One of the Most Daring and Heroic Acts of the Civil War - Orders No.81
THIRD UNITED STATES COLORED CAVALRY (Designation of Regiment changed from First Mississippi Colored Cavalry on March 11, 1864)
EXCERPT: 'The Story of the Marches, Battles, and Incidents of the Third United States Colored Cavalry'
by Major Edwin M. Main. (Pages 15-19)
Researched and submitted by
Bennie J. McRae, III
Passing over many equally stirring events which mark the brilliant career of the regiment, let us review for a moment the assault on the Black River Bridge, which for heroic gallantry, stands unparalled in the history of the war. Major-General Camby in the General Orders No. 81, dated December 9, 1864, said of this engagement:
The Major-General commanding the District of West Tennessee and Vicksburg, styles this affair as one of the most daring and heroic of the war. Two previous and well-organized attempts by some of the best troops in the department, had failed to dislodge the enemy and destroy this bridge. That these assaults had been desperately maintained and that the bridge had been heroically defended, its blackened and bullet-torn timbers attested.
It was at a time when the rebel general Hood was concentrating his army for an attack on the forces of General Thomas, at Nashville. His means of obtaining supplies and reinforcements must be cut off, to the effect which the railroad bridge over the Big Black must be destroyed at any cost. From previous vain attempts to dislodge the enemy from their strongly entrenched position at the bridge, it was well known to the District Commander that the bridge could only be taken by the most determined bravery and sacrifice of many lives.
It was not so much a question of numbers to be brought into action as it was of the dash of mettle of those engaged.
It may, therefore, be considered as a high compliment to the officers of the Third U.S. Colored Cavalry, that they were selected to lead the assault. This bridge was situated in an almost impenetrable swamp, inaccessible, except over the narrow railroad bed, broken at intervals by trestle-work.
The bridge was guarded by a force of rebel infantry, which was posted in an almost impregnable position, being protected by a strong stockade on the opposite side of the river, from which they could concentrate a deadly fire on the bridge without exposing themselves to danger.
Into the fiery jaws of this volcano the regiment was sent.
On that day, November 27, 1864, the regiment won imperishable fame.
From the Department Commander and from the War Office in Washington, the regiment was complimented in the highest terms.
You who passed through that crucial test can never forget the experience. It is so indelibly impressed on our minds that looking back even from this distance, we shudder at the picture memory retains.
Down there in that Mississippi swamp, we seem to see the black troopers as they appeared on that ever memorable occasion, crouched for the final spring. In the hard-set faces and stern commands of the officers, we read a determination that foreshadowed victory.
It was understood by all that when the bugle sounded the charge, there must be no faltering, no matter what might betide.
For the Third Cavalry this was the supreme moment the crucial test. Great results were at stake. Much depended on the success and failure of the charge. Much was expected of the Third Cavalry. Would they sustain, under this trying ordeal, their high reputation for gallantry
Let us follow them and see.
With every nerve strung to the utmost tension, the black troopers, when the bugle sounded the charge, sprang forward as one man.
Into the flaming crucible they plunged. The swamp resounds with the rattle of musketry and as they meet volley upon volley, their lines tremble and sway like a young forest swept by a cyclone.
Do they waver Is there confusion in their ranks No, the gaps close up their organization is intact. None falter, but those who fall to rise no more. Surely none but the best of disciplined troops could face undismayed that storm of leaden hail.
Facing this deadly storm of buck and ball, with ranks thinned, they reach the bridge and, though swept with murderous fire, they scale its dizzy heights. With no footing but the railroad ties, they press forward.
Catching the inspiration of their officers, the black troopers swept on with irresistible force. Pierced with bullets, men reel on the dizzy heights and fall with a splash into the murky waters below. The survivors reach the opposite bank. The battle cry on the Third Cavalry rose above the din of the conflict. They close in on the enemy. Through the sally ports of the stockade they fight their way. A mighty shout rends the air. The enemy, in terror, flees to the shelter of the swamp. The victory is complete. The Third Cavalry has written its name high up on the roll of fame. It has passed through the crucial test emerging as tempered steel.
The enemy had been routed from his stronghold. The bridge was destroyed. Nashville was saved. Hoods army was in retreat. Thomas the Rock of Chickamauga has turned back an invading army. Another cherished scheme of the confederacy had been crushed. The North had been saved from the ravages of an invading army. Thus the Third U.S. Colored Cavalry played a humble part in that great strategic movement on the checkerboard of war by which Sherman and his army marched through to the sea, severing the Southern Confederacy in twain.
This, gentlemen, is but a faint glimpse at the record of the regiment when the whole is spread upon pages of history, it will challenge comparison. The record of the regiment on well established and undisputed facts. Many of its deeds are chronicled in the official records of the War Department. The light of criticism cannot fade it. Alongside the record of the famous regiment, whose deeds embellish the pages of history, the record of the regiment will lose none of its luster.
This, comrades, is the common heritage of the surviving members of the regiment. It is yours to keep, defend and cherish and to transmit to your children.
All helped to make this record and all should share alike in its glory.
Through these were many deeds of individual heroism, yet they are infinitesimal in the fight of the glorious whole.
The proudest distinction one can have is the enrollment of his name on the roster of its gallant leaders whose intrepid daring inspired even the humblest private in the ranks to deeds of valor.
Gentlemen, we owe a solemn duty to the memory of our gallant comrades who fell in the strife. They were the bravest of the brave, the noblest and truest types of the American volunteer soldier. Midst the roar and the smoke of battle they sealed their devotion to the country with their lives.
Their heroic deeds form a part of the record of the regiment. In preserving this record, we honor their memory. The names of Stewart, Walter, Sedgwick, Starr and Pattengill are rendered immortal. You will find them inscribed on the roll of honor with this inscription: Killed in Action.
Monuments of marble and granite decay pass from the memory of men. But they have a monument more enduring than stone; their names are written in never fading letters on the tablets of time.
There are others whose memory it is also our duty as well as our pleasure to commemorate; we see their names on the roster. But they are here only in spirit, their lips are silent. Osband, Haynes, Hyland, Cook, Webber, Moon, Randall, Whiting, Lovejoy, Jennings, Freeborn, Beadles and Keith.
These are names that were once potent in council and in the field.
How often have we depended on the courage and fidelity of these men?
Were our positions reversed, were they assembled here instead of us, were they instructed with the duty of keeping out memory green, think you they would hesitate in the work Think you they would allow the memory of your heroic deeds to go out in forgetfulness? No.
The bravest are the tenderest, the loving are the daring.
Then let us erect an enduring monument to their memory. Let us leave a record of their heroic deeds. Let us tell the story of their sacrifices.
Let us honor ourselves by honoring their memory.
How often have we stood at the open grave of a beloved comrade and, as the clods covered the lifeless form, renewed our unspoken pledges of loyalty to country and to each other
Time cannot have made us insensible to the emotions which then filled our hearts. With passing years, have their names and companionship faded from memory? No.
Nor shall their glory be forgot,
While fame her record keeps.
GENERAL ORDERS No. 81.
HDQRS. MIL. DIV. OF WEST MISSISSIPPI,
New Orleans, La., December 9, 1864.
Subject to the approval of the President of the United States, Maj. J. B. Cook, Third U.S. Colored Cavalry, is hereby promoted to the lieutenant-colonelcy of that regiment, to date from the 27th of November, 1864, in consideration of the gallantry displayed by him on that day, when, with his men dismounted, and having nothing but railroad ties for a path, he charged over the Big Black bridge, near Canton, Miss., in the face of a heavy fire, drove off the rebel force stationed on the opposite shore behind a strong stockade, and destroyed the bridge, by which the main line of the rebel General Hood's communication with his depots in South Mississippi and Alabama were effectually cut off. The major-general commanding the Districts of West Tennessee and Vicksburg styles this affair as "one of the most daring and heroic acts of the war."
By order of Maj. Gen. E. R. S. Canby:
C. T. CHRISTENSEN,
Lieutenant-Colonel and Assistant Adjutant-General.
HDQRS. MILITARY DIVISION OF WEST MISSISSIPPI,
New Orleans, La., December 9, 1864.
Respectfully forwarded to the Adjutant-General of the Army, with the earnest request that this order be approved, and, if thought proper, the promotion be published in general orders of the War Department.
E. R. S. CANBY,
By C. T. CHRISTENSEN,
Lieutenant-Colonel and Assistant Adjutant-General.
(General Canby being confined to his quarters in consequence of wounds.)
December 19, 1864.
Respectfully submitted to the Secretary of War, with the recommendation that this order be approved. Attention is respectfully invited to the suggestion of Major-General Canby that the confirmation of this order be published in general orders from the War Department.
C. W. FOSTER,
Assistant Adjutant-General of Volunteers.
December 21, 1864.
The within order of Major-General Canby is approved, and will be published in War Department general orders as requested.
By order of the Secretary of War:
JAS. A. HARDIE,
Colonel and Inspector-General.
SOURCE: United States War Department. THE WAR OF THE REBELLION: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901.
FIRST MISSISSIPPI COLORED CAVALRY REGIMENT (AD)
Designation of Regiment changed to Third United States Colored Cavalry on March 11, 1864