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Union Officer Julian Bryant: A Voice for Black Soldiers

Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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In late summer and early fall 1861, near Pilot Knob, Missouri, Rebel recruiters under Major General Sterling 'Old Pap' Price maintained a secret rendezvous for new enlistees at Higginbotham Plantation. But the Confederates there had no idea that Yankees camped nearby had already discovered their secret outpost. And they were unaware two Federal spies lurked in their midst monitoring every move. One of them, trying to appear relaxed, struggling to impersonate a Rebel recruit, was Julian E. Bryant. The two companions strolled easily into the recruiting headquarters, where their cordial enemies entertained them nobly. After the spies had gathered valuable information on the inner working of this installation, they conveyed pertinent messages to their command. That night Federal troopers captured the plantation and presented arms to 20 slaves, who then escorted their former masters to Bryant's 33d Illinois camp. (Supposedly the first instance in which slaves were liberated and armed, this episode perhaps urged Bryant to consider using black men militarily. But it was still just an idea. Official sanction would not be granted until November 1862.)

One of the Federals really was not much of a spy. Julian Bryant was a man of practical artistic talent, persuasiveness, brilliant leadership, and unexcelled determination, with a rich humanitarian background. And he was remembered that way. Like the youths on both sides, he joined the army of his choice, believing he fought for justice on the battlefield. But he also did his part behind a pencil, and among unfulfilled black soldiers or contrabands. And unlike others, he had more than his share of connections and ability. A nephew of abolitionist William Cullen Bryant, he served under Major General Ulysses S. Grant in the Vicksburg Campaign, led raw black troops in their own defense at Milliken's Bend, Louisiana, and knew some success before knowing tragedy. Then, less than a month after the North claimed victory, he died.

Deeply rooted in compassion. Bryant's background stressed change in a day when its only synonym was progress. His grandfather, Dr. Peter Bryant of Massachusetts, was a senator and a surgeon who had impressed his sons with a 'universal brotherhood of man' philosophy. He also stressed practical application. At his home, servants ate at the same table and were treated as equals, regardless of their color. Taking the doctor's cue, when three of his sons moved to Princeton, Illinois, in 1831, they practically applied this ideal and started an intense underground railroad system. Though Julian's father Arthur was not avidly involved in the 'railroad' activities, his uncle John Howard was one of the leaders, frequently hiding as many as 15 runaway slaves in his home. His other uncle, Cyrus, utilized his barn as a station. And Owen Lovejoy, congressman and brother of Elijah Lovejoy, heatedly exerted his abolitionist energies, causing the Bryant brothers' Princeton to emerge as 'one of the greatest Negro-stealing places in the West.' Such was Julian Bryant's inspiration.

Born November 9, 1836, from the time young Bryant was an earnest schoolboy until the day the outbreak of civil war called him to account for his family convictions, he had a fevered, youthful interest in three things: drawing, debate, and the eradication of slavery. And he pursued these subjects with almost equal intensity. But his friends best remembered his flair for speaking. With an influence surpassing his height, 5 feet, 6 inches, and exhibiting his flair for the dramatic, he gave his school farewell speech. Its effect, others remembered, was profound. It moved several classmates to tears.

Considering his future, it seemed best that one of his interests blossomed into a career. Young Bryant chose art. At age 21, he traveled to New York and spent a year sketching nature. Then he returned to Princeton for an extended period of self-education, applying what he had learned. When the Civil War began, it found him as an art instructor at Bloomington Normal College.

Campuses were not immune to war fever. Normal college president Charles Hovey organized the 33d Illinois Infantry, while he convinced students and teachers to spend their time after school and on Saturdays learning to be soldiers.

In the summer of 1861, Bryant returned to Princeton to recruit a teachers' brigade, which became the nucleus of Company E of Hovey's 'brain regiment.' Because Bryant had accumulated military knowledge from listening to his father, who had attended West Point, he was elected second lieutenant of Company E. Isaac H. Elliot, chosen captain, later wrote, 'If the fitness of things had been observed, he (Bryant) would have been captain and I his subordinate.'

The company left Princeton on August 19, arriving at Camp Butler, near Springfield, by September 1. Bryant wrote home on that day, stating cheerfully: 'We are encamped here in a fine shady grove, with a good clear lake nearby, which the men use freely for bathing purposes. The regiment to which we belong will soon be made up.' That same month, they moved south. Following the Higginbotham Plantation incident, Bryant's regiment marched to Arcadia, Missouri for the winter. Here, Bryant and his friends avoided monotony by searching abandoned buildings for lumber to construct tent floors, chairs, bunks, tables and writing desks. Dances and parties offered further diversion. They saw little military action until spring.

In March 1862, the 33d Illinois marched into Arkansas to Bayou Cache. On July 7 Bryant's unit, with fewer than 300 effective men, defeated a force of 3,000 Texas cavalry, killing 117 Confederates in the effort. In the fall Bryant's abilities were recognized, and so were Hovey's. The academician became a brigadier general and Bryant was detached from Company E to Hovey's staff. He remained in this position, until his skills were again acknowledged early in 1863.

Hovey had been promoted to brigadier general in September 1862 for his conduct at the Battle of the Cache, and soon he left the 33d to assume command of the 2d Brigade, 1st Division, XV Army Corps, under Major General William T. Sherman. As a junior officer under Hovey, Bryant participated in Sherman's unsuccessful attack on Chickasaw Bluffs and then in the capture of Arkansas Post in January1863. For his conduct in the latter action, official reports submitted by Hovey gave Bryant honorable mention. These reports signaled an end to one phase of his military career.

In the early years of the war Bryant utilized his special talent for quick pen-and-ink drawings and produced 28 sketches of the Missouri-Arkansas region that he kept in a portfolio. Among them are river scenes, soldiers' off-duty diversions, fortifications, and river conveyances. But after the Arkansas Post victory, Bryant's new responsibilities overshadowed his art. His leadership capabilities surpassed his other aspirations, allowing no time or energy for observations, except those pertaining to the impersonal art of war.

Early in 1863 Bryant accepted an appointment to major of the newly organized 1st Mississippi Infantry, African Descent. His task involved the discipline of black soldiers, only recently unshackled from slavery. Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, who had issued the appointment, remarked later in a New York Times article that it had been his purpose to organize black troops into regiments, and that he preferred those white officers whose hearts were fully in the work. Thomas emphasized, 'I didn't care what rank he came from, from the highest position down, I was going to select the best men I could find, even if I had to take the colonel from the ranks. The officers should be good.'

Bryant's first experience as an officer of a U.S. colored unit was a violent one. His first assignment was the defense of Milliken's Bend. Just 20 miles upstream from invested Vicksburg, a fort at Milliken's Bend already in Union hands was inadequately manned and in danger of being lost. In addition to the 1st Mississippi, the 9th Louisiana, and the 11th Louisiana black regiments, all comprising the untrained African Brigade, only the undermanned 23d Iowa Volunteer Infantry and the 10th Illinois Cavalry were present.

These black regiments, mustered in only a few weeks before at Vicksburg, knew little about weapons and received theirs, some defective, only the day before the battle. The defenders numbered 161 white soldiers and 900 black recruits, as the Confederates massed for the attack.

So that Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton's forces at Vicksburg would have a possible escape route, a fragment of Walker's Confederate division launched a sudden assault on June 7, 1863, using 2,500 experienced troopers and 200 cavalry. The post's defenders occupied a position between two levees with their backs to the river , as Confederate Brigadier General Henry E. McCulloch's four Texas regiments initiated their attack, advancing first in close column upon the left sections of the line.

When McCulloch's troops came within musket range, the defenders opened up, sending a host running in confusion to the rear. The remaining Southerners pushed on, reached the levee, and were ordered to charge with cries of 'no quarter.'

Because the black regiments lacked experience and their guns were inferior, the enemy soon managed to close in for hand-to-hand combat. The black troops fought bravely, as they handled their bayonets with fierce determination, contesting every inch of ground until they were surrounded. At that point, McCulloch's men poured a deadly fire along their lines, directing their efforts mainly at the officers, many of whom ultimately fell. Finally, overpowered by superior numbers, the black troops retreated to the river banks, but they continued to fire and to remain as organized as possible in what was up to this time the most vicious hand-to-hand fighting of the war.

Finally, the gunboat Choctaw cruised into position, fired at the enemy, and forced them to withdraw behind the levee. Undaunted, McCulloch's troops continued to fire at the defenders.

The Confederates at this time attempted to extend their line to the extreme right, but two black companies were determined this action would fail. These companies, a part of the 11th Louisiana, fought from behind cotton bales and parts of the old levee until almost noon, when the enemy withdrew after nine hours of fighting against inferior numbers that would not be defeated. As McCulloch's troops retired, the gunboat Lexington placed several well-directed shots and scattered the enemy in all directions.

The Confederates' hatred of black troops was surpassed only by their animosity toward those white officers who led them. The fact generated nightmares. Rumors ran that officers were the victims of atrocities. Needless to say they had a poor effect on morale. But Bryant not only survived the fighting, kept his spirit, and avoided capture, he became conspicuous for his gallantry, constantly rallying his troops after they had been driven to the river banks. Shouting directions, he prodded and encouraged his men. His wiry stature seemed to rise with his fervor.

In his report to the adjutant general, Grant noted the heroism of the troops, despite their lack of military experience. He concluded, 'With good officers they will make good troops.'

Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, who was in the vicinity at the time of the battle, reported that Brigadier General E.S. Dennis had told him it was 'the hardest-fought engagement he had ever seen.' Fought almost entirely at close quarters, the battle demonstrated that black troops could exhibit the greatest gallantry possible. Thereafter, Bryant became absorbed with gaining for the black soldiers the respect and recognition they deserved from white officers and Washington authorities.

Unfortunately, these opinions were not easily practiced, and Bryant's regiment was assigned to post and garrison duty at Goodrich's Landing and to similar unchallenging responsibilities in the Vicksburg area. They remained there for 18 boring months and saw only minor action at Ross's Landing, Grand Lake, in February 1864. But Bryant made every effort to gain for them the status claimed by the white soldier.

As ' Inspecting Officer' on the contraband subject, Bryant directed a heated, lengthy report to the district commander, dated October 10, 1863, stressing the treatment of the contrabands on government-controlled camps, or among the wandering black population of northeast Louisiana.

In his report, he recognized that the black people were always unfairly treated. Government officials were ignoring terms of contracts with them or not showing them even elementary principals of humanity. He reported that the black man was treated as a mere brute from whom the most amount of labor should be gained at the least possible expense, and not as a free citizen. He further stated that the government's persistent declaration that the black man was a free man was nothing but words. The Bryant family interpretation of the 'universal brotherhood of man' philosophy had suffered little through generations of practice.

Four days later, Brigadier General J. P. Hawkins endorsed Bryant's report and added a sardonic remark of his own. He stressed that the report did not begin to show all the hardships to which the free black people had been subjected 'and if better policy for them cannot be introduced and humanity is a matter of consideration, we had better call back their former masters and let them take charge of them.' The report found its way to General Sherman's headquarters at Bridgeport, Tennessee, where it gathered dust for nearly three months, not received in the adjutant general's office until January 6, 1864.

Meanwhile, the distress of the contrabands continued, and Bryant decided to appeal through the press. No other course lay open to him. He would call upon the man who, it is strongly suggested, had helped him during his year of sketching in New York, the one man he knew who shared his sentiments and was capable of bringing about changes.

William Cullen Bryant, Julian's uncle and editor of the New York Evening Post, had long expressed himself on the intolerable condition of the black soldier. In his editorial on November 17, 1863, he called attention to the use of black troops for fatigue duty in the encampments near Charleston. He noted that these men were used only for digging trenches and taught nothing approximating military maneuvers. He was probably thinking of his nephew when he stated further that the white officers' talents were being wasted, because they were used to supervise mere labors. 'At this rate,' he concluded, 'the white officers should never be called captains, colonels &c, but overseers, taskmasters, drivers. The government should look to this.'

Possibly as a result of this editorial, the older Bryant printed an order December 2, 1863, from Commanding Officer Major General Quincy A. Gilmore that black troops would be given the same responsibilities, labor, treatment, and opportunities for drill and instruction as white troops. Bryant was encouraged, but once again, results came more quickly on paper than in actuality.

Julian Bryant had been mustered in as commander of the 1st Mississippi on November 30, 1863, when it was recognized as the 51st U.S. Colored Infantry. Just six days later, it saw action in Issaquena County, Mississippi. Then, in early 1864, Bryant began to recruit black soldiers for a new regiment, the 46th U.S. Colored Infantry. This would have consequences.

On January 22, 1864, Bryant wrote his uncle, hoping to convince him that their plan had not yet succeeded. In the letter [see the sidebar, 'A Letter to an Editor-Uncle'], he referred to the menial duties performed by black troops, tasks he termed insults because of the heroism they had shown in battle. In contrast, he stressed the idleness and lofty soldierly duties of the white troops. He stated that if his uncle would again editorialize on this subject, the public might force some action.

The editor reacted to this letter with the strongest editorial he had ever written. His nephew's letter must have influenced it, because he constantly paraphrased it. The famous editor complained that, while the colored troops remained at work performing common laborer tasks, such as loading and unloading boats, the white troops lay idle or engaged strictly in military maneuvers. He reminded his readers that these black troops had fought heroically before they were even trained, and demonstrated what soldiers they could become if given the proper instruction and opportunity. This strong display of opinion, written on February 19, 1864, closed with a hope that the War Department's attention be directed to this problem.

Julian Bryant achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel in command of the 51st U.S. Colored Troops in March. And he held this position until fall. Meanwhile, Adjutant General Thomas began calling for a more careful screening of officers who would command black regiments.On June 14 Thomas issued an order that the status of black soldiers be changed immediately. They would, in the future, perform only their fair share of fatigue duty, thus leaving them the energy for the higher responsibility of fighting the enemy. Further, he warned any commander who forced colored troops to perform more than their share of these menial duties should be prepared to explain himself to 'the common superior through the regular channels.' The Bryants had realized their first major success.

A second milestone materialized the following month. Congress passed an act after long debate, stating that black soldiers would be issued the same uniform, weapons, equipment, rations, medical and hospital attendance, pay, and emoluments, other than bounty, as other soldiers.

In September, Bryant left the command of the 51st and took on a new assignment: colonel and commander of the 46th U.S. Colored Infantry. This was significant proof of his ability, mainly because the unit had been notoriously hard to discipline. Brigadier General John P. Hawkins, in recommending Bryant for this promotion, stressed that the duties of this position necessitated very peculiar qualifications and that Bryant's superior capabilities were obvious.

His rapid promotions and command assignments demonstrated Bryant's leadership qualities. In his new position, he commanded the post at Milliken's Bend, but he was soon sent to Vicksburg, where he remained for two months before departing for Memphis.

In February 1865, Bryant went to New Orleans and from there to garrison duty at Brownsville and Clarksville, Texas, on the Rio Grande River, an assignment from which he never returned. These posts constituted important geographical points in defense of foreign attack or subsequent retaliation by the Rebels. And Bryant again realized that his men were primarily assigned to the engineer service, rather than the infantry. His objections were never heard.

At Brazos Santiago, Texas, on May 14, three days after arriving at the post, Bryant, at 28 years of age, drowned as he swam in the Gulf of Mexico, an inauspicious end for a conspicuous young man.


This article was written by Karen Berfield and originally published in the April 1983 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.

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