Sgt. Lewis P. Cleaveland, 55th USCI

[Photo credit: Officers 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, Fort Slocum, April 1865, Library of Congress.]

 

Chicago Daily Tribune
June 30, 1864

THE STURGIS DEFEAT.

Further Particulars of the Rout – Horrors of the Retreat – Narrative of an Officer of the 55th Colored Regiment.

[Correspondence Chicago Tribune.]
CAMP 55TH U.S. COLORED INFANTRY,
FORT PICKERING,
MEMPHIS, Tenn., June 24, 1864

Editors Tribune:

I wish to give you some particulars of the defeat and disastrous rout of our forces in the late expedition under Gen. Sturgis – particulars that fell under my own observations, for I was in the midst of them during their occurrence. [We pass over the account of the march of the army from Memphis to Guntown and commence with the action. – ED.]

On the 10th, the skirmishing in front became quite severe, but our cavalry slowly drove the rebels back, until they arrived within about two miles of Guntown, when their defense became more obstinate, and and our cavalry was compelled to fall back. Co. Hoge’s brigade of infantry being in the advance was immediately ordered to the front on a double-quick, and the day being very warm, many became over-heated and exhausted and were compelled from faintness to lie down by the roadside. I have it from the lips of those who were in this brigade, that not more than two-thirds of their men reached the battled-field. As soon as this brigade had formed in line of battle the rebels came down upon them with great fury in three lines of battle, They withstood this impetuous and overwhelming force bravely for over half an hour, when the enemy performed a flank movement, and their only alternative was to retreat or be captured. By this time, however, the 2d Brigade had arrived, and was brought immediately into action, and were successful in checking he assault of the enemy and in holding him at bay for nearly an hour. In the interim the train had been hurried up and corraled in an open filed not more than half a mile from the battle-field. The 3d Brigade (colored) had in the morning been disposed along the train, four men to each wagon, as a guard; as fast as this brigade could be assembled by companies they were ordered to the front, and were soon confronting the enemy in deadly conflict.

By the time this brigade had all arrived on the field, the other brigades were fleeing to the rear in considerable confusion and disorder, many throwing away their arms and accountrements before thy were fairly out of sight of the enemy.

As soon as the panic was discovered the train was ordered to retreat; but almost as the enemy’s artillery had attained almost a perfect range of the field where the wagons were corraled and the road upon which the retreat was ordered, many of the teamsters unhitched their mules, and soldiers, mounting them, rushed frightened and panic-stricken to the rear, their pace being somewhat accelerated by the close proximity of shot and bursting shell. In this way the road became blocked, and at least two-thirds of our supply and ammunition train was wither destroyed or captured. The 3d brigade held the enemy in check until the most of the artillery and the remainder of the train had succeeded in getting a mile or so to the rear; but they were soon overwhelmed and flanked on the three successive lines of battle and were compelled to retreat precipitously.

By this time our army was in a perfect rout and every one who was no disabled rushed to the rear, while many of the wounded who could ride were mounted on mules with difficulty pressed their way along with the crowd. Night now coming on, the enemy ceased their pursuit. Never was darkness more welcome or distance more enchanting to the view than to that devoted army on this occasion.

It is impossible to give anything like a correct estimate of the number of killed or wounded in this engagement, as they nearly all fell into the hands of the enemy. It is supposed, however, that they will number over five hundred. Our loss in prisoners was considerable, as many of our men, after becoming panic-stricken, rushed to the woods in all directions, and were gobbled up by the rebel cavalry.

What was left of our army continued their march all night long, and what remained of our artillery and train becoming blocked and stuck in crossing the Tallahatchie River, was abandoned.

About six o’clock the following morning we reached Ripley and found that our fleeing forces had halted apparently for a rest. Every man appeared to be going on his own hook, and caring for no one bu himself. We had been here scarcely more than an hour when an ominous firing was heard on the south and east of the town, showing that the enemy were still in hot pursuit. At this indication the most of the cavalry started to the rear together with the infantry, who were without arms or ammunition, and the wounded who were mounted. That portion of the infantry who retained their arms prepared for resistance near the center of the town. On came the rebels with the most hideous yells, and a severe fight ensued, which lasted nearly two hours, when our forces were completely routed and driven to the woods. While fighting at this place, large numbers of men and women secreted in the houses fired upon our men from the doors and windows, and Colonel McCraig, of the 120th Illinois, was shot dead in this manner while bravely urging on his men. Our men becoming enraged at the sight of this, poured a volley among them, killing and wounding several women. After this engagement, our forces made no resistance as a body, but kept constantly retreating and skirmishing. I would say, however, that the 3d Iowa cavalry made themselves very useful as a rear guard, and would complement their coolness and bravery amid the heat and excitement of this disastrous retreat. The appearance of the road over which we retreated but too plainly indicated how serious was this disaster. It was completely lined with hats, boots, shoes, coats, saddles, and harness, while there was no end to arms and accoutrements.

The men would pick up old horses and anything that was ridable, and mounting it, would soon ride it down and leave it by the road-side; another man being almost exhausted, seeing the animal, would mount it again, and by the assistance of a stick or spur would urge it along for a mile or two further, until finally the animal would drop by the road side and was then left to die. In this manner the greater portion of what was left of our army fled for two days and nights without food or sleep, and reached Memphis on Sunday, the 12th, having performed a march of 120 miles in that time, which required ten days to accomplish when going out. Every day since, the men have been straggling in, and the experience of some is almost heart-rending. A colored man from my own company, who reached this place last evening, reports that he and two others were captured by the rebels near Lagrange, Tenn., and were tied together with a rope, and then shot. His two companions fell dead, while he was only wounded in the left arm, and by a dexterous movement slipped the rope over his head and miraculously escaped to the brush while they were fairing at him. This is but a single instance among many that might be mentioned.

To the colored troops this has been but a re-enactment of the Fort Pillow massacre. Reports reach us from all quarters, of the brutal murder of our colored soldiers and their officers, who had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the enemy. That our government does not institute retailiatory measures for such barbarous treatment of its soldiers, is becoming the wonderment of all, and of vital interest to the officers in our colored regiments.

These troops, in the late expedition, were under the command of Col. Edward Bouton, of the 59th U. S. Infantry, and received many compliments from white regiments for their bravery and unflinching obstinacy in repelling the enemy while on the retreat from Guntown, As a general thing the colored soldiers retained their arms and accoutrements, and many a white soldier has said since our return that he owed his escape to the colored troops.

Yours truly,

L.P.C.

 

*Col. Edward Bouton commanded the 59th United States Colored Troops

 

 

Return to Their White Officers for more letters written by the men who led
Black soldiers in the United States Colored Troops

 

 

Share this on: