Chaplain Thomas Smith, 3d Reg. Miss. Vols. of A.D. (53rd USCI)

Nashville Daily Union, Nashville, Tennessee
February 20, 1864

(Correspondence Cincinnati Commercial.)

Letter from Vicksburg.

The Expedition up the Yazoo River – Murder of a Colored Soldier and Prompt Retaliation – Full Particulars.

HAINES’ BLUFF, MISS Feb. 6, 1864.

If you deem the following article worthy of a place in your columns, you are at liberty to publish it, as this is at least one point in it, respecting which the truth should be known. Recently several regiments of colored troops, belonging to General Hawkins’ brigade, wee removed from Goodrich’s Landing and Milliken’s Bend, on the Yazoo. The troops are in excellent condition, fine spirits, well drilled and anxious to meet the enemy in fair and open conflict. The officers are tried men. Nearly all of them have been in active service, as soldiers, for more than two years. They have been in numerous skirmishes, and in many hard-fought battles, such as Pea Ridge, Forts Donelson and Henry, Shiloh, Belmont, Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, Thompson’s Hill, Champion Hill, Black River Bridge, Vicksburg, Jackson, &c. You may judge of the spirit of such men, they have voluntarily accepted positions in colored regiments, and now feeling, more than ever before, that if again called to action, they must go forward to conquer or die.

On Monday, the 1st day of February, an expedition started from Vicksburg up the Yazoo. Five gunboats and four transports, having on board both white and colored troops, were employed in the expedition. About 1 o’clock the next day an order was issued from this brigade headquarters, to four regiments, three of infantry, viz: 1st Arkansas, 10th Louisiana and 3d Mississippi, and one of cavalry, the 1st Mississippi, to get three days’ rations and prepare to march immediately. At two o’clock the order to march under command of Colonel W.F. Wood, of the 1st Arkansas, was given, and the column moved out with great enthusiasm.

This is a very rough, hilly and broken country. Our road for the most part was along the ridges. We marched about twelve miles and then halted for the night. Traces of the enemy were soon discovered. Evidently some pickets had been surprised, for fresh blood was seen, and a dressed hog was found, which they had left behind. Fortunately the hog was made to serve a better purpose than that of satisfying rebel hunger, for it afforded some nourishment to true Union soldiers of sable complexion. Soon our camp fires were blazing, the lights of which could be seen for miles, telling the enemy that they must prepare to fight or run.

Between three and four o’clock on Wednesday morning the troops were aroused by the sounding of drums, and soon all were up and busy, preparing hot coffee, previous to a renewal of the march. By five o’clock breakfast was over and the column in forward motion. Onward we moved, the soldiers laughing, joking, and singing. “The Year of Jubilee has Come” and “Old John Brown.” Occasionally the column halted for a time, while our officers ferreted out rebel sympathizers and brought them into our ranks. Seven citizens were thus picked up, six of whom were rebels. They were not hurt, but were kept with us until we were half way home again. When they were released they appeared very much pleased, one of them remarking that he was thankful that it was no worse with them.

About ten o’clock we began to hear the booming of cannon. Then we knew that our gunboats had engaged the enemy in his concentrated position.

Our destination was Mechanicsburg, about three miles from the enemy’s main position. Before noon our advance reached the place, and there fell upon the rebel pickets. Picket firing and skirmishing immediately commenced. Soon a squad of rebel cavalry, about twenty-five in number, were seen about half a mile distant. Our cavalry made a charge at them. The rebels fled. But our darkies pursued them with great determination. Onward they went, for four miles or more, when two of the rebels, being sorely pressed, surrendered. In the meantime our pickets were thrown all around Mechanicsburg, and our main force marched into the place. A poor, desolate-looking place it is, containing two inhabited houses, and five or six old frame buildings in ruins – a fair sample of the Southern Confederacy. Our cavalry brought the prisoners into camp, and they were placed under guard. It was said that one of them was a Lieutenant but there was nothing about his dress to indicate that he was. The other was a private, and both belonged to the 6th Texas Cavalry.

Soon after we went into camp it was discovered that, from one to two miles back, a squad of four rebel cavalry had come upon a poor straggler – a colored soldier of the 3d Mississippi – who had been unable to keep up with his regiment. The rebels murdered him in cold blood. They took some of his clothes and accounterments, rifled his pockets, and left his body lying by the side of the road. Some persons living in a house near the place witnessed the whole transaction, When the information was communicated to Colonel Wood he resolved upon retaliation, if the report should prove correct. The Colonel said that it was not the first time that such brutality had been manifested; but on former occasions both the offices and soldiers of his own regiment had been thus cruelly murdered.

Time passed on, until the Colonel, having satisfied himself that his mission to that place was accomplished, gave orders to prepare to march. But before leaving the place, he told the two prisoners the information that he had received respecting the murder; and assured them that, if it should prove true, they both must die upon the spot where the deed was perpetrated. He told them that their time was short; if they had any business to settle, any message to send to friends, or if they wished to make their peace with God, they had better attend to these things at once; adding, also, that there were two Chaplains present with whom they might consult if they desired. A little while longer and the order to march was given, and the column set out on its return march. Very soon we came up to the place where the body of the murdered soldier lay. The column halted. Surgeons examined the body, and pronounced the head both bruised and shot. The Colonel, being satisfied that the report which he at first received in relation to the matter was correct, again told the prisoners that they must both be shot. And now the scene became solemn Our troops were arranged so as to form two sides of a square, facing the corps.

A detail of execution was made. The Chaplains addressed a few words to the prisoners, and offered prayer in their behalf. There were very little moved, and did not seem at all to realize the awful solemnity of the occasion. One of them asked the Colonel to pardon him, saying that he would take an oath and never more raise his arm in support of rebellion. The Colonel was greatly affected. He wept, and replied, “It is of no use to plead with me now; I am not acting for myself, but for those men” – pointing to the soldiers. Said he: As an individual, I would rather sacrifice my right arm than take the life of either of you. When I entered service with these men, when I enlisted them into my regiment, I promised them protection; and, as far as it lies in my power, they shall have it.”

The prisoners then gave the address of friends at home to a Chaplain, requesting him to write to them; and said one, “Tell my wife that I died like a soldier.” They were then blindfolded, led to the corpse, required to kneel, the command to fire was given, and in an instant they fell, each pierced with several bullets. Great solemnity prevailed. The three bodies were then all laid together in a wagon. The troops again took their position in marching order, and the column moved on.

The march was continued for five or six miles with great stillness. Scarcely was there an unnecessary word spoken, not because of any order to that effect, but solely from the impression which the whole scene had made upon all.

At a late hour we turned into an old field, and immediately spread blankets and went to rest, without either fire or supper. Long before daybreak all were up and in motion again.

We halted several times during the day, and arrived back in camp about 4 o’clock on Thursday afternoon, having completed a march of nearly sixty miles in less than two days and a half. We remained about four hours at Mechanicsburg. Our pickets report that they killed two rebels and wounded several others. Our loss was the murdered man. One of our pickets had a finger slightly marked by a rebel bullet, and his gunstock shattered.

We have reason to believe that our trip was a success. Having been required to make a demonstration, probably for strategic purposes, we did so, to the satisfaction of our General, as I have been informed. And now, if this matter of retaliation should be commented upon, I have placed the whole transaction truthfully before your readers – having been present and witnessed what I have testified in the matter.

I will now merely direct the attention of your readers to the President’s order of July 30, 1863, in relation to the protection of United States troops – an order governing the present case and justifying the action taken by Colonel W.F. Wood.

Respectfully submitted.
THOMAS SMITH,
Chapl’n 3d Reg. Miss. Vols. of A.D.

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