mere laborers. According to the Army Register, 170 engagements involved black troops in 1864 and 52 in 1865. 21
By the end of the war, 178,985 black troops had served in the Union army, composing nearly 10 percent of the total number of Union soldiers. According to Dyer's Compendium, black troops fought in a total of 449 engagements, 39 of which he rated as major battles. Over 37,000 black soldiers lost their lives in the conflict. 22 Without the aid of the "sable arm," the Civil War and slavery might have endured indefinitely.
** Go to Bibliography **
1. Col. James C. Beecher to Maj. F.W. Taggard, July 22, 1864, Order Book, 35th USCT, Record Group 94, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
2. Report of Brig. Gen. George H. Gordon, U.S. Army, May 27, 1864 and Report of Capt. J.J. Dickison, 2d Florida Cavalry, May 24, 1864, ORA, ser.1, 35, pt.1:393-395, 397.
3. Col. Beecher to Col. M. L. Littlefield, June 9, 1864, Order Book, 35th USCT, RG 94, National Archives.
4. Col. Beecher to Capt. P. T. Young, June 8, 1864, Ibid.
5. Col. Charles C. Jones, Jr., The Battle of Honey Hill: An Address Delivered Before the Confederate Survivor's Association, in Augusta, Georgia, at its Seventh Annual Meeting, on Memorial Day, April 27, 1885 (Augusta, Ga: Chronicle Printing Establishment, 1885), 11; Edwin S. Redkey, ed., A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (Cambridge: University Press, 1992), 32.
6. Report of Maj. Gen. Gustavus W. Smith, December 6, 1864, ORA, ser. 1, 44:415.
7. Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buell, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: Being for the Most Part Contributions by Union and Confederate Officers, based upon The Century War Series, 4 vols. (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, Inc., 1956), 4:668.
8. Report of Brig. Gen. John P. Hatch, U.S. Army, commanding Coast Division, December, 1864, ORA, ser.1, 44:421-424.
9. Louis F. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment: History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865 (Boston: Boston Book Company, 1894; reprint, New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1968), 238-39 (page references are to reprint edition).
10. In several accounts, the number of charges and number of Beecher's wounds differs. See Report of Brig. Gen. Hatch, December, 1864, and Report of Brig. Gen. Edward E. Potter, U.S. Army, commanding First Brigade, December 11, 1864, ORA, ser.1, 44:424, 427; Descriptive Books, 35th USCT, RG 94, National Archives; Frances Beecher Perkins, "Two Years with a Colored Regiment: A Woman's Experience," New England Magazine 17 (January 1898): 537; Milton Rugoff, The Beechers: An American Family in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1981), 459.
11. According to the descriptive books, the number of casualties was only thirteen; however, the record is probably incomplete. Only thirty-nine casualties were listed for the Battle of Olustee.
12. Recapitulation of the killed, wounded, and missing in the Coast Division, Department of the South, during the action at Honey Hill, S.C., November, 30, 1864, General John P. Hatch, ORA, ser.1, 44:425.
13. Report of Brig. Gen. Potter, December 11, 1864, ORA, ser.1, 44:427.
14. Perkins, "Two Years with a Colored Regiment," 537.
15. Report of Maj. Gen. Gustavus W. Smith, C.S. Army, commanding First Division, Georgia Militia, December 6, 1864, ORA, ser.1, 44:416.
16. Perkins, "Two Years With a Colored Regiment," 539.
18. George Washington Williams, A History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880: Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens Together with a Preliminary Consideration of the Unity of the Human Family, an Historical Sketch of Africa, and an Account of the Negro Governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia, 2 vols. (New York: G. P. Putman's Sons, 1883; reprint, New York: Bergman Publishers, 1968), 2:300 (page references are to reprint edition); Descriptive Books, 35th USCT, RG 94, National Archives.
19. The government supported racial inequality in the United States Army until President Truman ordered the integration of the armed forces in 1945. This was a bold step because most generals and admirals, as well as Truman's own military advisors, were opposed to the move. Merle Miller, Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman (New York: Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1973), 79-80.
20. Dudley Cornish, The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (1956; reprint, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966), 247, 257, (page references are to reprint edition).
21. The records used for the Official Army Register were incomplete. Dyer's Compendium was based on the Official Records of the Rebellion published later when all the records had been assembled. Cornish, The Sable Arm, 265.
22. Frederick Henry Dyer, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (Des Moines, 1908; reprint, New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1959), 1720 (page numbers are to original publication); James M. McPherson, The Negro's Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965; reprint, New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), 241 (page references are to reprint addition).