George Robert Hughes
4th Wisconsin Cavalry and 99th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiments
By Michael Robert Hughes
Note: The author, Michael Robert Hughes, is the great great grandson of George Robert Hughes. This report was written while he was attending the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Posted by permission.
George Robert Hughes was born September 4th, 1840 in Jackson County, Ohio. His parents James B. and Elizabeth Hughes moved first to St. Paul, MN then Hudson, WI in 1849. James B. Hughes had previously served with the Ohio volunteers as a colonel during the Mexican War. He then served in the Ohio Legislature for three consecutive terms 1836-38. Elizabeth (Mather) Hughes was a descendant of Increase Mather. Increase Mather was a New England cleric during colonialism. In Hudson James B. and Elizabeth edited the first newspaper, The St. Croix Banner which was printed in the St. Croix Valley. This paper soon went out of print due to lack of financial support. The two then purchased the paper in 1853 and renamed it The Hudson Republican. The Building that housed The Hudson Republican soon burned down in 1854. This disaster ended the publishing days for the George and Elizabeth. James then returned to his previous profession as an attorney, while Elizabeth directed her attention to raising their ten children. They raised their children Presbyterian with the strong belief in the abolishment of slavery. George's father had a large influence in his life stressing the importance of becoming a printer, an officer, and abolishing slavery.
In November, 1860 the U.S. elected Abraham Lincoln, a Republican as President. He was perceived by the southerners to be an abolitionist, and as an immediate threat to their livelihood. His election drove a wedge into the country dividing it in half between the North and South. This wedge led to Southern succession from the Union in April, 1861. War began with the Confederates bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina April 12th through the 14th. The Northerners were angered, and the Southerners were jubilant over this action, which led to thousands of men enlisting into the armed services on both sides. One such individual who was swept up by this feeling of patriotism was George Hughes. He, along with his brother Eleazer M., enlisted into the Fourth Wisconsin Cavalry on April 20, 1861.
Nearly two months had passed before he was ordered to muster in June at Camp Randall in Madison, Wisconsin. In Madison he along with the Fourth Wisconsin Cavalry, were sent to Baltimore, Maryland. There had been considerable amounts of unrest in Baltimore due to the outbreak of the war. Baltimore had many citizens at the time who sided with the newly formed Confederacy. The Fourth was sent to restore order and strengthen the Federal government's presence. Once order had been restored, the Fourth was sent to Shipp Island in the Gulf of Mexico, with orders attaching them to the Department of the Gulf.
While serving in the Department of the Gulf as an enlisted soldier, he took part in several campaigns. The most noted campaign of all was the capture of New Orleans in 1862. This capture was very important, it gave the Union forces total control of the Mississippi River. This allowed the Union forces to launch campaigns, not only from the north along the river, but they could also attack confederate forces from the South as well. Control of the river led to the capture of Baton Rouge(1862), and in Grant's campaign in Vicksburg. The fourth Wisconsin Cavalery then successfully captured Port Hudson in 1863. The capture of both Vicksburg and Port Hudson gave the Union forces total control of the Mississippi River. The Union forces were then able to cut the state of Louisiana off from the Confederacy in the East.
The experience that George Hughes gained during these campaigns proved very valuable to him later in 1863. It not only provided him with battlefield experience, it enhanced his overall possibility of becoming an officer in the newly formed United States Colored Troops branch of the United States Regular Army.
Before officers were commissioned, the Union army needed to enlist colored troops. The Army offered freedom for blacks who enlisted, as well as an opportunity to fight for the termination of slavery. It was a large price to pay, but proved to be a very effective one. Blacks eagerly enlisted into the Union army. The Union army recruited a total of 178,000 colored troops during the Civil War. Of that total 144,000 came from former slave states, and 34,000 from northern states. The total from the northern states made up 15 percent of the entire free black population in the north during 1860.
Due to blacks enlisting into the Union Army as part of the USCT, a well documented case developed after the fall of New Orleans. The First Louisiana Native Guard was comprised mostly of free blacks from New Orleans, and the Third Louisiana Native Guard consisted of former slaves. After their defeat they immediately announced their support for the Federal cause. They were then re-classified as the Seventy-Third and Seventy-Fifth United States Colored Infantry.
Now that the Union army was openly recruiting colored troops, they needed officers to lead them. Although the Union army was willing at the time to recruit colored troops as enlisted men, they were much against them becoming combat officers. Certainly racism played an important role in this decision. The general staff felt that blacks were incapable of being effective officers on the battlefield, however they were allowed to earn an officer's commision serving as a chaplin or a surgeon.
Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas decided that the officers for the newly formed Corps d'Afrique would come from existing white enlisted volunteers. In order to prepare for the expansion, the authorization was granted to create a Bureau that would certify qualifications of candidates for officer's commission in the USCT. The process of becoming a white officer in the USCT was very selective. Prospective candidates wrote to the Bureau to receive permission to appear before a board of examiners. This board determined who qualified for an officers commission and for what rank the individual demonstrated competence.
In George Hughes' case, according to his diary, he was summoned to New Orleans on January 4, 1864. He arrived on the evening of the Fifth and was examined by the Board of Examiners on the Eigth. The examination tested one's knowledge in battlefield tactics, military drills, writing, mathmatics, and geography. Along with six other prospects, he was the only one offered a commission. Prior to his Accepting his commission he wished to inspect the colored troops of the regiment that he would be attached to.. The following is an excerpt from his diary of his inspection. "Returned to New Orleans after having seen the regiment to which I will be assigned. I was surprised at the appearance and discipline of the colored troops. I have no more doubts that the Negroes will make good soldiers."
On January 25, 1864 he received an appointment from his commanding General, General Banks, as a Second Lieutenant in the Fifteenth Colored Regiment assigned to the Nineteenth Corps of the Department of the Gulf. On February 10, 1864 he was officially discharged from the Fourth Wisconsin cavalry and commissioned into the Fifteenth USCT.
Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas was quoted as saying that he wanted "Only those officers whose hearts were in the work and who would exert themselves to the utmost and treat the Negro kindly. No person is wanted as an officer in a colored regiment who feels that he is making a sacrifice in accepting a position in a colored regiment, or who desires the place simply for the higher rank and pay." Pay for an enlisted soldier was $13 per month, while an officers monthy pay was $130. One could easily see how attractive a commission in the army was. Records from the Bureau of Colored Troops showed that it received over 9,000 applications for commission. Nearly 4,000 took the examinations, and of that number sixty percent passed. Only one in every four applicants actually received a commission in the USCT.
Now a Second Lieutenant, Hughes was to embark on his first campaign as an officer. The Union army was ordered by President Lincoln to bring Louisiana back into the Union as soon as possible. The best way to go about it was to cut Louisiana off from the rest of the Confederacy. In earlier campaigns, the eastern part of the State was cut off all along the Mississippi River. What remained was to cut the rest of the State off from the west, especially from Texas. Texas played a vital role in the survival of Louisiana. It was the trading point for goods with Mexico. The cotton that came from Louisiana was traded For Mexican army supplies in Texas. The Red River ran along the western part of Louisiana. With the help from Navy gunboats and transports, it was hoped that a repeat of the Mississippi campaign would isolate Louisiana and bring it back into the Union.
While traveling along the Red River Lt. Hughes recorded a very detailed dairy. The diary included everything that happened to him throughout his journey. He has time to enjoy the splendor, and beauty of the large Louisiana countryside. Although most of his time was spent pulling picket (guard) duty or laying down and picking up bridges. The Fifteenth Colored Infantry (Engineers), which he belonged to, were brought along to make sure that the Union forces would have bridges, fortifications, and dams built. Their primary mission was not to fight the battles, but to give support for the forward troops.
During this campaign however, the troops would come very close to the scene of battles. On March 25th, they took part in the capture of some 300 rebels from the First Louisiana Cavalry during a night raid on their position. Apparently the Rebels were unaware of the Union forces progress along the Red River. The Rebels called it a "D___D Yankee trick". Hughes expressed his view of this Yankee trick by writing "such tricks are important". It appears that he had a sense of humor towards this particular incident, such humor that was not often expressed throughout his diaries.
The following day his regiment had visited Alexandria, where he first mentioned the word "Contrabands". Contraband was a name given to the blacks who followed the Union forces throughout the South. The name reflected a certain lack of humanity due to it referring to them as if they were a piece of property, which in the south they were. Whatever the case, The name was adopted by the U.S. Army in categorizing blacks who fled from slavery and sought protection with the Campaigning armies. Many contrabands were actual family members of the black soldiers who were enlisted in the USCT. While in Alexandria he described the horrible state in which contrabands were in who had recently sought refuge within presence of the army. "They were a horrible looking sight, half starved, dirty, and some entirely destitute of clothing of any description. the men go as soldiers, servants and waiters for officers." The army had left Alexandria after a brief stay and continued their journey along the Red River.
During the Red River campaign the Union Army and Navy set about the business of collecting cotton. The Navy, under Admiral Porter, could collect cotton and declare it a "war prize", however the Army had to report their collection to the U.S. Treasury Department. This collection of cotton started a three way competition of who would get the largest amount of cotton during the campaign. The U.S. Army and Navy tried hard to collect as much as they could. While on the other side the Confederates burned what cotton they could not take with them, for fear of it falling into Federalist hands. It was during a trip up the Red River that Lt. Hughes makes an observation of his surroundings. He explained how the captivating sight of these large fires were. Even though he was extremely tired, along with the rest of the men, they could not sleep for the scenery was so vivid, especially at night when it seemed as though the night sky was on fire.
The army had reached an old Spanish town settled some 200 years ago called Nachitoches. Here they constructed a bridge across the river that was 220 feet in length. It took his engineers all day and night to construct the bridge which consisted of ten boats. The following day they took the bridge up which again took the engineers all night. During the night the Rebels tied and carried off the young men of Nachitoches during their retreat. He describes seeing one young man the following morning shot to death on his fathers property for resisting.
In the early part of April, they spent several days marching inland. The Confederates, learning of this recent Union campaign, began to send forces toward the Red River. There was a battle was about to take place. This would be the first major battle that his troops would participate in. The Union forces would stumble upon a well-organized force of Confederates at Pleasant Hill. April 9th he wrote of hearing hard fighting about sixteen miles away. Being an Engineer regiment, they had to protect the bridge that was in the rear from possible capture by the Confederate forces. The battle at Pleasant Hill raged on in front of him. Not knowing exactly what laid before them, his regiment built fortifications and waited.
The Battle of Pleasant Hill ended in a Union retreat. General Banks failed to seize the initiative and launch an assault on the Rebels, instead he fell back to the Red River under the safety of gunboats. Meanwhile all through the night the Fifteenth was delegated the honor of continuing their work on the fortifications. The Thirteenth Corps from Maine, which suffered the worst during the battle, had hundreds of stragglers coming in throughout the night. He wrote in his diary that "The men suffered much but bore it like heroes". He was referring not only to the troops at the battlefield, but also to his troops who worked all day and night digging, and building stronger fortifications incase of a Rebel attack.
The losses on both sides during the battle of Pleasant Hill were heavy. The Union suffered 1,506 casualties, and the Confederates suffered around 1,500. The battle was more of a stalemate, however the Confederates seized the opportunity and captured the momentum forcing the Union army on the defensive. General Banks thought that he had run into a superior force of Confederate troops, when in fact, they both consisted relatively of the same number of troops. Not taking a chance, the Union troops were ordered to fall back.
The order to retreat back down the Red River was issued. However there was one major problem, the river's water level had dropped, which kept Admiral Porter's fleet from safely traveling down the lower rapids. The Union forces were trapped between the Red River and the Confederate forces. A solution had to be found in order to get the forces safely back down the river. The Confederates made several attacks against the Union position and were repulsed. One of the attacks came from Confederate General Green's Cavalry. This attack resulted in the death of the Confederate General. Hughes told of having possession of General Green's corpse. It was later documented that General Green's Cavalry was drunk on "Louisiana Rum". The failed assault may not have occurred if the soldiers and their General had not intoxicated themselves. The death of Green offered the Union a chance to gain some valuable time. His loss resulted in the Confederates delaying any further attacks on the Union position.
Monday April 18th the Fifth U.S. Colored Infantry (Engineers), formerly known as the Fifteenth U.S. Colored Infantry(Engineers), were now to be known as the Ninety-Ninth Colored Infantry. No longer were they referred to as Engineers. This new classification may have eliminated the word Engineers, but by no means did it mean that they were no longer engineers.
The Union forces, fearing the threat of being surrounded, marched all night back to Alexandria. The rebels followed and caught up to the Union troops on April 21st. The enemy made several successive charges upon the Union lines, but were repulsed. Four artillery pieces, and 500 confederate prisoners were captured. The Union troops marched forty miles in twenty hours until they reached Alexandria. Here the Union forces were to stay until they could get the Union fleet back down the lower rapids.
Admiral Porter's fleet was trapped just above Alexandria. The river needed to rise soon, or the boats would have to be destroyed. A dam had to be built in order for the water to rise sufficiently enough for the fleet to pass through the rapids. The Ninety-Ninth was designated to help in the construction of the dam. The preparations for damming the river began on April 29th. The Ninety-Ninth, along with the Second regiment, each worked alternating six hour shifts daily in building the dam. Ships were loaded with bricks and sunk in order to raise the water sufficiently. This constant labor continued day and night until May 9th. On that day, as Lt. Hughes recalls, the first gunboat safely passed through the rapids. "The troops let out a large cheer as the first of two monitors sped through the rapids like locomotives". The remainder of the boats passed through on May 12th. It was then time for the troops to leave Alexandria and head south to Morganza. The Ninety-Ninth spent most of its time taking down and putting up bridges, building fortifications, and working on the dam. On May 22nd, the Ninrty-Ninth reached Morganza where they were to enjoy a few days rest following the failure of the Red River campaign.
Following the failure of the Red River campaign, General Banks was relieved of his command. The Ninety-Ninth, stationed at Fort Morganza, began building stronger fortifications. It was in the month of June that the Ninety-Ninth was detailed to be carpenters and bricklayers. Lt. Hughes was disgusted with this new detail, he felt as though his regiment spent too much time doing manuallabor. The general feeling at Ft. Morganza was one of a demoralized army. As he recalled, many officers had tendered their resignations immediate and unconditional. All of course were turned down by the new commanding General, Brigadier General Emory.
While stationed at Ft. Morganza the official reports of the Red River Campaign were released. Hughes read the report filed by Admiral Porter of the Union fleet during the failed campaign. The report he read disgusted him thoroughly. There was no mention of the colored troops, including two regiments of engineers who worked day and night until the fleet was all over safely. These regiments were also the last to leave. He felt that such a man must have been greatly prejudice not to give the colored troops credit for even being there. The thought of not praising them or even mentioning the colored troops angered him greatly. He wondered if the colored troops would ever receive any praise from their superiors for their valuable contributions during the war.
Though the following months, the Ninety-Ninth was relegated to fortifying positions at Ft. Morganza. During this time, Lt. Hughes had much time on his hands, which he spent mostly sitting around suffering from boredom. To counter this boredom, the Ninety-Ninth received four days leave on July 3-7, 1864. The troops were allowed to see their families who were in New Orleans. At the end of this time they were to report back to Ft. Morganza. During this period there were very few written accounts of the days events. During this period a page in his diary consisted of several days. Before arriving at Fort Morganza a day would take up a whole page, sometimes even two pages. There must have been very little to write down due to the lack of campaigns.
A major contributor to the long period of rest resulted from an outbreak of yellow fever. During the months of August and September over a hundred cases alone were counted in New Orleans. Fear of the epidemic spreading kept other regiments from interacting with each other. Therefore no major offensives could be launched in Louisianna during this period.
The operations in Louisiana after the Red River campaign were greatly reduced. Both the Federals, and the Rebels were drained from much of their strength. Most of their time was spent mustering new recruits. Except for a few minor raids and skirmishes the military scene remained relatively quiet in Louisiana.
1864 was coming to an end and battles in Louisiana had diminished to almost nothing. The troops of the Ninety-Ninth were sent to New Orleans where they were given orders for travel to Fort Jackson, Florida near Key West.
Florida was far different from Louisiana during the Civil War. Very few campaigns were fought on the land in Florida. A naval blockade was simply put around the entire state. The building of fortifications was impractical because both sides lacked artillery pieces and large numbers of troops. Confederate General Beauregard thought that the majority of Florida's troops could be used to fight major battles outside Florida. Florida's defenses, unlike Louisiana, relied heavily upon a mobile defense. This mobile defense acted much like a militia. They organized and fought the Union army when a Union landing occurred on the Florida coast.
On March 4th, 1865 the Ninety-Ninth, along with fourteen ships and over 1,000 soldiers, landed near St. Marks, Florida. The next day Lt. Hughes and his regiment, and the rest of the Union forces began their march towards Tallahassee.
While on the march, the Union forces encountered resistance from the mobile defense forces in Florida at Natural Bridge. The Union army made two attempts in crossing the bridge and failed. The Union General, John Newton, felt that his forces were outnumbered and had to retreat. Hughes wrote about what had happened at Natural Bridge. He described how the Ninety-Ninthth was ordered to fall back and take the East River Bridge. When the Ninety-Ninth arrived at the bridge, he was startled at first, then relieved to see that the Navy had dispatched sixty sailors to guard it.
All the troops engaged at the Natural Bridge were black troops, of the Second and Ninety-Ninth Colored Infantry. Although outnumbered, General Newton in his letter to Headquarters spoke of their participation, "The boldness of our attack gave the enemy the idea of a much superior force on our part.; which they actually believe to have been nearly 2,000." The Confederates thought that because of the colored troops bold attack, that there were twice the actual number of Union soldiers. The Ninety-Ninth held the bridge and the following day the Union forces retreated back to the lighthouse near St. Mark. Here they boarded the U.S.S. Magnolia and headed for Point Rusu.
During his journey he reflected upon the past days events. He believed that his force of 893 was too small to go so deep into enemy territory. He mentioned how a party was to burn the Railroad bridge between St. Marks and Tallahasse. For some reason this mission was not accomplished. This resulted in Confederate re-enforcements pouring in and forcing the Union troops to retreat and leave St. Marks.
As an officer, Lt. Hughes and the Ninety-Ninth U.S. Colored Infantry did not quite establish themselves as victorious during their two campaigns. However, as he pointed out several times throughout his diary, the Ninety-Ninth was instrumental as engineers and proved to be a very valuable asset during Federal retreats.
The remainder of the war was spent there drilling on light artillery pieces. The Ninety-Ninth unconciously handed the Confederates its last victory of the Civil War at Natural Bridge. The end of the Confederacy was just around the corner. General Lee surrendered his forces at Appomattox on April 9th, 1865.
In his diary, he describes each day at Point Rusu as almost a vacation. The weather was terrific, much better than rainy Louisiana. However the news traveled very slowly, they did not yet receive the news of Lee's surrender. It was not until he traveled to Key West on April 22, 1865 that he heard of the Confederates surrender. The wonderful news could not be celebrated, for on that same day the news of President Lincoln's assassination overshadowed everything. The following days, the whole area was draped in mourning, flags were all trimmed in black and hoisted to half-mast. That night the cannons aboard the ships, and forts fired a salvo every half hour for twenty-four hours.
The war was over for Lt. Hughes, but not his service. He was then to serve with the occupational forces in Florida. Here he administered the oath of allegiance to the United States of America for Confederate soldiers returning from the war. He was discharged in April of 1866 and returned home where he worked for a land acquisition company in Superior, Wisconsin.
The Ninety-Ninth along with other black regiments participated in the army of occupation following the defeat of the Confederacy. This was no simple task for the colored soldiers, especially in the south. Southerners had a difficult time treating blacks as freemen, let alone as soldiers stationed to keep the peace and restore order. There is no doubt that the Southerners disliked the presence of any Federal troops, but their attitude towards the USCT was less than respectable. Southerners thought that the colored troops were stepping over the line by almost reversing the roles. The once black slaves, were now the ones who participated in enforcing the restoration of the Union. Southerners tried anything to instigate an incident with colored troops, knowing that if the soldier retaliated he would be arrested.
The most well known incident took place in Memphis, Tennessee. Citizens had been harassing the colored troops for days. One day the troops decided not to take their abuse anymore, and decided to fight back. Following this action by the colored troops a race riot broke out within the city. The white population ran through the city and burned down black neighborhoods. A total of forty-six blacks were murdered, twelve of which were colored troops.
For many blacks it seemed as though the military was the closest taste to freedom they would receive. New colored units were constructed in the army, and sent west. They were to show a strong U.S. presence along the Mexican border. France had troops in Mexico which was a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. The U.S. Troops made a strong show of force and the French troops left Mexico. Black troops were also sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma were there would be known as the Buffalo Soldiers, and fought against Native Americans.
A feeling of patriotism seemed to have enticed George R. Hughes into enlistment. His education on the battlefield, and personal beliefs compelled him to apply for commission into the USCT. As a Second Lieutenant in the USCT he conducted himself professionally. His attitude towards the colored troops did not reflect any prejudices. If anything he was one of the few who showed his respect for the USCT. Following the war, he found out how officers of white soldiers felt about his commission and commissions similar to his. During reunions of Civil War veterans, he was looked down upon. The officers of white soldiers felt as though they themselves were deserving of the rank, and officers of the USCT were not. He did not let this bother him, throughout his life he remained proud of his commission, and his troops.
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