We’ll see many hardships greater than we can now imagine but we hope to have courage to overcome all cheerfully and be able to come back safe in the folly. Still we can’t forget the logic of the song “Brave Boys Hurrah! We’ve gone at our country’s call. And yet, and yet, we can never forget, that some of us must fall.”
Thomas Montgomery to his mother, June 1863, just before the Dakota expedition
In October 1863, after spending more than a year chasing and fighting the Dakota, the Seventh Regiment Minnesota Volunteers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William R. Marshall sailed downriver from Fort Snelling to rendezvous with other Union forces in St. Louis, Missouri. Twenty-one-year-old Thomas Montgomery, corporal of Company K, could already say that he had seen adventure and had been tested through the crucible of fire, far beyond the trees that surrounded the small farm that was his home in Cleveland Township, Le Sueur County; but what he was about to see and experience on assignment in the South further influenced his wide-eyed perception of the world, his place therein, and his sense of justice, duty, character, and self-awareness.
In a letter to his parents he wrote, “Times are rather exciting although not anything in comparison with what we will yet see.” A month later, he wrote, “From when I left home, until recently I have been constantly exposed to new and varied scenes, exciting the imagination and giving substance for conversation not yet exhausted.” The horror of the abysmal conditions that led to widespread disease among the white troops of the Seventh Minnesota included three men who had mustered in with Montgomery. “Thank God my own health continues very good although sickness is quite prevalent in the Regiment. From 100 to 150 report sick daily from our regiment. The weather being much more worse than in Minnesota, the men are more liable to catch colds and then again the boys have to stand night and day in the rain, when it does rain, and going from the heated guardhouse into the cold and moist air makes a person take a cold quite readily.”
But it was when he saw a black man for the first time that he was exposed to the personification of the struggle. “There for the first time I saw negro soldiers. They do good duty here in the city.” In fact, black men had been in uniform for some time, the result of a plan that had been in the offing since the month before Montgomery and other young men from Le Sueur County had mustered into service.
In the spring of 1862 the war effort for the Union was not going well. As demoralization began to spread throughout the North, enlistment for volunteers showed signs of decline. The Lincoln administration had wrestled for months with the issue of recruiting black troops, concerned that such a move would prompt the border states to secede. When General John C. Fremont, commander of the Department of Missouri, and General David Hunter, commander of the Department of South Carolina, issued proclamations that emancipated slaves in their respective military regions and permitted them to enlist, President Lincoln nullified their orders. By midsummer, however, in the midst of declining white enlistment, escalating numbers of former slaves reached Union lines, and increasingly pressing personnel needs of the Union army forced the government to reconsider the ban.
As a result, on July 17, 1862, Congress passed the second Confiscation and Militia Act, freeing slaves who had masters in the Confederate army. Two days later slavery was abolished in the territories of the United States, and on September 22, Lincoln presented the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet. After it was subsequently announced, black recruitment was pursued in earnest, with volunteers beginning to fill the first black regiments. Minnesota Democrats were told “the negro soldier experiment was not only failure, but that under the emancipation proclamation the negroes are fleeing from instead of coming to our lines.” As for Negro brigades, the St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat declared, “The negroes are deserting, casting aside the scarlet trousers, gaudy buttons, and glittering muskets. Massa Lincum has [set] them free, and their interpretation of freedom is no work of any kind; hence they do not desire to exert their energies in the common labor performed by white men.”
The St. Paul newspaper was hardly authoritative. In late January 1863, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts received permission to raise a regiment of African American soldiers. This was the first regiment to be organized in the North. The pace of organizing additional regiments, however, was very slow. That March, in an effort to change this, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent General Lorenzo Thomas to the lower Mississippi valley to recruit African Americans. Thomas was given broad authority. He was to explain the administration’s policy regarding these new recruits, and he was to find volunteers to raise and command them. Stanton wanted all officers of such units to be white, but the policy was softened to allow for African American surgeons and chaplains. By the end of the war there were at least eighty-seven African American officers in the Union army. Thomas’s effort was very successful, and on May 22, 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established to coordinate and organize regiments from all parts of the country. Created under United States War Department–issued general order number 143, the bureau was responsible for handling all matters concerning the colored troops. All African American regiments were now to be designated United States Colored Troops (USCT). At this time, there were some regiments with state names and a few regiments in the Department of the Gulf designated as Corps d’Afrique. All these were ultimately assimilated into the USCT, even though a small number retained their state designation.
As the war progressed, black regiments included infantry, cavalry, engineers, light artillery, and heavy artillery units. Approximately 175 regiments, composed of more than 173,000 free blacks and freedmen, served the last two years of the war. Their service bolstered the Union war effort at a critical time. By war’s end, the men of the USCT composed nearly one-tenth of all Union troops. The USCT suffered 2,751 combat casualties during the war, and 68,176 losses from all causes. Disease caused the most fatalities for all troops, black and white. By the time Montgomery first saw black soldiers, several black regiments, made up largely of the former slaves of Missouri—many of whom had fought gallantly at Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend—were standing garrison duty at strategic points of St. Louis. By war’s end, sixteen black soldiers would be awarded the Medal of Honor for valor.
On December 16, 1863, Montgomery wrote to his parents, “Colored regiments rapidly are forming in this state. One whole regiment was formed last week. The First Iowa Volunteer Colored Infantry passed through here on Monday for the South. They looked fine. They had colors and music. One company was from Minnesota. They looked well under arms and I guess will fight, as well as an equal to any white [unit].” During the war, 104 African American men from Minnesota volunteered for service in the army’s African American units, including the First Iowa African Infantry, as well as the Eighteenth and Sixty-Eighth Regiments of the United States Colored Troops. It was this service that offered Montgomery his best opportunity for advancement.
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Thomas Montgomery was born on June 4, 1841, of Protestant heritage in Mount Charles, County Donegal, Ulster Province, Ireland. When he was four years old his father, Alexander, and mother, Margaret, brought him to Lower Ontario, Canada, and in July 1856 to Minnesota to settle on a farm in Le Sueur County. Showing early on in 1862 an interest in real estate, he located a claim of 160 acres in Meeker County, which he planned to homestead until, in August, he heard the call to arms: the Dakota were on the warpath. Later that year, on December 16, Corporal Montgomery was ordered to Camp Lincoln, where he guarded Dakota prisoners. There he stood in formation and witnessed the mass execution of thirty-eight Dakota men. Later, at Camp Pope, he was elected second lieutenant and participated in the Dakota campaign on the Missouri River. At twenty-one he had found what very few men of his age could, and that was his road to being an officer and a gentleman, a true man of honor and distinction. “I presume you have heard this, that I have left the old 7th Minnesota and am now associates with the colored population, those of dusky hue and who all their lives have been slaves, but are now (thanks to the war and Old Abe) free men.” He was a young man who was as proud of his promotion as he was of himself. To his parents and brothers, he wrote, “Great changes will sometimes occur in a man’s life and undoubtedly it has in this instance in mine.”
The black soldier and every member of his race were for whom this war was being fought. The president, Montgomery felt, had said as much on January 1, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Montgomery and white men like him wrapped themselves in the nobility of leading the struggle to make all men free. He with his combat experience from fighting the Dakota in Minnesota (mainly chasing them; there were few encounters) would be privileged to lead these black men in this mighty effort, a privilege indeed that colored his sense of duty, race, and good intentions. Because of the otherwise controversial nature of black military service the Negro, many whites assumed, could not be expected to fight without proper leadership. The Lincoln administration thus determined that whites should serve as officers in the new black regiments. African Americans were barred from the officers’ ranks.
By offering commissions to whites, the War Department hoped to appease critics in and out of the army. Whites who supported black military service and assisted in its execution could gain commissions and promotions to higher ranks. Critics were assured that no black man would hold commissioned rank over enlisted white men. Montgomery’s company was “composed entirely of slaves,” and he expressed compassion for their desperate state. “They come here almost entirely destitute of clothing and look pretty hard. But Uncle Sam is a transformer just now and they are not here long till they get clothes. My company here already got their blankets and I intend to clothe them on Monday.” The regiment had thirteen officers and nearly all were Minnesotans. Montgomery’s temperament made him a perfect choice.
The federal government decided to screen prospective officers carefully. Some were men whom prominent politicians knew to be sympathetic to black people, and they received direct commissions. But the rapid expansion of black regiments in the latter half of 1863 and throughout 1864, and the ensuing demand for white officers, forced the government to devise more efficient means for selecting officers. The problem was that there was no sure-fire method to determine an individual’s sincerity, capacity for leadership, and attitudes toward African Americans. The best the government could do was to seek out the moral white men with military knowledge who also had a liberal arts background, which reflected a more well-rounded individual. This is reflected in the battery of examinations that Montgomery took to qualify for rank. By mid-1863, the adjutant general’s office established boards to formalize the process. While many officers in the USCT were political appointees, a majority passed an examination that assumed a higher degree of selectivity and competence among officers of black units that did not exist in white regiments. Most officers of white troops obtained their commissions through political contacts or election by their comrades. Montgomery attained his first promotion by election while serving in his Minnesota regiment. He, like other officers who had served in rank, learned on the job. Nearly all of the officers in the USCT assumed command with knowledge of their duties, which unquestionably facilitated the development of most units.
Some viewed service in the USCT as an extension of their prewar antislavery activities. One example was Ozora Stearns, future Olmsted County attorney, mayor of Rochester, Minnesota, U.S. senator, and judge. Others joined because they wanted to uplift the black race. Some coveted commissions in the USCT exclusively for the increase in pay and rank, and such men tended to have no interest in leading black soldiers in battle. Many of its officers, after fighting a couple of years in white units, entered the USCT because they felt this was the best way to contribute to the Union war effort. Whatever the motive for joining, nine of every ten white officers had at least some combat experience. Montgomery had fought in the Dakota War. They had “seen the elephant” and knew how to prepare recruits for the hazards and chaos of the battlefield. Occasionally an officer, outwardly fitting the bill of a proper officer, exploited the opportunity to encourage their charges to work on their homesteads. In Goodhue County, for example, five enlistees joined the United States Colored Regiments, two of whom were brothers, Benjamin and Daniel Densmore, who sent contraband to Red Wing farms.
In several ways, Montgomery embodied many of the traits that characterized white officers in the USCT, and he knew it. But his excitement for the new promotion and assignment was soon tempered by the sober reality that faced African American regiments, especially those assigned to posts in the lower Mississippi River valley—disease. In a letter to his brother Alexander he commented on widespread illness among the ranks. “Sickness is very prevalent here. A great many of our old regiment have been confined by sickness to quarters, and several have died: some 8 or 10, mostly by small pox or varioloid [sic].” “I have now about 18 men in the hospital.”
Montgomery set to the administration of his new detachment, tending to the basic necessities of men who had escaped slavery to come with nothing to the company’s swelling ranks. “Since I last wrote of 33 men . . . my own company [grew to] 111 recruits. These men I had to provide for with food, quarters, and blankets and make-out their muster in rolls, have those mustered and assigned to different companies to fill them up. After their physicals 31 were rejected, mostly old men and boys. I then took 35 of [those who passed the examination] to fill up my company and give the balance to other companies. I then had to make out the discharges of those rejected men and get them signed and delivered . . . to the contraband camp, free men. I then had my new recruits to arm and clothe. I now have the company clothed and well-armed and not behind any other company in drills.”
Now he set to addressing his needs, selecting from among the rejected men a waiter named Washington Barton, who had run away from his mistress. Thanks to Barton the young lieutenant could afford to dress in a manner befitting an officer and a gentlemen. “From [Barton] I borrowed $39 which helped me to get my [new] uniform [purchased due to the recent promotion to First Lieutenant], which pleased me very much.” And Montgomery thought very well of his new waiter who helped him afford his new military dress. “[Barton] is a fine boy, well-clothed, and had been a waiter in a hotel.” Indeed, he wanted his mother to know how much his men trusted him, as they began entrusting him with their wages. “Today another of my men entrusted me with $120 for safe keeping for his family. This I will deposit in interest, keeping enough to buy me pants, shoes, hat, and shirts.” He was proud of the men he was forging into a military unit. “Yesterday being Sunday, we had regimental inspection. I have the pleasure of saying that I was complimented several times by the Colonel and all decided I had the cleanest and most orderly quarter in the Regiment,” and he was impressed at how willing the men were to be molded, even though it taxed him: “I could fill an interesting letter with scenes and tales of these darkies. . . . I endeavor to read the Bible and do my duty as a Christian more than ever.”
Never far from the mundane activities of regimental responsibilities was a constant presence of sickness and death. When the company was deployed to Port Hudson, Louisiana, Montgomery had hoped that the conditions that led to illness would likewise be left behind. But he soon learned better, as illness spread even more throughout the ranks. “I like this place pretty well but I won’t be sorry at leaving for sickness and death have been very prevalent. I have lost by death already 13 men. There were 70 in the regiment who died in the Post Hospital in February and other regiments in proportion.” As his men feared for the worst, to ensure their wages would be secure they gave their earnings to Montgomery to hold. “I had over $300 which I drew for men in the hospital. I pull out about $100 [for my efforts] and have still over $350 in trust for the boys. One man gave me $100 and has since died, but I intend on sending it to his family if I ever can find them.”
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In late March 1864, ten months after Union forces attacked Port Hudson, Louisiana, and gave the federals absolute control of the Mississippi River—Vicksburg had been taken in the summer of 1863—Montgomery’s unit was deployed to the site where he spoke reverentially about the heroic actions of the African American unit that fought there, giving the highest accolade he could offer: “The colored soldiers who have been here and are well-drilled beat any white soldier I ever saw, in guard duty.”
The First Louisiana to which Montgomery referred was a part of the famous Corps d’Afrique that was formed in New Orleans after the city was taken and occupied by Union forces. It was formed from the Louisiana Native Guards, which initially were militia units formed by the city’s property-owning free people of color, or as they were called gens de couleur libres. Free mixed-race people, often referred to as “Creoles,” had formed a third class in New Orleans since colonial years. Although many members of this class also were property owners and had wanted to prove their loyalty and bravery to the Confederacy like other Southern property holders, the Confederates rejected them and confiscated their arms. When Union forces occupied southern Louisiana in 1862, the Creoles stepped forward to serve.
As the Corps d’Afrique formed, the Union recruited freedmen from the refugee camps. Liberated from neighboring plantations, they and their families had no means to earn a living and no place to go. It had been the same story along the river since the fall of Vicksburg. Local commanders, desperately needing replacements because of an increasing mortality rate among black troops owing to disease, started equipping volunteer units with cast-off uniforms and captured weapons. The men were treated and paid as auxiliaries performing guard and picket duties to free up white soldiers for maneuver units. In exchange their families were fed, clothed, and housed for free in the army camps; often schools were set up for them and their children. Montgomery would later comment on this kind of school. Through this period the army had no confidence in their capacity to be a fighting force. In May 1863 the corps proved skeptics wrong when the unit served with distinction at the Battle of Port Hudson.
In the spring and early summer of 1862, Union forces began the conquest of the Mississippi River by taking New Orleans and Memphis. The river between those two cities, however, remained under Confederate control; this section included the river between Vicksburg and Port Hudson, just north of Baton Rouge, which fell to Union forces in June 1862. Well-fortified Port Hudson, unlike Baton Rouge, was one of the strongest points on the river, with batteries placed upon the bluffs that commanded the entire riverfront. When President Lincoln stated that “the opening of the Mississippi River was the first and most important of all our military and naval operations,” Port Hudson became central to the war effort and was a chief target. In May 1863, General Grant commenced operations against the Confederate fortified position at Vicksburg, the northern part of the last section to be conquered; General Nathaniel Banks moved against Port Hudson at the southern end.
The assault on Fort Hudson proved quite costly because of both friendly and enemy fire. Union soldiers got bogged down in deep ravines; dense vegetation and rebel crossfire from ridge-top trenches accounted for high Union casualties and resulted in halting their advancement. Seeing that the advance had been stopped, General William Dwight ordered the First and Third Louisiana Native Guards forward into the attack. These troops were not intended to take part in the attack because of the general prejudice against Negro troops on the part of the Union high command. Dwight was determined to break through the Confederate fortifications, however, and committed the Native Guards to the attack at 10:00 a.m. on May 27. Since they had been deployed as diggers and workers on the pontoon bridge near the junction of Big Sandy Creek and the Mississippi, these soldiers were in the worst position possible for the attack than all of the white units of the assault group.
The Guards had first to advance over the pontoon bridge, along Telegraph Road with a fortified ridge to their left manned by rebel sharpshooters supported by a light artillery battery and heavy guns. The Louisiana Native Guards advanced with determination and courage, led by Captain Andre Cailloux, a free black Creole from New Orleans. Filing orders in French and English, Cailloux led the Guards regiments forward until he was killed by artillery fire. Taking heavy losses, the Guards were forced to retreat to avoid annihilation. Yet, even in defeat their reputation grew.
White officers who witnessed the assault took note. In a letter home, Captain Robert F. Wilkinson wrote, “One thing I am glad to say, is that the black troops at P. Hudson fought and acted superbly. The theory of negro inefficiency is, I am very thankful at last thoroughly, exploded by facts. We shall shortly have a splendid army of thousands of them.” General Banks also noted their performance in his official report: “The severe test to which they were subjected, and the determined manner in which they encountered the enemy, leaves upon my mind no doubt of their ultimate success.” The repulsed attack, due to its hasty implementation against a magnitude of opposing conditions, was eventually fully reported in Northern newspapers, thereby doing much to dispel the belief that black troops were unreliable under fire. On June 13, 1863, an editorial in the August New York Times stated, “They were comparatively raw troops, and were yet subjected to the most awful ordeal. . . . The men, white or black, who will not flinch from that, will flinch from nothing. It is no longer possible to doubt the bravery and steadiness of the colored race, when rightly led.”
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Good leadership required establishing discipline and orderly quarters. “We are all making camp as comfortably as possible,” Montgomery wrote. “We are provided as long as we stay here with wedge tents for the men and wall tents for the officers as we have the privilege taking a steamboat and going down the river foraging, we will get good lumber and fix up comfortably.” Officers’ quarters required special accommodations in the way of an adequate number of servants. “We have two boys and a woman to wait on us, wash and sew, so we have no trouble but attend to our duties.” But he was exceedingly proud of how well he transformed his unit. “I found this company in a rather dirty, slovenly and undisciplined condition. Now they are clean, their camp and tents are kept clean, they are prompt and do their guard duty 3 times as well. I had to enforce discipline to maintain any credit in my position as provost guard.” For this, he won the attention of his superiors. “I am also proud to announce that Company B had been complimented more than any other company in the regiment for their cleanliness and good order.”
But smart appearances did not mean his men were battle-ready. Though Montgomery had confidence in their potential, he knew they needed more training. “The Missouri [colored] troops need much drilling yet before they can be efficient in the field. General Banks has held the colored troops in reserve, [Confederate general John B.] MacGruder [sic] having said [the Confederates] would take no prisoners of any kind, if the blacks were found fighting. It was well enough to be cautious at first till he knew how he stood, but he ought to disregard any thought, as the blacks will make their mark if they have a chance.”
By May he and his unit got their chance. “I have been selected twice to go on a special mission by the General.” On May 14 he and fifty of his men were ordered to take command of the steamboat Louisiana Belle, and sail down the river about six to ten miles to Prophets Island, where he was to arrest a Confederate named “Fullems.” Montgomery landed on the island and marched with some of his men down along the shore, leaving the remaining unit on the boat to come afterward. Learning where his man was from “some colored folks (the only reliable authority for information),” he rushed onward to capture and arrest the “Reb.” Soon they were on their way back to camp. On another maneuver, he was likewise sent into an area controlled by Confederates to arrest another rebel and bring him back in custody. He did so, bringing as well food and supplies that his men had foraged while in route.
But they were deep in rebel territory and it soon became necessary to redeploy to a new position. The heat and humidity alone, which got worse by the day, taxed the men to near breaking point:
Monday witnessed a hard march for the poor men. Before we stopped for the night, nearly ½ of the men had given out. Several were sunstroke, one lieutenant among the number. That night we slept under our shelter tents near Morganza. The next morning, Tuesday, we marched to our present camp in rear of this place. I had to watch with an eagle eye on my own [men] and company properly. If I had not been very watchful I would have lost nearly all.
The object in going to Morganza was to relieve “another colored brigade who were to take our place at Port Hudson.” Once they arrived, the men were ordered to build a fort. Montgomery estimated that 20,000 troops were in the encampment. “There are Rebels all around us now. We captured some a short time since.”
The lieutenant showed his mettle when he imposed discipline, “even over a popular non-commissioned officer”: “I reduced my Sergeant to the ranks this AM for misconduct. He was until lately a good sergeant and had the name among the officers of being the best in the regiment, but lately I did not like his actions. He was reported to me for the pernicious act of stealing, but last night I caught him. He entered my cook’s tent and filled his haversack nearly full of flour which I had just purchased, and took it to his tent.”
For the first time, Montgomery mentions Elizabeth (“Lizzie”) Estell by name and what she meant to him. Lizzie told him that she had suspected the sergeant pilfering flour. Yet, when she accused him of it, the sergeant denied it. But she had watched him closely and saw him take the flour under his arm and hide it in a hollow tree, where it was found and brought to Montgomery. Though the sergeant continued to deny his thievery, Montgomery had him reduced in rank. “I had lost confidence in him [and] so had the Captain and all the boys.” Though he maintained confidence in his men—“I must say, they are very honest and trustworthy”—his cook was special: “Lizzie, I can trust.”