December 9, 1863 (Wednesday)
“I’ve had a great deal of trouble with you already,” spat Lt. Col. Augustus Benedict, “and I am going to stop it!” With that, he leveled his fist and struck Harry Williams, a drummer in the 4th Regiment, Corps d’Afrique, stationed at Fort Jackson, Louisiana, south of New Orleans. Benedict then began to whip him, as well as another drummer, Munro Miller.
Both were stripped to their shirts and repeatedly struck with a mule whip up to twenty times. The white officers, keeping to their quarters, overheard the pleas of “Don’t! I won’t do it again!” They heard the whip crack and the skin tear. This was punishment for lying to the guard to leave the garrison. Soon afterthe beaten men were released to their companies, the uprising began.
Lt. Col. Augustus Benedict had a history of mistreating the troops under his command. It was a usual thing to see him roughly shaking and striking random soldiers. When he was stationed at Fort Saint Philip, he was known to, on several occasions, “spread a man out on his back, drive stakes down, and spread out his hands and legs, take off his shoes, and take molasses and spread it over his face, hands, and feet.” On at least one instance, he did this to a man on two consecutive days. This cruel punishment would draw flies and ants to his exposed limbs and face.
Benedict was one of the newer officers to come to Fort Jackson. But with him, he brought along several companies of the 4th Regiment, Corps d’Afrique, who were well aware of his brutality.
When the Union Army began to raise regiments of black troops, the idea of allowing the men to elect their own officers was put forward. White soldiers did it at the beginning of the war, establishing a precedent. But others in charge believed the former slaves incapable of making such decisions, and white officers were appointed to oversee the black regiments. To many in the ranks, this seemed a bit too similar to the plantation. And while most of the white officers were gentlemen, some, like Benedict, were animals, no better than slave drivers.
Following the flogging of Harry Williams and Munroe Miller, all seemed quiet for a time. A crowd had formed to stand witness to the punishment, but when the whipping finally drew to a close, Lt. Col. Benedict ordered the men back to their quarters. They complied, but they had had enough. It was bad enough that they were given lesser pay – which, until this point, was really their only complaint – but now the abuse had gone too far. Around 6:30pm, an hour and a half after the whipping, it was dark, and the men reemerged.
The 4th Regiment contained roughly 500 men, and by most accounts, at least 250 took part in the uprising. Lt. Col. Benedict was still on the parade ground when they appeared, but quickly disappeared into his quarters, where he grabbed his revolver. The soldiers gathered quickly, and some had their guns.
Soon, there was firing. The men were enraged, but fired into the air. “Give us Colonel Benedict!” They demanded. “We did not come here to be whipped by him!” Unable to find Benedict, thirty or so believed him to be outside the fort. And so they rushed for the bridge shouting, “Kill him! Shoot him! Kill the son of a bitch!”
Some were crying, “We know what General Grant told us!” They were referring to General William Thomas, who they had mistook for Grant. Not long ago, Thomas made an appearance at nearby Fort Saint Philip, telling them black troops that if any of the white officers maltreated them, he would dismiss them.
One officer went to the fort’s commander, Col. Charles Drew. “There is a disturbance among the men,” he said. “I think they are taking up arms.”
“No,” replied Drew. “I think not.” His men, he believed, would not do that. They had before been the model soldiers. Drew left his quarters for the parade ground, where he saw for himself the tumult.
Others remained on the parade ground, where Col. Drew attempted to talk with them. Only half the regiment took part in the uprising, while the other half, though themselves angered by the floggings, tried to quiet the scene.
When Drew heard that it was all because of Benedict’s abusive behavior, he immediately had him arrested and sent back to the officer’s quarters. This quelled the anger of some of the men, but others were still enraged that a whipping had happened in the first place. “We will not stop firing until we have him!” they demanded. Others, probably those who had been under Col. Drew longer than they had been under Benedict were more willing to reason. “We don’t want to hurt you,” they explained to Drew, “it is Colonel Benedict we are after.”
There was no leader of the uprising, but small squads of men acting on their own. One squad was led by either Harry Williams or Munroe Miller, and it was to him that Col. Drew spoke. It took, perhaps, fifteen minutes for him to explain that Benedict was in the wrong for whipping him, but it was no excuse for their conduct. He asked them to go to their quarters, put away their weapons, and then he would talk to them to see that justice was done. But the men were a little distrusting, and feared that Drew would simply turn the guns on them if they themselves disarmed. He assured them that he would never do such a thing.
All the while, the firing continued, though with less muskets joining in. All told, the ruckus lasted about thirty minutes. Towards the end, Drew had formed as many of the men as possible into a hollow square so he could talk to them. He had just begun when the thirty men who had ran outside of the fort to find Benedict returned.
“Don’t give up your guns!” they demanded of their now-disarmed comrades. Drew dispersed the assembled men, and had them form their companies in the company streets. This gave order to the regiment, and soon enough even the thirty were quelled. At an impromptu roll call, nearly every man answered.
The next morning, Col. Drew ordered Benedict out of the fort, sending him to New Orleans. As he walked out, not a single soldier uttered a word. When he arrived at General Nathaniel Banks’ headquarters, he tendered his resignation, which Banks refused – and for good reason. A few days later, Benedict was court-martialed and dismissed for “inflicting cruel and unusual punishment, to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.”
But the rioters too had to be dealt with. Thirteen men were put on trial for mutiny. While four were acquitted, others were either dismissed or sentenced to hard labor for widely varying terms of a month to twenty years, depending on the offender. Two were given the death penalty at first, but General Banks commuted their sentences to imprisonment.
Writing to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck on the 11th, General Banks explained that “the negroes have been constantly assured, whether engaging in labor or enlisting as soldiers, that under no circumstances whatever were they to be subjected to the degrading punishment of flogging. This has always been made a condition by them, and they have always received this assurance from the officers of the Government.”
Continuing, he wrote: “the want of discretion, of a spirit of justice and of capacity to deal with men of this class manifested by some of the officers, whose conduct was the immediate cause of the outbreak, was such as could hardly be expected to produce any other result.”((Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 26, Part 1, p456-457, 460-476; Official Records of the Navy, Vol. 20, p715-716; The Black Military Experience edited by Ira Berlin; Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 by William A. Dobak; Black Union Soldiers in the Civil War by Hondon B. Hargrove.))