A Closer Look at One of the Union’s First Black Cavalry Units

Greater than 20 years in the past, John D. Warner Jr., a graduate scholar on the time, got here throughout an arresting account by Union officer Charles Francis Adams Jr., of main Black troops into Richmond after it fell on April 3, 1865. He puzzled why he had not heard that story earlier than. Now Warner, archivist for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has written Riders within the Storm: The Triumphs and Tragedies of a Black Cavalry Regiment within the Civil Warfare, which describes the experiences of the fifth Massachusetts Cavalry—the unit Adams commanded within the occupation of Richmond. Printed by Stackpole Books, Warner’s e-book covers the expertise of Black troops within the Union Military in addition to detailed protection of the complexities of recruiting Black troopers and white officers for service in a regiment like this.

John D. Warner Jr.

Why was the fifth Massachusetts Cavalry shaped? Was this the primary Black cavalry unit?

The cavalry have been thought of the fighter pilots of the nineteenth century. They have been perceived as being an elite drive — the scouts, the eyes of the military. There have been a few USCT Cavalry regiments and a few regiments raised within the western space of the marketing campaign. So the place we’re on the finish of 1863 is that African American troops had been raised and have been being raised following promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The 54th and fifty fifth Massachusetts regiments had been within the area since June 1863, and by the tip of 1863 there’s a recruiting frenzy, with African American troopers a part of the state quota. The bounty of $350 was equal to a 12 months’s wage in lots of circumstances: what right this moment can be within the $30,000–$50,000 vary.

But the fifth Massachusetts Cavalry went into battle with out horses. And never solely have been they dismounted, additionally they didn’t begin out getting full pay.

When the fifth Massachusetts arrived in Washington, the boys didn’t know they’d be dismounted; definitely of their minds, the cut price that they had made in becoming a member of had not been saved. Two or three different regiments that occurred to be white have been additionally dismounted due to the scarcity of horses. The Civil Warfare is in some ways the bureaucratization, the group of conflict. So, “We’re not going to have the ability to get you horses” is in some methods comprehensible whenever you have a look at the large image. As for pay, that they had been promised the identical as Federal troops, however the Warfare Division advised the boys, “We pays you as laborers,” not what white troops have been being paid. That was particular to all African American troops till the legislation modified on June 15, 1864. It was scandalous it took 18 months to achieve this.

What occurred once they have been in service?

The unit had been skilled in line with Prepare dinner’s Cavalry ways, and when Massachusetts Governor John Andrew and his cadre determined to recruit officers for the regiments, they wished individuals who had expertise and who have been dedicated to the motion, so to talk. In case you had cavalry expertise, you would be promoted from an enlisted non-commissioned officer to lieutenant or perhaps a captain, which is a reasonably large leap. So having that have as cavalry troopers in White regiments, you present up in Washington, the theater of operations; you’re now dismounted and also you’re now infantry. So it’s: “What can we do? We don’t have any coaching in transferring infantry troops round, going through actions, find out how to shake out a line of battle, find out how to get to your squads, your platoons, firms organized in equivalent to manner as to be efficient in bringing fireplace upon the enemy.” So far as what the fifth went by, they did go into battle, they did have casualties. They felt they got here by all of it proper, acted as they need to, no one ran away. However the reality is that they have been faraway from the 18th Division and despatched to Level Lookout [Md.] to protect Accomplice POWs. They have been in impact exchanged for a skilled USCT infantry regiment to change into jail guards.

That should have been demoralizing.

Sure, however in some ways it was fascinating. We have now POW accounts, from Sidney Lanier, and John Omenhausser’s watercolor drawings to indicate what went on. This regiment knew the stakes, that it was an existential combat. You’re a younger man and also you be part of the Military on the zenith, when it’s a combat to the end, so to talk. While you have a look at the regimental information from once they shaped in Massachusetts, about 800 of the 1,000 males who went off to conflict have been signature illiterate. They made a mark, not with the ability to write their names. So there isn’t this huge physique of letters or a cache of first-person accounts accessible. However you see within the POW accounts and significantly the watercolor drawings that these have been males of company. They have been doing what they needed to do. Serving their nation, understanding that also they are appearing to free their race. In a single Omenhausser drawing, he has the Black jail guard on the surface of the palisade trying down. “Do you belong in there” he has the trooper say, getting “I didn’t see the road” as a reply. “You higher handle it, or I’ll put a spherical in you,” the trooper responds. “The underside rail is on high.” Folks says it’s anecdotal, however it’s noteworthy as a result of it was what was being mentioned by some folks.

Drawing of a Black prison guard at Point Lookout, Md.
In one in all his drawings, John Omenhausser derisively has a fifth Massachusetts guard bark harsh orders at Accomplice prisoners struggling within the chilly.
(Courtesy of New York Heritage Digital Collections)

How does the unit become involved within the fall of Richmond?

It’s an exquisite story, in some methods apocalyptic. The Battle of 5 Forks on April 1, 1865, results in breaking the Accomplice traces. A messenger comes right into a church in Richmond the place Jefferson Davis is sitting along with his household and whispers, “They’ve breached the road, it’s time to pack up and get out of city.” Colonel Adams had petitioned for his regiment to be put again within the area, in order that they pack up and take their horses and all their gear and switch of their rifles for carbines, sabers, and pistols. Again to being cavalry, they transfer up into Virginia. As town is deserted, the Confederates, in an try to deny conflict materiel to the approaching Union military, or maybe out of pure cussedness, resolve to explode the Tredegar Iron Works and the bales of cotton which are being saved within the warehouses. There’s a excessive wind. Earlier than lengthy, about 20 metropolis blocks are burned to the bottom. The fifth marches in and they’re the primary African American troopers into town. In some methods, it was type of unlucky that they weren’t capable of be in motion as cavalry as a result of we’d have discovered of their true mettle, however they entered as a duly brigaded regiment of the twenty fifth Military Corps. Once more, it’s a fairly good story. 

How would you sum up the unit’s wartime expertise?

Many instances folks ask me: How come this has by no means been advised earlier than? In some methods it’s as a result of the fifth Massachusetts Cavalry didn’t endure horrible casualties. They served with constancy, endurance, perseverance. In some methods, should you owe any individual one thing, it’s finest to say that account has been settled, even when it might not have been. Actually the unhappy and corrosive story of racism in nineteenth century and twentieth century to the current day would say these males have been ignored due to who needs to listen to this story. In my view, it’s a fantastic story. I might say it’s lengthy overdue that they get the popularity that they deserved.

How did the unit wind up serving in Texas after the conflict ended?

The Union authorities despatched whole a military corps down and a complete cavalry division. At one level that they had upward of fifty,000–60,000 troops there. The South had typically surrendered, however there have been different items within the Trans-Mississippi that have been nonetheless intact. It was a really unsettled time. The choice that officers needed to resign was not accessible to the troopers. As enlisted males, you’re caught. You discover that as a sample that occurred amongst African American troops within the Union Military after the conflict. The Military wished them to remain on and so they have been used for occupation and have been a giant drive in Texas. The white troops—some had been concerned since 1861—get to go houses after a pleasant parade. By the tip of Might, most troops are getting on a practice going house, whereas the African American troops are usually not going wherever. You are taking troops, you break them up, squads or firms are engaged on railroads, doing fatigue obligation.

How lengthy did you’re employed on this e-book?

It began as a 500-page dissertation, dry and somewhat simple. I acquired my dissertation proper earlier than the web got here into being and made analysis attainable not less than to tease out sources. I had heard concerning the Omenhausser watercolor drawings of POWs at Level Lookout. For a very long time, I attempted to seek out them. The World Cat database is one thing that each one analysis libraries are a part of. You could find who holds Weekly Anglo African and whether or not it’s authentic or in microfilm. I had seen a picture of an Omenhausser watercolor again within the ’90s, however I couldn’t get ahold of the drawings till I went to the Particular Archives of the College of Maryland and that was within the twenty first century.

Riders within the Storm

The Triumphs and Tragedies of a Black Cavalry Regiment within the Civil Warfare
By John D. Warner Jr., Stackpole Books, 2022

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