By Ronald S. Coddington
The 14th U.S. Colored Infantry had little rest after it arrived at the Union garrison in the North Alabama town of Decatur during the afternoon of Oct. 27, 1864. In the woods and fields surrounding the garrison were Confederates—plenty of them. They belonged to Lt. Gen. John B. Hood’s Army of Tennessee, and were on the move north to drive federals out of the Volunteer State. They hoped to cross the river on a Union pontoon boat.
The black men in blue and their white officers, about 455 strong, deployed in two sections as part of an effort to slow Hood’s vanguard.
One section, a detachment of two companies, crossed the Tennessee River and intrenched a battery from the 1st Tennessee Light Artillery. They did so under cover of darkness to avoid being spotted by Confederate artillery on the south side of the river.
The other section, composed of the bulk of the 14th, formed a picket line and awaited further orders. This section included the private pictured here, George Alexander. Born in Tennessee’s McMinn County, he enlisted in December 1863 at Gallatin, located near Union-occupied Nashville.
The commander of Alexander’s new regiment played a leading role in its organization. Thomas Jefferson Morgan, an Indiana native, started his service in 1861 as a private in his home state’s 7th Infantry for a 3-month enlistment. He returned to the army the following year as a first lieutenant in the 70th Indiana Infantry. Morgan might have remained here for the rest of the war, but the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation altered his path. “With the strong conviction that the negro was a man worthy of freedom, and possessed of all the essential qualities of a good soldier, I early advocated the organization of colored regiments—not for fatigue or garrison duty, but for field service,” he wrote in his post-war reminiscences.
Morgan acted on his instincts and left the 70th to raise recruits for a new regiment that became the 14th. The recruits were mostly slaves from Tennessee plantations. “They were a motley crowd—old, young, middle-aged,” Morgan observed, adding “Some wore the United States uniform, but most of them had on the clothes in which they had left the plantation, or had worn during periods of hard service as laborers in the army.” The last-named group may have included Alexander, who gave his occupation as a wagon driver on his enlistment papers.
Some in this group of laborers had been keen observers of the Union troops who employed them, and learned something of the business of soldiering. But most were raw, and knew nothing about the military. Morgan, now lieutenant colonel of the regiment, transformed them into fighting force. With a limited military education, he leaned heavily on subordinates.
Morgan advanced in rank to colonel and commander in January 1864. This same month, he and the 14th departed Gallatin for Chattanooga, where Morgan helped organize two more black regiments, the 42nd and the 44th.
Here, he also fought a war against an army mindset that black troops were only good for use as laborers in support of white soldiers. “Personally I shrink from danger, and most decidedly prefer a safe corner at my own fireside to an exposed place in the face of the enemy on the battlefield, but so strongly was I persuaded of the importance of giving colored troops a fair field and full opportunity to show of what mettle they were made, that I lost no chance of insisting upon our right to be ordered into the field,” declared Morgan. His view will be familiar to those who have watched the 1989 film Glory, the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and its colonel, Robert Gould Shaw.
Just as Shaw persuaded his superiors to allow the 54th to fight, Col. Morgan convinced his superiors to allow him to take his men on several expeditions. One mission, a march to relieve a Dalton, Ga., garrison under attack by Confederate raiders led by Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler, culminated in a victorious charge by the 14th and other federals on August 15, 1864. Morgan expressed pride in the conduct of his troops. “It was their first encounter, and they evinced soldierly qualities; the men were brave and the officers cool,” he stated in his after-action report.
This experience prepared Alexander and his comrades for the action at Decatur.
Late in the evening of October 27, Alexander and his comrades, totaling about 355 men and officers, prepared to fight some of Hood’s boys less than a half-mile away. These Confederates, of the 31st Mississippi Infantry, occupied breastworks that protected a battery of four cannon.
Morgan prepared his troops for an assault. “The men were stripped of all extra load, carrying only gun, accouterments, and canteen of water,” he stated in his official report. Some of the soldiers and officers carried an additional item—metal files. These were to be used to spike enemy cannon if they could not be removed from the field after capture.
Morgan cautioned his officers to keep the lines in good shape, prevent straggling, and not allow the rank and file to kill any Confederates they might capture. This last caution was the direct result of reports of the massacre of black troops by Confederates six months earlier at Fort Pillow, Tenn. The atrocities had been much discussed within the regiment.
About midnight on the 28th, the 14th advanced into the darkness for about 150 yards, where rifle pits marked the outermost edge of federal territory. The regiment halted and formed a proper line of battle, throwing out two companies of skirmishers ahead of the other six companies, and unfurling the colors. The regiment advanced on Morgan’s orders and marched to the crest of a ridge, where the Mississippians spotted them and opened up with musketry.
The sound of fire prompted Morgan to order his men forward at the double-quick. They rushed ahead in the heat of the moment, fueled up by adrenaline and propelled by pent-up energy. Alexander ran amid this mass of charging men with musket in hands, cartridge box filled with ammunition, and canteen full of sloshing water clanking at his sides. “They manifested no undue excitement or fear, but seemed anxious for the work,” recounted Morgan.
The black infantrymen hit the Mississippians hard, sweeping away the pickets, overwhelming the artillerymen and taking all four guns in what seemed like a heartbeat. They left dead and wounded rebels in their wake.
Scarcely had the cannon been captured when the Confederates reformed and hit the 14th with punishing musket volleys. According to one of Morgan’s subordinates, future Medal of Honor recipient Henry Romeyn, hand-to-hand fighting broke out before they were able to wheel the guns from the works.“Bayonets and clubbed muskets were used with savage vigor,” Romeyn stated.
Morgan, unsupported, ordered an immediate retreat. “A fleet foot saved the regiment,” he recorded. They left the field quickly, but not before the men managed to spike two of the guns, likely using the standard method of ramming the metal files into the vent holes.
Morgan counted 55 casualties: two killed, 52 wounded and one missing. Alexander survived unscathed, though his muster record for this period reveals he lost his canteen and haversack, perhaps in the chaos and confusion of the withdrawal. If so, the Confederates likely picked up both items from the field.
The colonel of the 31st Mississippi, Marcus De Lafayette Stephens, painted a far less positive view of the fighting qualities of the 14th. In an unpublished memoir, he suggested that the black troops had been drinking, and feebly resisted his counterattack. Stephens described a scene of a field covered by dead enemy soldiers, and how his men picked up silver watches and greenbacks from the many bodies left behind.
The 14th “received an ovation from the white troops, who by the thousands sprang upon the parapets and cheered the regiment,” recalled Morgan.
Back in the garrison at Decatur, the reaction was far different. The 14th “received an ovation from the white troops, who by the thousands sprang upon the parapets and cheered the regiment,” recalled Morgan. Moreover, the lieutenant colonel of the 68th Indiana Infantry requested that his regiment “might be brigaded with mine, giving as a reason that his soldiers had such respect for the Fourteenth Colored that they wanted to fight side by side with it.”
Morgan related these incidents as signs that his regiment had proven that black men could fight.
The 14th met Hood’s army again before the end of the year. On December 15, 1864, the regiment fought in the Battle of Nashville and contributed to the destruction of the Confederate army as a fighting force at a cost of 65 casualties. Morgan and Alexander emerged without injury.
The 14th continued in the army until March 1866, when it officially mustered out at Nashville. The regiment disbanded, never to meet again, the story of their regiment and its accomplishments largely forgotten.
Morgan left the army in August 1865 with a brigadier general’s brevet. He went on to become a Baptist minister and served as Corresponding Secretary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. In this capacity, he continued his work to improve the lives of African Americans in post-war America. Morgan also served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs during the administration of President Benjamin Harrison—his old commander from the 70th Indiana Infantry. In 1885, His Reminiscences of Service with Colored Troops in the Army of the Cumberland, 1863-65 was published. He died in 1902 at age 62. His wife, Caroline, survived him.
Alexander settled in Arkansas and became a farmer. In 1883, at about age 43, he married a woman 20 years his junior, and started a family that grew to include 10 children, eight of whom were alive at the turn of the century. He died about 1911.
Special thanks to Vincent Caviglia of Fredericksburg, Va., for sharing images of Col. Morgan. He is related to the colonel through Morgan’s half-sister, Paulina (Morgan) Dement.
References: Official Reports of the War of the Rebellion; Morgan, Reminiscences of Service with Colored Troops in the Army of the Cumberland, 1863-65; George Alexander military service record; Bohannon, Keith S. “The War in Their Own Words: I Was Rapidly Bleeding to Death,” Civil War Times (June 2018); 1900 U.S. Census; Morgan, The Negro in America and the Ideal American Republic; National Tribune (Washington, D.C.), July 28, 1887.
Ronald S. Coddington is Editor and Publisher of MI.
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