“Remember Fort Pillow!” The 59th U.S. Colored Troops at Brice’s Crossroads

In May 1863, the War Department authorized Major General Stephen Hurlbut, then commanding the District of West Tennessee headquartered in Memphis, to raise six regiments of colored troops from the thousands of freedmen who had surged into the area following the Union occupation of western Tennessee and northern Mississippi. One of those regiments formed later became the 59th U.S. Colored Troops. Captain Edward Bouton of Battery I, 1st Illinois Light Artillery was commissioned colonel, and the white officers of the regiment were chosen from the ranks of the Fifth Division of the 16th Army Corps. Of particular interest to this blog was that a number of the officers appointed came from the 46th, 53rd, and 70th Ohio regiments.
Two soldiers of the U.S.C.T. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

To secure recruits, the local freedmen’s camps were canvassed for volunteers but the army also went into the surrounding area to “appropriate” slaves. Cavalry units would scour the countryside and upon discovering a Confederate plantation, the cavalrymen would “liberate” any livestock as contraband of war and subject to the provisions of the Emancipation proclamation, would also liberate any slaves found. After being freed from their Rebel masters, the former slaves were encouraged to enlist in the army by Bouton’s agents. This method of securing recruits proved quite effective as the regiment was filled by the end of June 1863 and mustered into service as the 1st West Tennessee Infantry of African Descent.
Colonel Edward Bouton, 59th U.S.C.T.

The effects of a lifetime of degradation, cruelty, and hard work showed in the recruits. “The average plantation Negro was a hard-looking specimen,” wrote regimental commander Colonel Robert Cowden in 1883. “He had a rolling, dragging, moping gait and a cringing manner, with a downcast thievish glance that dared not look you in the eye. His dress was a close-fitting wool shirt, and pantaloons of homespun material, butternut brown, worn without suspenders and hanging slouchily upon him and generally too short in the legs by several inches.” Men with shoes or boots were the exception and they wore a battered slouch hat if they had any hat at all. “His look, dress, manner, and opinion of himself were all the result of generations in slavery, and he was in no ways responsible for them,” Cowden wrote.

Work began to help transform these men into proud soldiers. The first steps after recruitment were to get the men cleaned up: haircuts and baths were the order of the day and the tattered plantation clothes were burned and replaced with a blue wool uniform. “The plantation manners, the awkward bowing and scraping at two or three rods distance with hat under arm and averted look must be exchanged for the upright form, the open face, the gentlemanly address, and soldierly salute,” wrote Cowden. Months were spent in perfecting drill and discipline and the 59th U.S. Colored Troops soon presented a neat appearance that gave promise to a useful career in the field. In January 1864, the regiment marched through the streets of Memphis and the shocked residents “saw what they had never before seen and had never expected to see- their own former slaves powerfully and lawfully armed for their overthrow and led and commanded by those whom they considered their invaders. The sight must have burned into their very souls.” In March 1864, the regiment was renamed the 59th U.S. Colored Troops at the order of the War Department.
The sharp appearance of these soldiers of the 4th U.S.C.T. was no doubt mirrored by the 59th U.S.C.T. Colonel Cowden opined that the sight of 1,000 armed former slaves marching through the streets of Memphis "must have burned into the very souls" of the city's Rebel residents. (Library of Congress)

Abner Olds was born January 15, 1815 in Strykersville, New York and graduated from Oberlin College (Oberlin, Ohio)  in 1839. He started his work spreading the gospel, serving in two churches in New York state before spending six years in Jamaica as a missionary. He returned to the states and took charge of the Congregational Church of Jefferson, Ohio until in 1863 he went to Corinth, Mississippi to work with the freedmen. On September 30, 1863 while at Corinth his first wife (Ann Brooks) died. Through his grief, Olds continued to work for the welfare of the thousands of impoverished freedmen scattered in the camps around Corinth. He returned North and in a whirlwind tour visited 26 townships seeking donations to clothe these men, women, and children during the harsh winter months. “In 30 days he collected $700 in money and seven tons of clothing,” Colonel Cowden wrote. “It was stated at the time by the officers of the Freedmen’s Bureau that this was the most remarkable success that had ever been achieved by one person. No marvel that Mr. Olds’ fame soon spread through the camps.” The officers of the 59th U.S. Colored Troops, hearing of Olds’ efforts, approached him in March 1864 and tendered the chaplaincy of the regiment to him. It was an inspired choice.

Olds devoted himself totally to the welfare of the entire regiment: he journeyed north to Cincinnati to purchase a stock of books to further the education of the officers, led weekly worship services and also conducted a school for the basic education of the enlisted men. His new wife (the former H. Adeliza Hawley whom he married October 19, 1864) assisted him with teaching the troops how to read, spell, and write. “It was astonishing to note the eagerness with which the men entered into the work of study,” Colonel Cowden wrote. “Their enthusiasm knew no bounds as one or another came out first or second best in the contests that secured prizes for best spelling, etc. Such intense interest was created that men going on duty were generally seen carrying their spelling books or Testaments under their belts to the posts of duty and spending their time when off post in learning their lessons.”
(Library of Congress)

One would have thought that by June of 1864 the question of whether black troops would fight had been settled: one need look no further for evidence than to consider the gallantry displayed by the 54th Massachusetts during the storming of Fort Wagner in July 1863 to see that black troops were capable of “standing to the mark” when it came to Civil War combat. However, prejudices die hard and slowly and as Chaplain Olds wrote home, even in June 1864 “the question ‘Will the Negro fight?’ is one of great importance to the nation.” The massacre at Fort Pillow in April 1864 rekindled the question and this is the context in which this letter should be read. His letter was written to show that black troops would fight and would fight well even under tragic circumstances as those that prevailed at Brice’s Crossroads. This letter appeared on page one of the July 2, 1864 issue of the Ashtabula Weekly Telegraph.

Headquarters, 59th U.S. Infantry (Colored), Memphis, Tennessee
June 14, 1864
          At the present time the question “Will the Negro fight?” is one of great importance to the nation. It no longer had a mere theoretic interest. It is one full of practical importance to all loyal men. Until recently it has been supposed that he would not and could not make a good soldier. And now the public mind is divided on this question. Hoping thereby to throw some light on a question so vital to the nation’s welfare at the present hour, I propose to give a brief sketch of the part taken by the colored troops in the recent expedition under General Sturgis to Brice’s Crossroads near Guntown, Mississippi.
The 55th and 59th U.S.C.T. regiments covered the retreat of Sturgis' force at Brice's Crossroads. Lieutenant Rollin Edgerton of the 72nd Ohio gave witness to the bravery of the men of the 59th. "Across a small creek about 40 rods in rear of the position our line had held the two Negro regiments were formed in line some 1,300 strong," he wrote. "On and on came the enemy until within close range of the Negroes who were lying down behind a rail fence. They rose up and poured into the Rebels a close and deadly volley. Hundreds of the enemy went down. It checked them for a short time but a few hundreds could not long hold thousands in check. They soon came upon them on all sides and they, too, were compelled to fall back, many of them being killed or taken prisoners."
(Map by Hal Jespersen from my 2017 book Sherman's Praetorian Guard)


Only two regiments of the Colored Brigade were in the expedition, viz. the 55th and 59th, being under command of Colonel Edward Boughton of the 59th and being about 350 strong. They were placed in the rear to guard the train; the 55th was placed company by company between the wagons at proper distances and the 59th in the rear of the whole train. When they came within six miles of the battleground, they heard the firing and pressed forward as fast as possible. And when they came within four miles, and order came for them to double quick. The day was intensely warm and when they arrived, many of the men were nearly exhausted. Colonel William McMillen (95th Ohio) in command of the division rode up to Colonel Boughton and said to him “unless the colored troops can hold the enemy in check, the whole division of infantry must be lost.” The noble reply was “We will do it or perish in the attempt.”
Colonel William Linn McMillen, 95th O.V.I.
Ohio MOLLUS Album

Our troops had been taken to the field and whipped in detail, first the cavalry, then the white infantry, and now the colored troops were to be led in, just as the last white regiments were retreating from the field. The 59th formed on the right of the whole line of battle. One company was ordered forward as skirmishers and the remainder of the regiment was ordered to fall back. The skirmish line had become far in the advance so that there was danger that they would be flanked, and they too were ordered to retreat. But some of them were so anxious to retain their good position for shooting Rebels that they still stood and fired at them so long that some were taken prisoners. One, however, eluded his captors and came in safely.

In the meantime, the regiment had formed another line of battle in a deep ditch where they fought for some time with great valor and good execution. But as they were being flanked, they were ordered to fall back and they formed on Colonel [Alexander] Wilkin’s (9th Minnesota) right where they again fought with determined bravery until all the white troops had left and as they were again being flanked, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cowden in command of the regiment ordered them to retire which they did and firing as they went, they formed again in a skirt of brush on a hill where they stood 15 minutes. The enemy’s shells then came so fast that they retreated to a cotton gin about 200 yards distant where they again fought three-quarters of an hour. As they were again being flanked, they were compelled to retreat which was done by the right of companies for a quarter of a mile over an open field, the rear keeping up a steady fire. Here they found a portion of the 9th Minnesota in the brush in a line of battle. By this time it was dark and all the troops except the colored brigade and the 9th Minnesota were perfectly panic stricken and en route for Ripley 25 miles distant and to which point these troops took their line of march and where they arrived about daybreak on the morning of the 11th of June.
Colonel Alexander Wilkin, 9th Minnesota Inf.
He was killed the following month at Tupelo, MS
(Minnesota Historical Society)

A few incidents and facts of the battle. A corporal in Co. C, 59th U.S. C.T. was ordered to surrender- he let his would-be captor come close to him when he struck him dead with the butt of his gun. While the regiment was fighting in the ditch and the order came to retreat, the color-bearer threw out the flag, designing to jump out and get it, but the Rebels rushed for it and in the struggle one of the boys knocked down the Reb who had the flag with his gun, caught the flag, and ran. A Rebel with an oath ordered one of our men to surrender. He, thinking the Rebel’s gun was loaded, dropped his gun. But on seeing him commence loading, our colored soldier sprang for his gun and with it struck his captor dead. A captain being surrounded by about a dozen Rebels was seen by one of his men who called some of his companions; they rushed forward and fired, killing several of the enemy and rescuing their captain. A Rebel came up to one and said, “Come my good fellow, go with me and wait on me.” In an instant the boy shot his would-be master dead. Once when our men charged on the enemy, they rushed forward with the cry “Remember Fort Pillow!” The Rebs called back “Lee’s men kill no prisoners.”

One man in a charge threw his antagonist to the ground and pinned him fast, and as he attempted to withdraw his bayonet it came off his gun; and as he was very busy just then, he left him transfixed to mother earth. Two Rebs came to one man and cried “Surrender you son of a bitch.” As they were coming up, both came in range of his gun; he fired and brought both down. One man killed a Rebel by striking him with the butt of his gun which he broke, but being unwilling to stop his good work, he loaded and fired three times before he could get a better gun; the first time the rebound of his gun badly cut his lip. When the troops were fighting in the ditch, three Rebels came to one man and ordered him to surrender. His gun being loaded, he shot one, bayonetted a second, and with the butt of his gun knocked down the third. One man had his gun spoiled by a shell. A Rebel ordered him to surrender. “Yes, massa,” he said meekly. The Reb then loaded his gun when the colored man jumped on him, took away his gun, and shot him in the mouth. Such are some of the instances of daring and bravery displayed by the colored troops. The Rebels have good reason to cry- we kill no more prisoners.

About sunrise [June 11th] the enemy advanced on the town and threatened our right, intending to cut us off from the Salem road. Again the colored troops were the only ones that be brought into line, the 59th being on the extreme right and the 55th on the left holding the streets. At this time the men had not to exceed ten rounds of ammunition and the enemy was crowding still closer and closer when the 59th was ordered to charge, which they did in good style while they sang “Rally ‘round the flag, boys.” This charge drove the enemy back so that both regiments retreating to a pine grove about 200 yards distant.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cowden, 59th U.S.C.T.
(Ohio MOLLUS Album)

By this time all the white troops except one squadron of cavalry that had formed in the rear were on the road to Salem and when this brigade came up they also wheeled and left. In less than five minutes this now little band of colored troops found themselves flanked. They then divided themselves into three squads and charged through the enemy’s line; one squad taking the road for Corinth for a few miles and here taking a bypath after a few miles march, then took a road that brought them to Grand Junction. After this they had some skirmishing with the enemy losing one man killed and one wounded. Another and the largest squad covered the retreat of the white troops and completely defended them by picking up the ammunition thrown away by them and with it repelling the numerous charges made by the Rebel cavalry until they reached Collierville, a distance of 60 miles.

When the command reached Davis’ Mills on Wolf River, the enemy attempted to cut it off by a charge but the boys in the rear quickly formed and repelled the charge when we crossed the river and tore up the bridge. Passing on to an open country they halted and organized all their men into an effective force. They then moved forward until about 4 P.M. without interruption when some Indian flankers discovered the enemy who came up to the left and in the rear and halted. They then commenced moving towards us, when a company faced about and fired a volley, emptying their saddles. From this time until dark the skirmishing was constant. They killed one of our men and wounded four or five. We went into camp at LaFayette about 2 o’clock in the morning.

At 4 o’clock, the train moved forward and without interruption until it passed Collierville. But when within a short distance of the cars that had been sent from Memphis for the relief of our troops, the Rebel cavalry again attacked us, killing one and wounding one. The other squad broke through the enemy’s lines at Ripley and has just come in. Lieutenant Colonel Cowden was wounded by a ball in the fleshy part of his thigh early in the first day’s fight but he kept the field until night. With one accord the white troops that were in the expedition complimented the colored soldiers for their valor and determined bravery. They freely acknowledge that the whole division of infantry must have fallen into the hands of the Rebels but for the colored brigade. Colonel Wilkin also complimented Lieutenant Colonel Cowden for the good order with which they made their retreats.
Chaplain Abner D. Olds gravestone, Oakdale Cemetery, Jefferson, Ohio

Abner DeForest Olds would resign in 1865 and returned home to Ohio to recruit his health. He would enjoy a long and active career in ministry; he and his new bride had three children one of whom (Charles) became a prominent attorney in Cleveland. Abner died January 23, 1897 at age 82 and is buried at Oakdale Cemetery in Jefferson, Ashtabula County, Ohio. A government stone commemorating his service with the 59th U.S.C.T. marks his final resting place.


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