Title: Deeds of a Colored Soldier during the Rebellion, Volume 1: From the Beginning to Chickamagua
Author: F.W. Abel
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
Deeds of a Colored Soldier during the Rebellion, Volume 1: From the Beginning to Chickamagua is a novel of the Civil War. Written as a memoir as told to an interviewer more than thirty years after the war’s end, it traces the story of Jedediah Worth, a teenaged slave who becomes a soldier fighting for the Union and the freedom of his people.
At secession, although he vaguely realizes that the conflict started over the question of slavery, Jedediah regards Kentucky, and the South, as home. When his master’s sons join the Confederate army, he and his friend Obie accompany them as their personal servants. Eager to prove himself as a man, Jedediah runs ammunition and even rescues a wounded Confederate until, with Obie’s prodding, he comes to realize his valor should serve the cause of emancipation. He escapes, meeting up with Samson, an enslaved African who becomes his life-long friend.
Jedediah and Samson travel hundreds of miles to Kansas, to join one of the few units of colored troops allowed to serve in the early part of the war, and participate in the first battle fought by colored troops, the victory at Island Mound.
Gaining confidence in his abilities, Jedediah becomes a non-commissioned officer, leading his men during the brutal, hand-to-hand combat at Milliken’s Bend, where the Confederate promise no quarter will be given to colored troops, and where he becomes the first colored soldier to be awarded the newly-created Medal of Honor.
Jedediah Worth, 70, Distinguished Soldier & Lawman
One of Langston’s most prominent citizens, Jedediah Worth, passed away yesterday peacefully in his sleep, just two months short of his 71st birthday.
Mr. Worth was well-known in Langston City, having served as our sheriff for more than a decade. Before settling here, Mr. Worth had a long and notable career in the United States Army, during which he rose to the highest non-commissioned officer grade, Regimental Sergeant-Major, in the celebrated 10th U. S. Cavalry.
He was the recipient of the highest award the nation bestows for bravery in battle, the Medal of Honor, not once, but twice, a feat almost unique in the annals of the American military. He was the first Negro to be awarded the Medal, for deeds of valor performed during the Rebellion, when he was only seventeen years of age.
A widower when he died, of Mr. Worth’s children, two still survive: Jubal, his only son, and Harriet, a daughter. His funeral will be held at 10:00 a. m. tomorrow at the Bethel Baptist Church.
This obituary, clipped from the Langston Herald, gave me deep sadness when it arrived from Oklahoma. For I had the privilege of knowing Jedediah Worth for more than twenty years.
I saw him for the first time in the spring of 1891, when I was a reporter for the Washington Colored American. Sergeant Worth was among the heroes from the Negro regiments sent to Washington as an honor guard in the nation’s capital. Our meeting was brief. Because White soldiers objected so vigorously to their presence, the Negro soldiers were quickly sent back to the frontier.
I met him again in the fall of 1898, when he was the Regimental Sergeant-Major of the 10th United States Colored Cavalry, the famed “Buffalo Soldiers.” The 10th Cavalry had just returned from “the splendid little war” to free Cuba from the Spanish. Because the authorities feared the tropical diseases to which they had been exposed might become epidemic among the general population, soldiers returning from Cuba were quarantined. The men, White and Negro, were kept in a camp established at Montauk Point on Long Island, some 130 miles east of the city of New York.
The Colored American sent me out to Montauk to interview Negro soldiers about their experiences in the war. My editor was concerned that their contributions would not be acknowledged by the white-owned papers. Indeed, if you read only Hearst’s New York Journal, you would have thought that the only regiment that did anything of note at all was the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, Theodore Roosevelt’s headline-grabbing “Rough Riders.” The Colored American was determined that the fortitude and pluck of the Negro soldiers be publicized.
(I suppose things have not changed much since then, as the paper is sending me off to France with the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard, newly re-designated the 369th Regiment. We are determined that this latest group of Buffalo Soldiers not be ignored, either.)
Upon my arrival at Montauk, the officer acting as the liaison with newspaper reporters and correspondents gave me leave to enter the camp of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments, and the 24th and 25th Regiments of Infantry, all of which were composed entirely of Negro enlisted men. He advised me to make the acquaintance of each regiment’s sergeant-major, the highest-ranking enlisted soldier in the regiment. The sergeant-major, even more than the regiment’s colonel, was the man who made sure the enlisted men were trained and disciplined, sheltered and fed. In short, he was the man responsible for having the men behave and carry themselves like soldiers. In this way, I was re-introduced to Sergeant-Major Worth.
You might expect, given his responsibilities, to find a dour, humorless, authoritarian man, quick to admonish and slow to praise; harsh, even brutal, made narrow-minded by the need to enforce discipline and regulations.
As I interviewed his men, I discovered the affection and respect in which he was held, not only by the soldiers, but by the white officers also. I shy away from the term “legend,” but there is no other way to describe the man, as can be intimated from just reading his obituary.
Of course I wanted to find out more about him, but when I approached him for an interview, he refused and insisted that my news reports be about his soldiers, of whom he was intensely proud. But I am a reporter, a “news-hound” if you will, and over the course of several weeks was able to question Sergeant-Major Worth about his life and military career, and learned even more in subsequent meetings through the years.
It took me a long time to get to know the man. Even now, I recall that when I first looked on his weather-worn and war-scarred visage, how I concluded that the crow’s-feet around the eyes had to have come from squinting into the Southwestern sun and the lines about the mouth etched by the strain of having to immediately judge the correct course of action during battle. I know now that they were equally the result of laughter.
It is only now, years after I met him and two years after his death, that I am able to set his story down in chronological order. Apart from some endnotes I added in clarification or support of his reminiscences, the words are those of Jedediah Worth, a slave who became a soldier, a soldier who became a hero.
You’re a newspaper man, so why would you want me to tell of events that happened more than thirty years ago? Events so old, they certainly don’t qualify as news. But I don’t consider them to be history either. I’ve always been of the opinion that history is what happened in the distant past, not what happened in one’s own lifetime. Maybe when I have white hair, not gray, and am sitting in a rocker on a porch, then it will be time to tell my life story. Of course, by then, who’d want to listen to the rambles of a senile old man? There’s been a lot of dullness and monotony in my life, just as in any lifetime.
You say that people will be interested, that our young people need to be reminded about the times of slavery. I think that many of us who were slaves might prefer to allow the memory of slavery to fade into oblivion, just as the institution itself has. But I can also see your point that, to fully appreciate freedom, our people perhaps should be reminded what slavery was like.
However, I think that, as our people continue to be discriminated against in so many ways, often with the connivance of the very government for which we fought, we need more to devote our energies to ensuring that our people are free in fact as well as in name. The lesson that should have been learned is that legal freedom was, of itself, no panacea–much to the chagrin of most abolitionists.
But, yes, the very idea of freedom for those of us who were enslaved was a powerful impetus. Witness the great colored pugilist of the early century, Tom Mollineaux. The promise of freedom was enough to raise him almost literally from the dead.
You remark about my use of words. Do you think that journalists are the only people with “nickel” vocabularies? But I do have to admit that I have gone out of my way to catch your ear. Many civilians, I’ve found, regard soldiering as being for those too lazy or ignorant to make a go of civilian life, so I wanted to dispel that notion right from the start.
I was lucky to have learned to read while fairly young and thus developed a taste for it as a leisure-time activity, as well as a continuance of education. Sitting in an isolated, dust-scoured fort in the desert allows ample time for reading, a welcome change from the arduous living on the campaign trail and the excitement, and terror, of combat. Reading fills one’s mind and occupies one’s time and goes a long way in keeping one from becoming a drunk or a deserter, the scourges of the frontier army.
Let me say, though, drunkenness and desertion both occurred far less often in the colored regiments than in white ones–a minor miracle given the undesirable locations in which we were usually posted. The Seventh Cavalry was especially prone to both, understandable given their commanding officer. But I am already rambling.
Yes, I understand that there is a great deal of interest in the War of the Southern Rebellion, especially by those too young to remember it. Witness the popularity with which General Grant’s memoir was received–probably read by more people, Americans and foreigners, than any American writer save Mark Twain.
And I can see the need for veterans of the Rebellion to tell our stories, especially in light of the romanticism currently accrued to the Confederate version of the war, their “lost cause,” doomed from the start, to defend an honorable way of life and principles of the Constitution. Let us just call it a myth. The Southern planter class led their region into rebellion to protect slavery, and their lower classes followed out of notions of white supremacy. General Grant said it well it his memoir when he said it was one of the worst causes for which men ever fought. In contrast, Unionists fought for the morality of freeing an enslaved people, even if many of them did not see it that way at first. The Northern veteran said it best when he wrote that they fought not just to save the Union, but for a Union worth saving.
I can tell you about the Rebellion as I experienced it, but don’t expect a grand view of it, like that depicted by General Grant. His was the unique perspective of the commanding general of all the National armies. My range of vision at its widest was limited to a company, and that was when I was a sergeant. When I was a private, it didn’t get much wider than that of a squad. Think of the descriptions of battle found in The Red Badge of Courage.
Of course I have read The Red Badge. It’s a remarkable work, especially when you consider Crane’s innocence of war. Just about any enlisted man, in any time since the invention of the musket, could read Crane’s work and say to himself, “That’s just about the way it was.” However, that very thing is one of its flaws as a novel about a Northern volunteer, as it does not render the sanctity with which the Northern man regarded the cause for which he fought. Our cause, the freedom of all Americans, was nothing like that of the Southerner, who convinced himself he was defending “states’ rights,” but was in fact fighting to prolong slavery and white supremacy.
The other flaw as a novel about the Rebellion is that the protagonist is portrayed as believing that he, himself, one soldier, could make a difference. Although by the end of the story, it must be said, he has come to realize his own insignificance and, more importantly, has come to accept the inevitability of his own death,“the great death,” as Crane called it. This, in his first battle. I guess I wasn’t as precocious, as I didn’t come to that acceptance until the night between the first and second days at Nashville, two years after my first battle, and after having been wounded. But in The Red Badge, there’s none of the fatalism, almost despair, that afflicted many Union soldiers, especially the volunteers of 1861, during the autumn of ’64 and the following winter. That’s when ran rampant the chilling thought that all the sacrifices might have been in vain, when it appeared McClellan and the “Peace Democrats” could win the presidential election and end the war by giving the Confederacy its independence. But I’ve heard that The Red Badge was set fairly early in the war, so maybe it’s not such a flaw after all.
That was why the enlistment of colored troops made such a difference to the outcome of the Rebellion. It wasn’t just our numbers. It has been said that the best men, on both sides, were those who enlisted in 1861. What they lacked in soldierly skill, they made up for in enthusiasm and determination. The men who followed, the conscripts and bounty men, just weren’t up to their standard.
Except for us. The coloreds who enlisted in ‘63 and ‘64 possessed all the enthusiasm and determination of the volunteers of ‘61. We appeared at a propitious time, when many of the ‘61 men were war-weary and losing heart, or were dead. If the Confederacy had the wisdom to enlist slaves, promising freedom to those who enlisted, the war might have ended differently. I’ve often thought the Confederacy was akin to the protagonist in a Shakespearean tragedy, doomed by his own flaws. In the South’s case, it was the fatal flaw of slavery. Most colored troops in federal service were from the South. Not only did the South not benefit from the fortitude of their own colored population, the valor of Southern coloreds was turned against the Confederacy. Except for an incident in which I was involved that occurred in the spring of 1865. The description of that will have to wait until its due time.
On the other hand, coloreds almost didn’t get a chance to fight for the Union either. It may seem nonsensical, but powerful forces in the federal government were opposed to colored soldiers, at least at first. For coloreds, who had the most to gain or lose as a result of the outcome of the war, the first battle was for the right to be Union soldiers at all. We had to fight for “Sambo’s Right to be Kilt,” as that apparently scurrilous, but actually clever, poem was titled, which helped change opinion toward the use of colored soldiers.
You have to understand that, of all the things I’ve done, I’m most proud of having been in the first battle fought by colored troops during the Rebellion. It was small, so small we didn’t even give it a name at the time. It’s now called the battle of Island Mound, because it took place on a small island in the Osage River in Missouri. Given what a signal event it was, it’s lamentable how few people today even know of its occurrence.
It took place in the autumn of ‘62. That’s right, before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The real wonder of it all was the number of people who simply ignored the federal government and allowed us to soldier in the first place.
My road to Island Mound started with me in bondage in Kentucky. I went with my master’s sons when they joined the Confederate army. I was with them at Belmont and Shiloh. Then I got the chance to run for freedom. While on the run in Tennessee is when I met my best friend, Samson, the African warrior who became Sergeant-Major Miner of the 9th Cavalry, and Effie, Belle and Josh, who became family.
Even now, as I relate it, I’m astonished at how simple my life seemed then. I suppose that one problem with living past one’s youth is the amount of regret one tends to accumulate. I was young, not much more than a boy, really. My boyhood was spent on Wentworth Farm, one of the largest horse-breeding farms in Kentucky. The farm produced some of the finest horses for racing and hunting in a state famous for its horseflesh.
When I call it a “farm,” you might get the idea that it was small, but Wentworth Farm covered more than six hundred acres, surrounding a red-brick mansion fronted by six white fluted columns. Although some of it was covered by scrub forest and underbrush, most of it was devoted to large pastures, bound by whitewashed plank faces. Closer to the center of the farm were smaller paddocks, also divided by fences, where single horses roamed; the whole estate was sprinkled with stables and the small cabins in which the servants lived.
“Servants” was the hypocritical term usually employed by our masters, but we were slaves alright, bought or born, and there were more than eighty of us, mostly to care for the horses. There were trainers, jockeys, grooms, stableboys, two blacksmiths and, the most expensive of all, a veterinarian. There were field hands to grow hay and vegetables and take care of cattle and pigs and mend fences, and house servants to take care of the four members of the Wentworth family.
The field hands were organized in gangs of ten or a dozen, each under a driver, who was himself a slave, but had the function of making sure that the field work was done. I’m sure that now, many of our people who were not born into slavery, would consider them turncoats to their own people. But a good driver was expected to be the voice of his gang, standing up for them if the master became unreasonable in his demands or harsh in his treatment. The reason I mention it is because many of the non-commissioned officers, the sergeants and corporals, of the first colored regiments had been drivers. They knew how to lead, and they knew how to handle our white officers, many of whom, coming from up North as they did, just didn’t know how to deal with us.
The reason I had been bought at the age of twelve, some three years prior to the war, was to help with the horses. I was somewhat tall for my age and working with my hands had made my shoulders broad, while riding horses had given me well-muscled legs. Muscle is heavy, and my height and weight caused me some concern, because I wanted to be a jockey, and most jockeys were short and lightweight. But again, I digress.
I guess a good starting point for the story of how, to borrow from Frederick Douglass one of his most noted phrases, I got “an eagle on my button,” is a day in May of 1861.
Like most days, this day started with me shoveling horse manure. Of course, I would have already gotten dressed and gone out to the privy and then the pump house to clean up. I was then ready to start my chores.
As I said, my first chore concerned the collection and disposal of horse manure. The spring grass was plentiful and lush, and it seemed that the horses barely swallowed it before it came out the other end. The stable I took care of, built for twelve horses, had ten just then, but that was still a lot of manure.
I would then pump the trough full of water, and take the horses, two-by-two, to drink, before turning them out on their paddocks to graze. I would do all this on my own, without any orders or overseers. All of us who worked with horses were “on task” and were trusted to get done whatever needed doing. All that mattered to Mister Wentworth was that the horses were properly cared for.
I recall that, as I awoke that morning, I had no notion it would be such an uncommon day.