Headquarters 27th Regt. U.S.C.T.
Camp Near Raleigh, N.C., April 26, 1865
Mr. Editor: On the 20th of this month I, together with some of our boys, went on a foraging expedition. We had travelled some twenty miles when we came within two hundred yards of the main line of works of the rebel Gen. Johnston. We immediately came to a halt and lay down, and soon after spied three rebel officers coming out on the road towards us. We then made our way into a swamp not far off. They proved to be Gen. Johnston and members of his staff. He (Johnston) is a man weighing, I should suppose, about one hundred and eighty pounds, has a large head and a very small neck. He was laughing at the time, and seemed to be in the best of spirits.
We lay in our position all night, and just at break of day we started for our camp, coming in contact with rebels about 11 o’clock a.m., who told us to surrender. We told them to hold on, and at the same time poured a volley into them, killing four, the rest taking to the woods.
On the 22d inst. we were on grand review through the City of Raleigh before Gen. Sherman. The 27th and 6th Regiments were highly complimented by him. He said we drilled as well as any troops he had ever seen. He never thought colored troops could do so well.
Nineteen-year-old John Mansel enlisted into Co. I of the 27th United States Colored Infantry (USCI) in August 1864. Although he was born in Ohio, his parents moved to the state sometime before 1840. His father John was born in Kentucky and his mother Elizabeth originally hailed from Virginia. The elder Mansel worked as a drayman in Springfield, Clark County, where he owned his home, and by 1850 the family included three children.
Private Mansel, who signed his name on his enlistment papers, worked as a barber before he mustered into service for a one-year term. In March 1865 officers promoted the Ohioan to corporal. According to his military records the rest of his service were uneventful. Yet Mansel’s report to The Anglo-African provides an eye-witness account of the last days of the war that we rarely have the opportunity to consider.
In February, the 27th USCI became part of Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry’s Provisional Army Corps, and by mid-March had left the Wilmington area to join Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s last campaign. The regiment served under Bvt. Maj. Gen. Charles J. Paine, as part of the Third Division, First Brigade. At the end of the month, after hearing about the “wanton destruction” of private property by Paine’s men, Terry warned Paine to stop the excessive foraging. For the next several weeks the Black troops guarded the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad with no incidents with locals or Confederate soldiers.
On April 2, the 27th became part of the Tenth Corps. They continued to serve as guards after they joined Terry’s march toward Raleigh; they arrived outside the city on the 14th. Meanwhile Sherman closed in on Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. They met on April 17, and then again, on the next day near Durham Station. There the officers agreed to “a suspension of hostilities.” Although Secretary of War Edwin Stanton later refused Sherman’s offer (the next attempt on April 26 was accepted), while they awaited word on the acceptance of Johnston’s surrender, on April 19 officials released General Field Orders, no. 15. It stated that “No more animals or subsistence stores will be taken from inhabitants without the special direction of division or corps commanders. Guards will be . . . instructed to arrest all men out of camp without authority.” By this time, the news of Lincoln’s assassination had permeated the Union camps, causing some soldiers to become “crazy with vengeance.” And word of Johnston’s surrender further disillusioned those men serving in the Confederate forces, which contributed to increased desertions.
The same day, Terry ordered his Second and Third divisions to take the train to Raleigh so that they could be reviewed by Sherman on April 20. This is when John Mansel’s story to The Anglo-African supposedly begins, but his dates do not match official reports or multiple other accounts.
It is unclear who Mansel accompanied or followed when he went on his foraging expedition; there are no reports from any officers of the 27th about such a mission. They did record Sherman’s review of the Ohio regiment on the 20th though. Then on April 21 the general reviewed the Twenty-third Corps, and on the next day he reviewed the Twentieth Corps.
Had Mansel and some other soldiers gone out on their own after the review against orders? It seems more likely that he meant the 18th, which was before the results of Sherman’s meeting and the stronger restrictions concerning the appropriate treatment of locals and their properties. Also, on April 19 Corp. James E. Scott wrote to his parents that “we eat the Rebels chickens and Bacon and flour and molasses and Bigst turkeys and geas, and Burn thare houses.” And although Mansel failed to report if or what the foraging party obtained, no men from the 27th USCT were punished for their actions as a result of an April 22 inspection where officers in the Raleigh area “rigidly inspected” the “trains, camps, quarters, and knapsacks of troops.” After more complaints of excessive scavenging, they were looking for “unauthorized property in the hands od the men, such as ladies’ wearing apparel, watches, jewelry, shotguns, silverplate, &c.”
Other parts of Mansel’s story though seem to be more accurate. Johnston’s location at the time matches Mansel’s foraging trip route. The observation of the general’s ability to laugh during the last days of the Confederacy was also noted by Sherman when he gave testimony to the Committee on the Conduct of War a month later. He recalled how at the meeting on April 17 that “Gen. Johnston laughed at the folly of the Confederate Government in raising negro soldiers.” And Sherman later corroborated his own compliment when he recalled his review of the Tenth Corps, writing that he was “much pleased at the appearance of General Paine’s division of black troops, the first I had ever seen as part of an organized army.”
The 27th USCI left Raleigh on April 29 and spent the next five months supporting occupational duties in North Carolina. John Mansel served his last weeks as a volunteer soldier in the regiment’s commissary. When his term expired in September, Mansel returned to Ohio, where he collected the remaining two-thirds of his $100 bounty and exchanged his infantry uniform for his barbering clothes. We can only wonder if and how many times he retold his story about his experiences during the last days of the Confederacy.