Sergeants in USCT regiments.

major bill

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
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Aug 25, 2012
Some USCT regiments were formed in areas where most of the recruits were ex slaves. I understand that these would have had white officers but where did the NCOs of the regiments come from? For a regiment to function properly a regiment would need sergeants who could read, write, and understand numbers. Although finding recruits with these skill might not be too difficult in areas where many of the recruits were free men of color, in areas where most or nearly all of the recruits were ex slaves, recruits who could read and write might be on the rare side. Some pre War Southern states did not allow teaching slaves to read and write. Some slave owners might teach their slaves to read and write despite the law. Still, I was wondering if USCT regiments recruited from former slaves could find enough educated former slaves to allow for the regiment to have sergeants who could read and write.
 

thomas aagaard

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Nov 19, 2013
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Denmark
I have seen mention of white nco's in some USCT regiments.

Also when looking at the job of a ordinary sergeant,. Yes he need to be able to write simple stuff down.
But mostly he just need to be able to write a list of the men for different types of duty and similar.
 

Rhea Cole

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Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Tennessee slaves were unusually literate. Here in Murfreesboro, the wives & daughters of plantation owners held reading & writing classes for the slave children. As the traditional agricultural slaveholding model failed, more & more slaves were craftsman. The custom carriages the the Spence family sold required workers who could understand written instructions. The most common reason given for teaching slaves to read was so that they could read the Bible. Of course, a literate slave could write their own pass & disappear.
 

DixieRifles

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I have pondered this question. Mist of the white officers I’ve researched were previously NCO’s. It makes sense they might select a few white soldiers to fill important positions as NCO’s.

When you visit the African-American Civil War Memorial in DC, you can read the names of the soldiers listed by regiment. It also includes names of the white officers.
 
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I read that several regiments started their own basic schools, staffed either by volunteering officers or occasionally a hired teacher, giving the men an option to learn how to read and write if they wanted to. As much of this would likely take place back in camp before going on campaign, those who aquired those skills and showed promise in drill and bearing would be a natural choice to become NCOs.
 

TomP

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Corinth, MS
The following is an excerpt from a program I developed at the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center - "Ahead of Their Time: Desegregated Units in Corinth, Mississippi."

There was, however, a significant difference those regiments raised in the east and those from the Mississippi River Valley. General [Lorenzo] Thomas anticipated a problem with the use of blacks as non-commissioned officers due to the high level of illiteracy among the recruits. Literacy rates in white regiments approached 90% while in black regiments literacy was often non-existent. It should be remembered that in antebellum Mississippi it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write.

This high rate of illiteracy made it particularly hard on the white officers of the new regiments, men who were typically over-worked and under-staffed. The non-commissioned officers of the Field & Staff, specifically the Sergeant Major, Quartermaster Sergeant, and Commissary Sergeant, were critical roles within the regiment and it was not only necessary that the positions be filled by men who could read and write, they had to be men who were skillful in each. These men were responsible for the training, discipline, supplies and transportation of the regiment.

In addition, the company grade officers (captains and lieutenants) needed quality First Sergeants to ensure that each of the ten companies ran smoothly and efficiently. As in today’s modern army it is the senior enlisted person of the company, the 1st​ Sergeant, who is responsible for a myriad of administrative responsibilities which keep the unit at high rate of readiness.

Because of the difficulties in obtaining literate black sergeants, Gen. Thomas authorized the thirteen senior sergeants of the regiments to be white soldiers. Though these sergeants were the highest ranking enlisted men in their unit, they were still enlisted men which made the regiments of the Mississippi River valley far more integrated than those in the East or other areas of the West.

While Thomas was pleased to have the talents of the white enlisted men he maintained hopes they were a merely temporary necessity for, “as intelligent blacks are found they are made sergeants and corporals, and ultimately they will fill all those positions.” Thomas’s plan was not as forthcoming as he would have hoped. In May, 1864, fully a year after the project commenced, Capt. C.P. Bailey of C Company, 55th​ USCT was calling for the return of his white 1st​ Sergeant who had been transferred to another company. “Since that time I have not had a man in the Co. that could call the roll or make a detail except my Lieuts or myself as I have no Black Men that can read or write.”

This is not meant to infer that there were not excellent African-American soldiers in the regiment, men who were natural leaders. Though the top thirteen sergeants were white, there was still a need to fill the rolls of the 2nd​, 3rd​ and 4th​ sergeants for each company. In all there were thirty colored men presented with the three-striped chevrons worn by a sergeant.

The twenty-one white NCO’s in Corinth came from twenty different military organizations as well as two men appointed from civilian life. There was no obvious pattern as to who was selected and who was not. They aged in range from 19 to 42. Most of the men were privates in their old regiments though there was a sprinkling of corporals and sergeants. What they all had in common was experience. Most had enlisted in 1861 and had seen fighting at Fort Donelson, Shiloh and Corinth. Even the civilians had served on active duty before being discharged.
 

TomP

Sergeant
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Sep 29, 2015
Location
Corinth, MS
1st Sergeant Lewis P. Cleaveland, Co. E, 55th U.S.C.T./1st Alabama Infantry A.D. Cleaveland was a private in the 52nd Illinois Infantry when he was promoted to 1st Sgt. in his new regiment. He died of dysentery at Memphis, TN Sep. 2 1864.
1SGTCleaveland001.jpg
 

Rhea Cole

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Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
One of the often untold stories is that of the Veteran Volunteer NCO's who reenlisted, passed a rigorous exam & became officers in USCT regiments. A sterling example was Sgt. Charles Bennett of the 9th Michigan veteranized & joined the 13th USCT that was based in Johnsonville TN. At the Battle of Nashville, Bennett was a Brevet Major during the ferocious fighting at the Peach Orchard. Bennett wrote that the officer examination he received would have eliminated every officer in the 9th back in the day. Needless to say, veteran NCO's who became mustangs brought a wealth of hard won experience to USCT regiments. The journals & letters of USCT officers are replete with testimonials for the deep regard they felt for their men. In the new African American Museum there is the photograph book that a USCT officer carried with him throughout his life. On display in the museum is an image of a man from here in Murfreesboro who self liberated & joined that regiment. His granddaughter, who lives in Nashville, attended the dedication of the museum. As always, I am reminded of just how close in time we are to the CW.
 
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wausaubob

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Finding officers and Non Coms who would work with the USCT and not let them go unsupervised and untrained into battle was a substantial challenge, according to Grant. I think Sherman was very skeptical of the entire project and thought it was much safer to use the freedmen as logistical workers and pioneers, and to minimize the exposure of the freedmen to combat and capture.
 

Rhea Cole

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Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Finding officers and Non Coms who would work with the USCT and not let them go unsupervised and untrained into battle was a substantial challenge, according to Grant. I think Sherman was very skeptical of the entire project and thought it was much safer to use the freedmen as logistical workers and pioneers, and to minimize the exposure of the freedmen to combat and capture.
Objectively speaking, Sherman was a typical bigot of his times. The testy exchange between Sherman & Hood about the part black men played in Sherman's army is really something to read.
 

bayouace

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Early USCT units formed in Louisiana had volunteer white NCO's transferring from white units. Later USCT units elected their own NCO's. There was at least one black officer killed at Port Hudson. Andre Cailloux of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards had been a mixed race slave until 1846, when he obtained his freedom. Line officers in the Native Guards (formed as Confederate Free-Men-of-Color units until Butler arrived) were black, and included a future Reconstruction governor, P.B.S. Pinchback.
 
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Joined
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Arlington, Virginia
A lot depends on where and when regiments were raised. According to Lorenzo Thomas's October 5, 1865, report on his earlier recruitment efforts (ORs Series III, Vol. 5, p. 120) "I also authorized the 1st sergeants of companies to be whites, but I soon found that soldiers only took these positions to obtain promotion, and if not made in a very short time dissatisfaction was the consequence. I therefore changed the rule and urged colonels to select intelligent blacks and instruct them. This system worked admirably, and I have seen colored sergeants dill their squads as well as white sergeants could." Despite this, I wouldn't be surprised if some white NCOs remained in service for quite a while.

A French observer echoed Thomas's observation:

"We have seen regiments, after but two months service, drill in a very remarkable manner. After one repetition, the white officers left the ranks and the drill continued under command of the colored non-commissioned officers and appeared to be quite as good as before. In all the battles in which these troops fought, they gave such proofs of bravery that even the most prejudiced were compelled to do them justice." The American Army in the War of Secession, Victor de Chanal

In the regiment I'm examining, the 2nd USCI, only the Hospital Steward, assigned by the Medical Department, was white. All the other NCOs, from the Sergeant on down, were Black. In fact, about a dozen of them had been drafted in New York and assigned by the Bureau of Colored Troops to the 2nd, which was largely raised in the District of Columbia, apparently to provide literate men for these positions. The regiment also used its regimental fund to build a school and hire a teacher for this purpose and at least one man availed himself of it to move up to the NCO staff:

Hdqrs 2 U. S. Col'd Infantry
Ft Taylor Key West Fla
April 1 1865
Gen'l Order
No 4
...Sergeant Rich'd Burton of Co "C" this Regt, having been fully recommended is hereby appointed Quartermaster Sergeant in the 2d U.S.C.I.
This promotion is made for the following reasons because of his faithful attention to duties, activity, intelligence, diligent application to studies and persevering industry in endeavoring to acquire for himself an education.
When Sergt Burton originally joined the Regt, he was unable to read or write his own name, but by close application to his studies he has since learned to read, and to write a good hand, and has thus qualified himself for the position to which he is now promoted.
The Col hopes that others in the Regt will emulate his example, not not [sic] only by preparing themselves for promotion in the Regiment, but also for a life of usefulness here after, when they shall no longer be soldiers but become citizens of the United States.
By order of
Col B R Townsend Comdg Regt
G Edw Cleeton 1st Lt + Adjt


In addition to these efforts, the "Free Military School for Applicants for Command of Colored Troops" not only trained white officer candidates but "invited active, intelligent, educated young men of color in Maryland, to enlist, with the view of becoming non-commissioned officers in regiments to be raised in that state."

The average literacy rate of northern free Blacks, while lagging that of whites in Free states, was essentially equivalent to that of whites in slave states. So for the regiments raised in the east, and those to which they may have been assigned in the west, the problem was not so great as some might expect.

For western regiments the challenge was greater, but the success of the soldiers' efforts is at least partially reflected in such examples as the establishment of Southland College outside Helena, Arkansas by veterans of th 56th USCT, and Lincoln University in Missouri by veterans of the 65th and 62nd USCT.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
A lot depends on where and when regiments were raised. According to Lorenzo Thomas's October 5, 1865, report on his earlier recruitment efforts (ORs Series III, Vol. 5, p. 120) "I also authorized the 1st sergeants of companies to be whites, but I soon found that soldiers only took these positions to obtain promotion, and if not made in a very short time dissatisfaction was the consequence. I therefore changed the rule and urged colonels to select intelligent blacks and instruct them. This system worked admirably, and I have seen colored sergeants dill their squads as well as white sergeants could." Despite this, I wouldn't be surprised if some white NCOs remained in service for quite a while.

A French observer echoed Thomas's observation:

"We have seen regiments, after but two months service, drill in a very remarkable manner. After one repetition, the white officers left the ranks and the drill continued under command of the colored non-commissioned officers and appeared to be quite as good as before. In all the battles in which these troops fought, they gave such proofs of bravery that even the most prejudiced were compelled to do them justice." The American Army in the War of Secession, Victor de Chanal

In the regiment I'm examining, the 2nd USCI, only the Hospital Steward, assigned by the Medical Department, was white. All the other NCOs, from the Sergeant on down, were Black. In fact, about a dozen of them had been drafted in New York and assigned by the Bureau of Colored Troops to the 2nd, which was largely raised in the District of Columbia, apparently to provide literate men for these positions. The regiment also used its regimental fund to build a school and hire a teacher for this purpose and at least one man availed himself of it to move up to the NCO staff:

Hdqrs 2 U. S. Col'd Infantry
Ft Taylor Key West Fla
April 1 1865
Gen'l Order
No 4
...Sergeant Rich'd Burton of Co "C" this Regt, having been fully recommended is hereby appointed Quartermaster Sergeant in the 2d U.S.C.I.
This promotion is made for the following reasons because of his faithful attention to duties, activity, intelligence, diligent application to studies and persevering industry in endeavoring to acquire for himself an education.
When Sergt Burton originally joined the Regt, he was unable to read or write his own name, but by close application to his studies he has since learned to read, and to write a good hand, and has thus qualified himself for the position to which he is now promoted.
The Col hopes that others in the Regt will emulate his example, not not [sic] only by preparing themselves for promotion in the Regiment, but also for a life of usefulness here after, when they shall no longer be soldiers but become citizens of the United States.
By order of
Col B R Townsend Comdg Regt
G Edw Cleeton 1st Lt + Adjt


In addition to these efforts, the "Free Military School for Applicants for Command of Colored Troops" not only trained white officer candidates but "invited active, intelligent, educated young men of color in Maryland, to enlist, with the view of becoming non-commissioned officers in regiments to be raised in that state."

The average literacy rate of northern free Blacks, while lagging that of whites in Free states, was essentially equivalent to that of whites in slave states. So for the regiments raised in the east, and those to which they may have been assigned in the west, the problem was not so great as some might expect.

For western regiments the challenge was greater, but the success of the soldiers' efforts is at least partially reflected in such examples as the establishment of Southland College outside Helena, Arkansas by veterans of th 56th USCT, and Lincoln University in Missouri by veterans of the 65th and 62nd USCT.
Excellent post, thank you.
 
Joined
Nov 26, 2010
Location
Arlington, Virginia
Excellent post, thank you.
Thanks! One other note -- not only were many of these men literate, but some had their own businesses. In the District of Columbia the slave code had many provisions that applied to free Blacks as well up until DC Emancipation in 1862, including severe limitations on what businesses they could operate. But between lax enforcement and white men who fronted for licenses, barber shops, oyster saloons, blacksmiths, &c operated anyway.

And not only did barbers and waiters constitute something of a Black middle class but -- being literate, numerate, and able to work with, or simply work, white people -- they provided a disproportionate number of NCOs. In the First District of Columbia Colored (1st USCT) there were 19 barbers, 12 of whom served as NCOs, 11 of them sergeants. In fact, fully a quarter of all the NCOs in the 1st USCT were waiters or barbers.

It's the first regiment of combat infantry I've ever encountered where the plurality of the leadership cadre were service workers. What's more, unlike some more famous regiments like the 54th Mass. they never lost a battle. In their first real fight at Wilson's Wharf they constituted the bulk of the federal force that fended off Fitz Lee's brigade of cavalry. In the battle of New Market Heights though much of the regiment remained in reserve, at least 19 of their men were in the sharpshooter battalion that led the first assault. Their only fatality was Corporal James Chaney, born in Baltimore, 17 years old -- and a waiter.

The sad part of it is that while I grew up in Arlington, Virginia we never learned about this heritage in school even though the 1st was raised on Roosevelt Island a stone's throw from the Virginia shore and two other regiments -- the 2nd and the 23rd -- were organized here at Camp Casey, the exact location of which remains unknown...
 

7thWisconsin

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 21, 2014
Literacy programs were often organized by regimental chaplains and administered by them as well. Chaplains in USCT regiments were among the first officers of color commissioned by the Federal government. A lot of Christian ministries poured funds and volunteers into literacy programs for freedmen also. Soldiers themselves were very interested in becoming literate, understanding that this was the ticket to a new life; knowledge is power. Classes were often held in the evening when drill and duty was completed. It doesn´t really take very long to teach a motivated student (who already speaks the language) how to read. Possibly not the height of literature, but the Bible, the newspaper and army forms could be grasped in a few weeks.
 
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