October 13, 1864 (Thursday)
Col. Lewis Johnson had dispatched a few parties of scouts to discover from where the Confederates would be approaching his garrison at Dalton, Georgia. The day previous, the town of Resaca had been half-heartedly attacked by Steven D. Lee’s Corps from John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee, and now it seemed like they had turned north to fall upon his command.
Near dawn, there was already skirmishing to the south, near the town of Tilton, with the Confederates pushing back the Federals as they came. Johnson had called for reinforcements, but only fifty men from the 57th Illinois had shown up. This only slightly augmented his own regiment, the 44th United States Colored Troops.
General Sherman, whom Hood was trying to pry from Atlanta by attacking the railroad to the north, was enthusiastically against black soldiers being part of his command. “I prefer some negroes as pioneers, teamsters, cooks, and servants,” he said in July, though dabbled with the idea of someday using them “to experiment in the art of the soldier, beginning with the duties of local garrison….”
And that is how the 44th USCT came to be at Dalton. This was Sherman’s experiment. While it had been well over a year since black soldiers had more than proven their worth on the battlefield, Sherman was clinging tightly to his outdated ways.
When the skirmishers from the 7th Kentucky Cavalry retreated back into town, they could not say for sure who was behind them – infantry or dismounted cavalry. But as the Rebels drew closer, it became clear to Johnson that it was indeed infantry. Following some skirmishing much closer to Dalton, a flag of truce borne by a messenger was filed across the lines. Along with the flag, he carried an order to surrender written by General Hood.
Officer Commanding U.S. Forces, Dalton, Georgia:
I demand the immediate and unconditional surrender of the post and garrison under your command, and should this be acceded to, all white officers and soldiers will be paroled in a few days. If the place is carried by assault, no prisoners will be taken.
Most respectfully, your obedient servant,
J.B. Hood, General.
Though Johnson could not know this, Hood’s demand was the same as was presented to Col. Wever in Resaca the day previous. But like Col. Wever, Johnson refused: “I cannot surrender the troops under my command, whatever the consequences may be.”
And those consequences seemed dire indeed for the 600 or more black soldiers who made up the 44th. It was clear that only the whites among them – the Illinois and Kentucky troops – would be paroled. The rest would be, at best, forced back into slavery, a horror with which nearly every man in the regiment was intimately familiar. Since this would happen whether they could hold Dalton or not, Col. Johnson decided to fight.
The fighting continued, though it was not long before another plea came across for the Federals to surrender. Once more Johnson refused. The Rebels, it seemed, had given him his chance. Soon, a thick line of Southern infantry, stretching two miles in length, uncoiled around the town. It ran from Tunnel Hill to the north, around the town to the south and cut off the road to Spring Place to the east. Rebel artillery began to hammer outpost all around him. “In short,” wrote Johnson in his report, “we were surrounded.”
A captain from the 7th Kentucky took it upon himself to ride the length of the enemy line, and upon his return, begging Johnson to surrender – “they had men enough to eat us up.”
Johnson now began to reconsider. He sent a few messengers across, asking if they might be allowed to inspect the Confederate lines. If they found more than 10,000 men, they would agree to abandon the post and be allowed to march unmolested to the nearest Federal garrison. Hood, of course, denied this permission, and his aide-de-camp assured the Federals that many times more than 10,000 were before them. There were two fully corps in line and a third, S.D. Lee’s, within easy support. They also reminded them that once they made their attack, no quarter would be given. No prisoners would be taken.
Stepping into these talks came General Hood himself, asking to parlay with Col. Johnson. “I saw General Hood,” wrote Johnson a few days later, “and he repeated what his staff officers had told my lieutenant-colonel and the other officers, and showed me at least 25,000 men and thirty pieces of artillery, which were then in position bearing upon my work.”
Hood warned him that he must decide at once, telling him that he had already taken too long. Johnson made a protest against the brutal idea of giving no quarter, but according to Johnson, Hood replied that “he could not restrain his men, and would not if he could; that I could choose between surrender and death.”
There was not much to consider. His 800 or so men could hold out maybe fifteen minutes, and he believed full well that all would be slaughtered.
“To fight any more than had been done was madness, in the face of such barbarous threats, which I was fully satisfied would be carried out, as the division of Cleburne, which was in the immediate rear of the rebel general and his staff, was over anxious to move upon the ‘niggers,’ and constantly violated the flag of truce by skirmishing near it, and to fight was also hopeless, as we were surrounded and could not be supported from anywhere.”
A Confederate private from Arkansas, named William E. Bevens, recalled that “while the artillery made ready the Texans passed the word down the line as though it came from General Cheatham, “Kill every damn one of them,” which would have been carrying out their own threat of ‘no quarter.’ However they saved their necks by five minutes, for when the white officers saw they were overwhelmingly surrounded they gave up.”
“I surrendered the command as prisoners of war between 3 and 4pm,” wrote Johnson in his report, “under conditions that the men were to be treated humanely, officers and white soldiers to be paroled, officers to retain their swords and such private property as they could carry.”
Knowing that his regiment of Colored Troops would be sent south into slavery, he made clear his desires that he, along with the other white officers, be sent south with them, “but this was refused us, and I was told by general Hood that he would return all slaves belonging to persons in the Confederacy to their masters; and when I protested against this and told him that the United States Government would retaliate, and that I surrendered the men as soldiers, he said I might surrender them as whatever I pleased; that he would have them attended to, &c.”
Just what “would have them attended to” actually meant, Johnson was fairly certain. Being with his men in their immediate capture, Johnson related their ordeal:
“Although assured by General Hood in person that the terms of the agreement should be strictly observed, my men, especially the colored soldiers, were immediately robbed and abused in a terrible manner. The treatment of the officers of my regiment exceeded anything in brutality I have ever witnessed, and a General Bate distinguished himself especially by meanness and beastly conduct.
“This General Bate was ordered to take charge of us, and immediately commenced heaping insults upon me and my officers. He had my colored soldiers robbed of their shoes (this was done systematically and by his order), and sent them down to the railroad and made them tear up the track for a distance of nearly two miles. One of my soldiers, who refused to injure the track, was shot on the spot, as were also five others shortly after the surrender, who having been sick, were unable to keep up with the rest of the march.”
Johnson went into more detail in a subsequent report, written on the same date (October 17th): “Not withstanding all this the officers and men were immediately after the surrender deprived of almost every article of clothing they had about them, and when all, about dark, were marching off toward Tunnel Hill, several men who were taken from the hospital and were unable to travel were shot down in cold blood and left on the road.”
Of the first murder, Private Beven alludes: “The prisoners were put to work at tearing up the railroad track. One of the negoes protested against the work as he was a sergeant. When he had paid the penalty for disobeying orders the rest tore up the road readily and rapidly.” Of the five other murders, he made no reference, but chose not to dispute Col. Johnson’s claims, which by the time he wrote his memoirs, were part of the public record.
The prisoners were taken to Villanow, ten miles west, where, as Johnson relates, “a number of my soldiers were returned to their former masters. This I know was done, because I saw it done in a number of instances myself.”
That night, according to Private Beven’s accounting, the Texans moved in to guard the prisoners. “We heard them yelling and singing but did not know what had happened. They were guarding the negro prisoners, and were calling to us, ‘Here are your “no quarter” negroes, come and kill them!’ The poor negroes, with eyes popped out nearly two inches, begged, prayed, and made all sorts of promises for the future. They soon moved on out of sight and the general turned them over to the engineer corps, where they did splendid service. This was better than killing them.”
Col. Johnson, in his report, corroborates this: “several times on the march soldiers made a rush upon the guards to massacre the colored soldiers and their officers. Mississippians did this principally (belonging to Stewart’s Corps), and were often encouraged in these outrages by officers of high rank. I saw an lieutenant-colonel who endeavored to infuriate a mob, and we were only saved from massacre by our guards’ greatest efforts.”
Through the next day (the 14th), Johnson helped several of his men escape, though witnessed several others murdered for not being able to keep up with their new masters. The next day, when Col. Johnson was about to be paroled, he “tried to get the free servants and soldiers in the regiment belonging to the free States (Ohio and Indiana) released, but to no avail.”
After Johnson was paroled, he had no way of knowing what happened to his men. A month later, on November 12th, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard questioned Hood about “whether the negroes at work on the railroad and fortifications in and about Corinth are the same captured by your command in Georgia, and if so what arrangements have been made for medical attendance upon them.” Hood’s reply was either lost or never sent.
Few of the prisoners, it seems now, lived through the ordeal, though their true numbers are impossible to tell. It can be hoped that many more escaped to the North or back into Union lines, though the stories to support this are simply nonexistent.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 39, Part 1, p717-724; Part 3, p914; Reminiscences of a Private by William E. Bevens; The Chessboard of War by Anne J. Bailey. [↩]