‘But the White Officers Were Not Superintending Them’ – Black Troops Okay On Their Own?

January 29, 1865 (Sunday)

William Tecumseh Sherman’s headquarters yet remained near Pocotaligo, waiting for the weather to improve. Through the storms and cold of the past week, his four corps had moved, though slightly. This gave Henry Hitchcock, Sherman’s aide-de-camp, time to both write home and in his diary about the happenings in camp.

Sergeant Furney Bryant, 1st North Carolina Colored Troops (later 35th U.S. Colored Troops)
Sergeant Furney Bryant,
1st North Carolina Colored Troops
(later 35th U.S. Colored Troops)

Today marked the third month and third day since he left home, and the experience of life on the march was still a novelty for him. “I can and do enjoy or plain fare,” he wrote to his wife, “all except the heavy biscuits which Manuel makes now and then, and which I rate him soundly for, apparently to his amusement – as heartily as anybody, or as I do the choices meats, etc.; indeed with the air and exercise, etc. comes a relish that nothing else gives.”

When they first arrived at Pocotaligo, they did so ahead of their supply wagons and had “to make the best of it with one blanket apiece on the floor.” Since then, they had blankets aplenty, and with the Spanish moss, they did even better. They would take the moss and create a pile “five or six inches thick under the lower blanket making the floor a good deal softer….”

Hitchcock had expected to leave “tomorrow” for several days now, and that pattern of uncertainty would around for a few more days. “It is understood that we leave here tomorrow morning ‘for parts unknown’, but you know by this time that a soldier’s punctuality consists in his being ready to move at the appointed hour.”

Prior to the war, Hitchcock had served as a Unionist delegate in the Missouri secession convention. He was an abolitionist, and the war had not changed these views. However, marching with Sherman’s army, he had seen few black soldiers. But during the stay in Savannah, the army had marched alongside troops from the Department of the South, which contained such regiments.

Hitchcock took time out from writing to visit with one from a brigade made up of two white units and two black. “Walked out to their camps,” he recorded in his diary. “The white troops are ‘vets’ and march and look best; but the blacks are a fine looking body of men, and one of the regiments fought at Olustee. A captain in it, an intelligent main, though not of much culture, who was at Olustee fully confirms the good account then given of the negroes’ good behavior there; claiming, I do not doubt truly, from other evidence also, that their steadiness under very adverse circumstances, save the defeat from being a total and serious rout.

“I asked him about the qualities of the negroes, but he did not answer by comparison with the whites as I wished, but gave good accounts of them in general terms. I saw them building their huts (with shelter tent roofs) and they seemed as apt, as careful and as industrious, as whites could be. They told me, on inquiry, that their Col. (Willis – 35th U.S.C.T.) had set them at it; but the white officers were not superintending them.”

This must have been surprising, even to Hitchcock. Though he was an abolitionist, the idea of black people being able to live a life free of white supervision seemed almost unbelievable.

Returning to the letter, Hitchcock recalled his attempts at trying to convince others in the Missouri congress to draft their own Emancipation Ordinance.

Reunion of the 1st North Carolina, aka, 35th USCT.
Reunion of the 1st North Carolina, aka, 35th USCT.

“It was time long before this,” he wrote, “to clear away the rubbish and cut loose from the dead remains of what never lived save by tolerance. I am glad to remember that in the State Convention, I advocated emancipation to take effect January 1st, 1864 – though desiring humane provisions and protection both against the whites and themselves for the freed blacks, which if we could mould and model the world to suit ourselves, would have been very fine.”

But Hitchcock admitted that it was useless and that war, in the end, was necessary. He compared the end of the war to a thunderstorm. Once it passed “some trees are apt to be blown down and some houses struck by lightening; but after all we must have thunderstorms. I think the analogy a good one, and while the wanton perpetrators of outrage are wholly guilty, yet the outrages, etc., of war I recognize as being after all as much a part of the inscrutable and all-wise providence of God, and as a necessary and ultimately as beneficial, as the terror which His wisdom has made part of the visible phenomena of Nature.”

In the end, Hitchcock believed, that slavery would never have been abandoned, save by a war to make it so.

The next day, and the next, Hitchcock would write again that he was leaving “tomorrow.” But soon, that tomorrow would come, and Sherman’s forces would purge and gut South Carolina, from whence came secession and war.1

  1. Sources: Marching With Sherman by Henry Hitchcock. []
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‘But the White Officers Were Not Superintending Them’ – Black Troops Okay On Their Own? by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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