On this date in 1865, six African-American infantrymen were shot in Fernandina, Florida, for the Jacksonville Mutiny.
Formed in 1863, the 3rd Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops served in the trenchworks around Fort Wagner — the grinding siege in the summer of 1863 that followed the bloody attempt to storm the fort immortalized in the 1989 film Glory.
The Third was subsequently transferred to Union-occupied Jacksonville, Florida for duty garrisoning a conquered town of the Confederacy whose white citizens chafed doubly at their presence. But the unit had weathered both the boredom of the garrison and the hostility of white Floridians, and was set to muster out and return home on Halloween of 1865.
All U.S. Colored Troop regiments were officered by white men, putting an inevitable racial tinge on the inherent potential tension between enlistees and their commanders — the triggering event in our story. Heading the Third was a fellow named John L. Brower, Lieutenant Colonel by rank courtesy of his political connections but of nearly no actual military experience.
Ohio National Guard Judge Advocate General Kevin Bennett, in his 1992 article about the mutiny,* calls Brower a “martinet”; elevated to command of the Third on September 12 for what should have been a mostly ceremonial interim, Brower delighted in enforcing stringent wartime discipline months after Appomattox. While no man welcomes the taste of the lash when he’s one foot out the door back to civilian life, excess discipline meted out by cruel white overseers was particularly bad form for Colored Troop regiments.
From the standpoint of black Americans, the war had been all about destroying slavery; they had practically had to force this objective, and their own presence,** into the conflict. Being strung up by the thumbs for petty theft — Brower’s decreed punishment for one of his charges on October 29 — was far too evocative of the hated Slave Power.
“Inexperienced officers often assumed that because these men had been slaves before enlistment, they would bear to be treated as such afterwards,” one white Colored Troop commander later remembered. “Experience proved to the contrary. Any punishment resembling that meted out by the overseers caused irreparable damage.”†
The inclination of black troops to reject servile treatment and the anxiety that this provoked among their officers and the larger white community must surely be read in view of the perplexing new conditions following the Civil War.
Even among whites who supported it in principle, slavery abolition meant an unsettling and uncertain rearrangement of civilization — or at least, it potentially meant that. Would the economy continue to function without slavery? Would the daily conventions and assumptions that had sustained whites north and south have to be entirely renegotiated?
“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship,” Frederick Douglass had proclaimed. Now that the war had finished, what else did those musket-toting sable fellows think they had earned the right to?
Press reports over the course of 1865 show a continuing theme of “Negro mutinies”: it is for wiser studies than this post to determine whether the trend such stories represent is disturbances among the black soldiery, or an exaggerated preoccupation among their white countrymen. In either event, Jacksonville was very far from unique even if the punishments were exemplary.
From the June 16, 1865 Cleveland Plain Dealer, concerning black soldiers on a steamer bound for Texas calling at Fort Monroe who, chagrined at the assignment, refused to permit the steamer’s resuming its journey.
From the June 19, 1865 Philadelphia Inquirer, concerning a company refusing to embark for Texas. “Certain evil disposed persons put it into the heads of these credulous colored soldiers that they were to be sent to Texas as servants for the white troops,” runs the report. “Doubtless some secret enemies of the Government instilled similar subtle falsehoods into the simple minds of the blacks who were disarmed at Fortress Monroe a few days ago.”
From the September 30, 1865 Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), concerning a mutiny reported near Hilton, N.C.
From the Oct. 1, 1865 Daily Constitutionalist (Augusta, Ga.), reporting a disturbance begun when a black regiment demonstrated against a court-martial for one of their comrades accused (and acquitted) of stealing a hat.
In the midst of all of this — right about the time of the incident in this post, in fact — bulletins reached American shores of the Morant Bay Rebellion, a bloody rebellion of black laborers in British-controlled Jamaica. Slavery had been abolished on that Caribbean island more than 30 years prior: what did that uprising augur for the races in these United States?
Subtext becomes text: the Norwich (Conn.) Aurora, December 23, 1865. “The African released from restraint, and the passion of the savage provoked, will realize the scenes formerly witnessed in Hayti.” (The full article (pdf))
For our case, the name of the man punished like a slave is lost, but we do know what he did: steal some molasses from the kitchen. That’s how six of his comrades ultimately wound up looking down the barrels of their executioners.
A Lt. Greybill caught the greedy nosher and decreed a rough summary punishment, which the arriving Brower arrived helped to enforce on the resisting prisoner. “Tying up by the thumbs” was a brutal and humiliating treatment that lifted the man by those digits (often dislocated in the process) until only his toes remained on the ground, barely supporting his weight, and left him there for hours. In the film 12 Years a Slave, we see a man subjected to this sort of tiptoeing, but with a rope about the neck instead of about the thumbs.
Other enlisted men gathered around this pitiful scene, complaining about what they saw. A Private Jacob Plowden, who will eventually number among our day’s six executees, cried out that “it was a damn shame for a man to be tied up like that, white soldiers were not tied up that way nor other colored soldiers, only in our regiment.”
Plowden announced that “there was not going to be any more of it, that he would die on the spot but he would be damned if he wasn’t the man to cut him down.” Another private, Jonathan Miller, joined the incitement — “Let’s take him down, we are not going to have any more of tying men up by the thumbs.” A number of the black soldiers, 25 to 35 or so, began advancing on Brower and the hanging molasses-thief. Brower drew his sidearm and fired into them, wounding a man and sending the soldiers scurrying — some dispersing, but other dashing off to tents to arm themselves.
Several non-lethal fights now occurred in various spots around the camp between soldiers and officers, and eventually between the disaffected soldiers and arriving brethren from Company K, who had been summoned to calm the situation.
Lt. Col. Brower exchanged shots with several of the men who armed themselves, and in a bit of symmetry with the distasteful punishment that had started the whole mess, he had his thumb shot off in the process. One of the privates who had been heard complaining of the thumb-hanging, now playing peacemaker, grabbed the injured officer and escorted him to a safe building, warning some men who tried to pursue them to “stop their damn foolishness.”
Elsewhere, a Lt. Fenno sabered a protestor, and got bashed over the head with a fence-post in response. Neither injury was life-threatening to its recipient. Some shots were exchanged elsewhere in camp and/or fired demonstratively into the air, again to no fatal effect. And a Private James Thomas cut down the post where the source of all the disturbance, the fellow who just wanted an extra ration of molasses, was hanging.
This was the whole of the commotion, which Company K reinforcements soon quelled.
In a speedy series of court-martials lasting from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, thirteen men were convicted of mutiny in this affair, and a fourteenth of conduct prejudicial to good order (his offense: not during the mutiny but after all was over, saying of Brower, “the God-damned son of a bitch, he shot my cousin. Where is he? Let me see him.”) A fifteenth man was acquitted. All 15 accused mounted their own defense, without counsel or aid — generally endeavoring to show that they had either not armed themselves or (and this was the decisive factor for the six whose conviction carried a death sentence) not fired their weapon.
The trial itself posed interesting procedural dilemmas, which Bennett explores at length in his article: first, because it was a mutiny case, the white officers of the Third who comprised the jurors were also, awkwardly, the brother-officers of the witnesses who testified against the mutineers.
And second, although the Civil War was over, Florida still technically remained in a state of rebellion, and this enabled the unit to convene a general court-martial, issue death sentences, and even carry them out without allowing any appeal to Washington. General John Foster gave the final approval to the sentences and transmitted case files to Washington after the fact; that was all the six condemned had by way of legal or executive review.
On December 10, he received a telegraph ordering him to suspend one of the death sentences in response to an inquiry raised by U.S. Senator Edgar Cowan: Cowan had been contacted by one of his constituents, who represented that Private David Craig, whom the constituent had raised from childhood, had written him complaining of his wrongful conviction. According to Sen. Cowan, the allegation was that Craig had been directed to collect arms from the mutineers as the disturbance came to an end, but was thereafter arrested in the confusion for being armed with the weapons he collected. But December 10 was nine days too late, and the late Private Craig’s case file disturbingly seems to have been lost from the National Archives.
The other five shot by musketry this date were:
Lt. Col. Brower only testified at one of the courts-martial, and was sent home almost immediately afterwards. He’d lost his thumb for his adventure as an officer and a gentleman, but between the original provocative punishment that he helped enforce, and then inflaming a tense situation by shooting at his soldiers, the brass was probably just as pleased to see him go as were his subordinates.
The non-executed mutineers who received prison terms (up to 15 years) had their sentences commuted following a review in 1866. The rest of the regiment mustered out as scheduled at the end of October, two days after the Jacksonville Mutiny.
* B. Kevin Bennett, “The Jacksonville Mutiny”, Civil War History, Volume 38, Number 1, March 1992. Bennett’s article is the source of all of the quotes in this post not otherwise cited.
† See here for a fascinating instance of this at sea in June 1865, by the author of Becoming American under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era