Lest We Forget - African American Military History by Researcher, 
				Author and Veteran Bennie McRae, Jr.

Correspondence to Edwin M. Stanton from L.Thomas

WASHINGTON, D. C., October 5, 1865.

Hon, Edwin M. Stanton
Secretary of War

Sir: Your special instructions to me dated March 25, 1863, require that I should proceed to the Mississippi River and inspect the troops operating in the field against the rebel forces, to examine into all operations in cotton connected with the troops, and to announce to the army the policy of the General Government respecting the negro race held in bondage in the States in rebellion.

I reported to you from time to time the condition of the troops and their determination to meet and beat the enemy. On the 23d of June I reported to you in relation to operations in cotton, showing what frauds I had detected, and the difficulties I had to contend with in obtaining correct information whereby the guilty persons might be brought to trial. My operations in this respect were of little practical value, and I only excited opposition, and I discovered that this opposition acted injuriously upon the third and most important part of my duties-your instructions respecting the blacks. The present report is intended to give the results in the organization of colored troops. You undoubtedly recollect that the determination to send me on this duty was a sudden one, and the purpose was only unfolded to me the day prior to the date of the instructions, and you urged expedition in the matter. The subject was new to me, and I entered upon the duty by no means certain of what I might be able to effect. Still, as more of my military service was performed in the slave States, and I was perfectly familiar with plantation life_I felt that I know the peculiarities of the colored race - I could with the blessing of Divine Providence, at least do something to alleviate the condition of the numerous thousands who would come within our military lines for protection.

At Cairo, Ill, I first came in contact with what were then called contrabands-over 1,500 men, women, and children huddled together in insufficient quarters, the helpless drawing rations from the Government, and the able-bodied men employed in the various department of the government as laborers to the extent they were required.

Compensation, $10 per month and one ration per day. I found the mortality of the place had been very great, especially among the children-measles, diarrhea, and pneumonia, being the prevailing diseases, and this subsequently I found to be the case at all other points visited by me where large numbers were collected. Cairo was not a proper place for them, and they were soon removed to Island No. 10, in the Mississippi River, below this place. March 29 I reviewed the troops and announced to some extent the policy of the Government, and have up on the 1st of April carefully considered the whole subject, I on that day communicated to you my views. These views were subsequently enlarged as I came in more immediate contact with large bodies of troops and thousands of negroes. With but very few exceptions I had the troops paraded, and after a review had them brought together in mass and announced the purpose of my mission. I then requested the body of the troops to call on such of their commanders as they might desire to make an address on this policy I had announced. In this way the views and opinions of many general and other officers were communication directly to the troops. With a single exception (the regiment from Chicago, Ill.) the policy was most enthusiastically received by the troops. The prejudice against colored troops were quite general, and it required in the first instance all my efforts to counteract it; but finally it was overcome, and the blacks themselves subsequently by their coolness and determination in battle fought themselves into their present high standards as soldiers.

I found the treatment of the blacks varied very materially at the different military stations and by the operating columns. Some commanders received them gladly, others indifferently, whilst in very many different cases they were refused admission within our lines and driven off by the pickets. They were thus obliged in numerous cases to return into slavery. This resulted from the fact that no policy in regard to them had been made known, but as soon as I had announced by your authority the views of the President and yourself, all opposition to their reception ceased. In this connection I may state that the general-in-chief of these armies (Lieutenant-General Grant) early took steps to provide for the welfare of this unfortunate race, and detailed humane clergyman as superintendents of contrabands to see to their welfare. The general on all occasions gave me his hearty support, and was every ready to second my views. The policy, as I announced it, was that all officers and enlisted men were required to treat the blacks kindly and encourage their seeking the protection of the troops, to be fed and clothed as far as possible until they could be able to provide for themselves; the able-bodied men to be organized into regiments, except such laborers as were required in the several staff corps and departments-cooks for the troops and servants for the officers. I also distinctly announced that if any officer should stand in the way or oppose this policy I would not hesitate to dismiss him from the service of the United States.

April 2, I addressed the troops at Columbus Ky. April 4 explained the plan to Major-General Hurlbut, commanding at Memphis Tenn, at his request authorized him to raise six companies of artillerists to man the heavy guns in position at that place, also to organize contrabands for work in the quartermaster"s Department. April 6 addressed some 7,000 troops at Helena, Ark., commanded by Major General Prentiss. April 9 addressed General"s McArthur"s and Logans"s division of Major-General McPherson"s corps. April 12, at Milliken"s Bend, La, joined the headquarters of the commanding general (Lieutenant-General Grant). At this time, as we had possession of the west bank of the Mississippi River, and could collect the negroes, I became satisfied that 20,000 troops could be organized if necessary, and first made arrangement for 10,000 and afterward for another 10,000, In cases where I could not personally visit troops operating at a distance I invariably made known to the generals in command by communication what was desired, and urged upon them the utmost zeal in carrying out the policy of the Government. In regard to officering these regiments, I authorized commanding generals of corps and divisions to assemble boards of officers to examine applicants desiring commissions, and to be particularly careful to select none but those whose hearts were in the work, and who would devote themselves to elevate the blacks and endeavor to early bring them in to a high state of discipline. These generals were then desired to furnish rosters for regiments on which I would issue appointment and give the necessary authority to raise the troops. I also authorized the first sergeants of companies to be whites, but I soon found that soldiers only took these position to obtain promotion, and if not made in a very short time dissatisfaction was the consequence. I therefore changed the rule and urged colonels to select intelligent blacks and instruct them. This system worked admirably, and I have seen colored sergeants drill their squads as well as white sergeants could. The best class of officers, as a general thing, did not offer themselves, owing to the prejudice existing against colored troops and a number merely wanted higher positions; still, some good and zealous officers were obtained. Afterward, when the prejudice against this species of troops had been overcome, a higher class of officers presented themselves, and in larger numbers than could be appointed. By means also of frequent inspections by myself and two officers of my staff, the careless and indifferent officers were gotten rid of and more zealous ones appointed.

I remained with the troops until they crossed the Mississippi River at Bruinsburg, Miss, May 1, and afterward visited the army on the big Black River May 5, and then returned up the river to Memphis, Tenn., to visit the corps of Major-General Hurlbut. Visited the portions of his corps as far as Corinth by a circuitous route by railroad of some 160 miles, and addressed the troops at seven different stations on the first day, twice to the troops and contrabands at Corinth second day and to the troops at six different stations on the third day and returning to Memphis. The weather was excessively hot, and the exposure and exertion, together with previous exposure, prostrated me with sickness and I was ordered by my physician to leave the country. After several days of sickness at Memphis I proceeded to Louisville, Ky, where I was compelled to remain in hospital over two weeks. Before leaving Louisville (June 13) I authorized Col. William A. Pile to raise troops under my instructions in the State of Missouri. He rendered good service, and was subsequently rewarded by the appointment of brigadier-general. Also, June 15, I addressed a communication to Major-General Rosecrans, commanding Department of the Cumberland, at Murfreesborough, Tenn, and urged him to carry out the views of the views of the Government, which I fully set forth to him.

August 2, having measurably recovered my health, I left for the Southwest, and at Cincinnati, Ohio, August 5, authorized Major-General Burnside, commanding Department of the Ohio, on his entering Tennessee, to organize colored troops. Likewise gave similar authority to Major-General Schofield, who was about starting on an expedition into Arkansas. After the fall of Vicksburg I accompanied the commanding general to New Orleans, La, to organize troops in the Department of the Gulf, commanded by Major-General Banks. I found, however, that the regiments of the Corps d"Afrique, twenty-nine in number, had been organized on the basis of 500, and, except to authorize one regiment of cavalry, I directed that the regiments should be filled up to the maximum standard of 1,000 before other regiments would be authorized. This will account for there being no additional regiments raised in that department except the one referred to. The recruits obtained now brought these regiments up to that standard. Maj George L. Stearns, assistant adjutant-general, having been ordered to Nashville, Tenn, to superintend the organization of colored troops, reported to me. I found that he entered into the duty with great zeal and rendered good service.

In the middle of December I was compelled to leave the Mississippi River in consequences of sickness. The year"s operations may be summed up as follows:

1 regiment of cavalry22390412
4 regiments of heavy artillery1513,9564,107
4 batteries of light artillery11385396
24 regiments of infantry7455,76716,512
1 independent company89396

The above number are taken from returns in the Adjutant General"s Office and are below the number actually enlisted as the loss in battle, by death, and by desertion, could not have been less than 5,000. This may seem a large estimate, but it is know that raw troops early contract disease, especially the measles, and it is further known that when blacks become sick not having the vitality of the white race, they sink under disease, and the percentage of mortality is very great. The able-bodied men were largely employed in the several staff departments, especially at the principal depots; also by the troops themselves as cooks and servants, and some commanders organized them into pioneer parties without being mustered into the service of the United States. Many, induced by high wages, took employment on the transports, others, again, readily found employment as woodchoppers, also as laborers in the towns on the river. Admiral Porter stated to me that in the naval fleet under his command he had 1,000 negroes. I state these facts to show why a larger number of colored men were not enlisted.

Col A. Cummings, Nineteenth Regiment, Pennsylvania Cavalry, by your directions, reported to me in Philadelphia January 4, 1864, for duty, and I ordered him to Little Rock, Ark, to superintend the recruiting service in that State. He exerted himself, but as the negroes had to a great extent been sent to Texas, comparatively few were obtained; still some regiments were organized. He was subsequently made a brigadier-general.

While at Louisville Ky, in the month of January, 1864, I satisfied myself that that from 5,000 to 7,000 negroes of Kentucky has passed the border of that State into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Tennessee, and that many of them had enlisted into various organizations, some into regiments being raised in the Eastern States; also that the entire slave population of the state was in a state of ferment. This induced me to proceed to Frankfort, the capital, to present my views to Governor Buamlette. This I did, and fully set forth my opinions, urging them with what ability I possessed. I represented that slavery was forever at an end, to which the Governor assented, and that as the negroes were constantly passing the borders of the State, and it could not be prevented, I urged that I might take the able-bodied men and organize them into troops, whereby the owners of the negroes would receive certificates of their muster and the State receive credit on the quota for the draft. The Governor, while generally assenting to my position, urged that I would not establish recruiting stations in the State, but desist from my purpose, stating that the subject was one of the peculiar delicacy to the people of Kentucky; that they did not desire the General Government to interfere, and that as they desired to manage the institution in their own way, he especially deprecated any agitation at that time, stating, also, that Kentucky would come up to the measure of her duty in his respect, and by legal enactment provide for the extinction of slavery. I remarked that under their present laws some four or five years would be necessary to fully accomplish this measure. I conversed with most, and perhaps nearly, all the members of the Legislature, which was then in session, all of them who took the ground advocated by the Governor, and some of them even requested that I should remove my recruiting stations in Tennessee on the borders of Kentucky to a distance, which of course I refused to do. Finding this feeling so prevalent in the State, I withdrew it from it without them doing anything. My action in this case I reported to you from Louisville under date of February 1. The first recruiting in Kentucky commenced at Paducah under Second Lieut. J. Cunningham, Second Illinois Artillery, in February, pursuant to a request made to you by the member of Congress from the First District, in which Paducah is situation. The lieutenant was authorized to raise a regiment of artillery to man the works at the place.

Brigadier-General Chetlain reported to me, and I assigned him as superintendent of the recruiting service in West Tennessee; afterward in the entire state. He proved a most valuable officer, for I found him to possess intelligence and zeal, with a rare qualification for the organization of troops. He never failed on any duty to which he was assigned, either as a superintendent or as in inspector, to which latter duty I also assigned him, and I am gratified that he was subsequently rewarded by the brevet of major-general.

February 9, Major Stearns having relinquished is position in Tennessee as superintendent of the recruiting service, I appointed Capt. R. D. Mussey who had acted as his assistant. The superintendent was subsequently made the colonel of the One hundredth Regiment of Colored Troops, and continued to perform the duties of superintendent until recruiting has ceased, and he rendered most efficient service. He, too, has been properly rewarded by having conferred upon him the brevet of brigadier-general.

Having returned to Louisville, Ky., in June, I became satisfied that the time had fully arrived for the organization of colored troops in that State, as the negroes were rapidly coming to our military stations (my purpose of doing so I mentioned to you in Washington and received your verbal sanction). Accordingly the 13th of June, by my Order No. 20 of that date, I directed that recruiting should commence throughout the entire State, and designated a camp of reception in each Congressional district where the negroes would be received and organized into regiments. I designated Brigadier General Chatlain as the superintendent, who entered upon the duty and continued in its performance until July 6, when he was relieved at the request of Major-General Brubridge commanding in Kentucky made both to you and myself, who desired the superintendence, as he had, as I well knew, taken special interest in this measure, advocating it on all proper occasions, and with benefit to the service, as he was then the owner of many blacks.

Under these circumstances it was perfectly proper that the change should be made, but I nevertheless regretted it, believing that this higher duties of commander in Kentucky would prevent his personal attention to the superintendency. The result proved as I had anticipated, for the very soon delegated the duties to another officer; first to Lieutenant-Colonel Hammond, and afterward to Colonel Brisbin, the late of whom I placed at the head of the Fifth U. S. Colored Cavalry. The reports of these officers came to me through Major General Bambridge, but they had nothing to do with the establishment of the system, but only carried out what has been ordered.

At this time I found it next to impossible to obtain the necessary medical officers for the colored regiments. The grade of surgeon could readily be filled by the promotion of assistant surgeons of volunteers, but few, except an occasional contract medical officer, would take the position of assistant surgeon. As the sanitary condition of the men required a greater number of medical officers, I ordered on the 8th of July Surg. R. W. Sargent, on my staff, to proceed to the Eastern States and endeavor to procure from the graduates of the medical schools as many physicians as possible, the number then required being some 120. By his energy and activity he procured quite a number who, having passed the medical board at Boston and elsewhere, were duly appointed, and the service was greatly benefited by this measure.

July 16 Brigadier-General Pile was relieved as superintendent in Missouri and assigned to duty in the field, and Brig. Gen. Thomas Ewing Jr. stationed at Saint Louis, was charged with the duty, who performed it satisfactorily with ability.

May 1, 1865, pursuant to your instruction, I directed the discontinuance of all recruiting of colored men in the Departments of Missouri and Arkansas and the Military Divisions of the Mississippi and West Mississippi and also consolidated some of the incomplete regiments, thus discontinuing three regiments in Kentucky, one in Tennessee, and two in Arkansas. Before this order could be received by the troops operating in the field three additional regiments were organized from the negroes gathered by Major-General Wilson on his march through Georgia under the standing instructions, and these regiments were retained in service.

Very many of the regiments were filled in the maximum standard, and others to the minimum of 800, when ordered to stations on the Mississippi River and elsewhere, or sent to the field; but as recruiting for them was continued, and nearly all received recruits after organization, it is proper to estimate their numbers at the maximum standard, up to which in mass they undoubtedly came.

The whole of my operations in the West and Southwest in the organization of colored troops may be given as follows:


1 regiment of infantry361,0001,036
5 regiments of infantry1805,0005,180
2 regiments of infantry842,400 2,484
1 battery of light artillery5 100105
3 regiments of heavy artillery2045,0405,214
13 regiments of infantry46813,00013,462
3 batteries of light artillery15300315
3 regiments of heavy artillery2045,0465,214
14 regiments of infantry5044,00014,504
4 regiments of infantry1444,0004,144
3 regiments of infantry1088,0003,108
1 regiment of cavalry421,2001,242
2 regiments of heavy artillery1363,3603,496
6 regiments of infantry2166,0006,216
1 battery of light artillery5100105
5 regiments of infantry1805,0005,180
1 regiment of cavalry421,2001,242
8 batteries of light artillery15200315
1 regiment of heavy artillery681,6801,748
6 regiments of infantry2166,0006,216

Two regiments were organized in Kansas from negroes, I understood, obtained from Arkansas, though not under my superintendence.

It may be proper to state that, while each State name above is credited with certain regiments, the men did not always come from there, and the companies of a regiments were sometimes made up in two different States. A regiment of 1,000 men was recruited at Evansville, Ind, from Kentucky negroes, and the latter State received credit for them on her quota of the draft. This regiment is not enumerated in the tabular statement.


4 regiments of cavalry1684,8004,968
8 batteries of light artillery 40800840
9 regiments of heavy artillery61215,12015,732
57 regiments of infantry2,05257,00059, 052

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


SOURCE: United States War Department. THE WAR OF THE REBELLION: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series III, Volume 4. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.

Category: Civil War | Subcategory: Correspondence | Tags: Edwin M. Stanton , Secretary of War , L. Thomas , Mississippi River , Mississippi , Tennessee , Georgia , Alabama , Louisiana , Texas , Washington , Kansas , Illinois , Missouri
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