Washington [D.C.], May 30, 1864.
Dear Sir: On several occasions when on the Mississippi river I contemplated writing to you respecting the colored troops, and to suggest that as they have been fully tested as soldiers their pay should be raised to that of white troops, and I desire now to give my testimony in their behalf. You are aware that I have been engaged in the organization of freedmen for over a year, and have necessarily been thrown in constant contact with them.
The negro in a state of slavery is brought up by the master from early childhood to strict obedience, and to obey implicitly the dictates of the white man, and they are thus led to believe that they are an inferior race. Now, when organized into troops, they carry this habit of obedience with them; and their officers being entirely white men, the negro promptly obeys his orders. A regiment is thus rapidly brought into a state of discipline. They are a religious people, another high quality for making good soldiers. They are a musical people, and thus readily learn to march and accurately perform their maneuvers. They take pride in being elevated as soldiers, and keep themselves neat and clean, as well as their camp graounds. This I know from personal inspection, and from the reports of my special inspectors, two of my staff being constantly on inspecting duty.
They have proved a most important addition to our forces, enabling the generals in active operations to take a large force of white troops into the field; and now brigades of blacks are placed with the whites. The forts erected at the important points on the river are nearly all garrisoned by blacks–artillery regiments raised for the purpose–say at Paducah and Columbus, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee; Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi, and most of the works around New Orleans. Experience proves that they manage heavy guns very well. Their fighting qualities have also been fully tested a number of times, and I am yet to hear of the first case where they did not fully stand up to their work. I passed over the ground where the first Louisiana made the gallant charge at Port Hudson, by far the stronger part of the rebel works. The wonder is that so many made their escape. At Milliken's Bend, where I had three incomplete regiments, one without arms until the day previous to the attack; greatly superior numbers of rebels charged furiously up to the very breast-works. The negroes met the enemy on the ramparts, and both sides freely used the bayonet, a most rare occurrence in warfare, as one or other party gives way before coming in contact with the steel. The rebels were defeated with heavy loss. The bridge at Moscow, on the line of railroad from Memphis to Corinth, was defended by one small regiment of blacks. A cavalry attack of three times their number was made, the blacks defeating them in the three charges made by the rebels. They fought them hours, until our cavalry came up, when the defeat was made complete, many of the rebel dead being left on the field. A cavalry force of one hundred and fifty attacked three hundred rebel cavalry near the Big Black with signal success, a number of prisoners being taken and marched to Vicksburg. Forrest attacked Paducah with seven thousand five hundred. The garrison was between five and six hundred; nearly four hundred were colored trops, very recently raised. What troops could have done better? So, too, they fought well at Fort Pillow until overpowered by greatly superior numbers.
The above enumerated cases seem to me sufficient to demonstate the value of the colored troops. I make no mention of the cases on the Atlantic coast with which you are perfectly familiar. I have the honor to be, Very respectfully, Your obedient servant,
Adjutant General L. Thomas to Hon. H. Wilson, 30 May 1864, Negro in the Military Service, pp. 2596–98, series 390, Colored Troops Division, Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives.
Published in The Black Military Experience, pp. 530–31, and in Free at Last, pp. 471–73.