Chaplain James W. Russell, 13 USCI

Nashville Daily Union, Nashville, Tennessee
March 10, 1864

The 13th Colored Infantry.

[Correspondence of the Nashville Union.]

CAMP L. THOMAS, NASHVILLE AND NORTHWERN R.R.,

February 29, 1864.

It may not be uninteresting to the readers of your patriotic columns to peruse an occasional article from me while I am connected with the 13th U.S. Colored Infantry.

We hold no mean place in the great field which treason and rebellion have laid out for the active occupation of the United States Army. This railroad is a “military necessity.” The arduous labor required for its completion is just as the soldiers of this regiment can rapidly perform. They and their compatriots of the 12th United States Colored Infantry, and the two Engineer Regiments, will soon rejoice that they have finished the work; then – “how are you,” marching orders – for Mexico, or any where else, God only knows where; but these troops will do to go any where. We have too much concern for our own reputation among the millions of Columbia, and in the glorious Union army, to extend to our soldiers any privileges not allowed by military law; and we have gathered them from such a horrid state of slavery and wrong that they even now claim to be free. They cheerfully submit to the rigors of military rule, saying, “We were never so happy before. Our old masters would get angry with us and sometimes punish us almost to death, and we not understand why; but here if we are punished we know why, for the officers tell us our duty and never punish us unless we disobey. If we disobey, we know it; and when we are punished we know what it is for.” Reader, do not be surprised when I tell you that I took the above quotation from the lips of a private soldier in this regiment. Grant that it expresses the common sentiment of the colored department; that none but these or old soldiers can so cheerfully submit to military duty. I have seen this regiment march a whole day without observing a single instance of straying o breaking ranks for pigs and poultry. They are content with “hard tack” and bacon, while none but those who are used to like fare can endure it a single day without a propensity to “gobble” almost anything for a variety. When white troops march through this country it must suffer for their comfort, but colored soldiers are satisfied with their supplies as they are furnished them. This fact the citizens give ample testimony. Ask them, ye who contradict. Ah! There is a wailing in the wake of many a white regiment, even in Middle Tennessee, but none in the wake of this. We have a good conscience before General Orders No. 17, concerning foraging in this Department. Can all white regiments say the same? It is already known in military circles how well we are prepared for inspections at any time. Our record in the army is just as good as any other, and better than that of white troops on fatigue, or road building – both the Paymaster and Inspector General of this Department remarked in our hearing that this camp is nearer perfection than any other they had seen in this army; and as the authorities know where to confer approbation and honor, we feel very comfortable in our present fortunes, and are willing to wait for the voluntary applause and admiration, of all the wise, and good, and true.

It is quite a satisfaction to me to know that while some men consider this organization as unworthy because the soldiers have been negro slaves, they have shown as much bravery in proportion to their experience in mortal combat as the white troops, and more proficiency in the schools of the soldier and company. Although mentality and education are exceedingly limited, imitation, subordination and dilligence will supply the deficiency and win them honor and trust, and cover with glory the names of the brave who shall lead them to battle. I can also say – we have no commissioned officers who have not been adjudged competent to fill the rank they respectfully hold by a board of examiners, appointed by Major General Rosecrans. It is not necessary that they be laughing stock for their men while on drill, for their knowledge of tactics commands the respect of all who witness the execution of their office. There are Brigadier Generals in the State troops who, should they go before the board at Nashville for the purpose of securing a command in this department, could not get the position of Second Lieutenant.

We are proud of every man who has entered this service out of the purest and highest of motives which move men to come to us. I know that the task of freeing the slaves and teaching them the lessons of independence is a heavy one; but who can forget us and the hundreds otherwise engaged for the same end. Posterity will hand down their names to the end of time. A powerful nation will rise up and call them blessed.

J.W.R.

Return to Their White Officers for more letters written by the men who led Black soldiers in the United States Colored Troops