The Battle of Louisa, August 8-9, 1864
What Led So Many Men to Desert the 39th?
John Britton Wells III, co-author of The 10th Kentucky Cavalry: May’s ~ Trimble’s ~
Diamond’s “Yankee Chasers”, mentioned an incident involving the 39th Kentucky Mounted
Infantry and the 109th U. S. Colored Infantry Regiment, both of which were combat units of
the United States Army during the War Between the States. Much of the following information
comes from an article written by Mr. Wells and published in The Rebel Yell: The Eastern
Kentucky Brigade Newsletter in March of 1996.
During the Summer of 1864, the 109th Regiment of U. S. Colored Infantry was formed
in Nashville from refugees fleeing the Confederate-controlled areas of Tennessee (Dyer’s states
that the unit was formed in Louisville, Kentucky). The 109th contained in its ranks both
freedmen and newly emancipated slaves as well as the refugees mentioned above. Many of the
109th’s soldiers were freed by their masters specifically to fight for the Union and to thereby
gain their freedom. This was but one of many units similarly formed. In all, nearly 170,000
black soldiers served in the Union Army. The official record indicates that only 800 were
accounted for who were actually incarcerated in Confederate prisons.
The black soldiers had much more at stake than their white counterparts in the Federal
Army. When they were captured by Confederate forces, they were often executed on the spot
as they were at Saltville, Virginia, and a number of other battlefields far removed from the
mountains (Jasper County, MO; Poison Springs, AR; Milliken’s Bend; Fort Pillow; etcetera).
They were not often accorded the same treatment as white Federal soldiers when captured. In
fact, the attitude prevalent among many of the South’s politicians, generals, and other persons
of influence was that when Confederate troops captured black soldiers “in arms,” they were to
be given no quarter, even if they were freedmen. Evidence of this attitude is not hard to find,
and I’ll refer the reader to The Official Record of the War of the Rebellion, and to Lonnie
Speer’s book, Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War, which details the experiences
of black POWs in chapter six. On the opposite side of the field, at Saltville the black soldiers
in Burbridge’s expedition were in the van of the attack and the rear-guard in the retreat of the
Federal forces, in effect suffering the brunt of the fighting and the most casualties of any of the
Union units involved in the fighting. The Federal commanders used the colored troops as
cannon-fodder before feeding their white troops into battle.
Before completing its organization, the 109th Colored Infantry was ordered to march to
Louisa, Kentucky, and within a week had arrived during the daylight hours of the 8th or 9th of
August 1864. Before coming into camp, the proud black soldiers fixed their bayonets, dusted
off their new blue coats, and formed up some 800 strong behind the regimental band.
What happened next is still a bit unclear, but John Wells presents it something like this:
The Kentucky and Virginia mountaineers who made up the 39th Kentucky Mounted Infantry,
seeing something they didn’t like, grabbed for their rifles without orders from their officers.
Jimmie Epling, Jr. believes that the 109th was issued the new Sharps’ Repeating Rifle, and that
the men of the 39th were jealous that they were still required to use the Enfield single-shot
muzzle-loading rifle. The 39th was a veteran unit and its members may have felt slighted when
they saw the 109th, a brand new regiment, equipped with the latest in armaments. On the other
hand, perhaps it became very clear to the men in the regiment that the war was being fought to
free the blacks. It is necessary for the reader to understand that racism was the rule and not the
exception in nineteenth-century America. Though the idea has been disposed of since the war,
it was commonly held by both Southerners and Northerners that the black man was the inferior
of the white man in most every aspect.
Insults filled the air and were soon followed by a “devastating volley of fire,” which
ripped into the ranks of the black troops. The “Unionist” mountaineers of the 39th Kentucky
had fired on the black troops of the 109th Colored Infantry. White troops in blue had fired on
black troops in blue. Mr. Wells’ account alleges that a minor battle broke out as the black
soldiers attempted to return fire.
When the smoke had finally cleared and the officers had their men under control,
fifteen of the new recruits from the 109th lay dead and “unknown numbers” lay wounded on
both sides. After a close inspection of the regimental roster, I was unable to find any casualties
in the 39th from this date in the Kentucky Adjutant General’s Report to support this contention,
but that does not mean that the incident did not occur.
Why would white Union soldiers fire on black Union soldiers? Wells provides that,
“East Kentuckians were fighting for East Kentucky and the preservation of the Union - nothing
more, but certainly nothing less” (4), and elsewhere, “They never envisioned a war to change
the social and racial status quo in the mountains” (3). Indeed, Mr. Wells has identified what
set the mountaineer-soldier apart from his lowland counterpart: The mountaineer fought for
more immediate and personal reasons. Few of these mountaineers had any stake or interest in
the cause for emancipation. Few, if any, of them supported abolition, and certainly a precious
few felt that it was a cause worth dying for. “They reflected the racism of the day,” states
Wells, “an attitude prevalent in both the [N]orth and the South.” Unfortunately, our
modern-day emphasis on “political correctness” often causes us to view other cultures distant
in time and place with an inappropriate set of standards. An excellent example is the
modern-day perception of President Lincoln. Time and the political climate have drastically
altered the public understanding and perception of this very controversial man.
The mountaineer-soldier fought to defend his home and family. He fought to protect
his “holler” and his kin. Most of them simply wanted to be left in peace to farm their small
plots of corn and tobacco, and to hunt game in the rough hills of Kentucky, West Virginia, and
Southwest Virginia. Some Kentuckians and Virginians undoubtedly joined because their
ancestors had served in the Revolutionary War or The War of 1812. Some joined one side or
the other for revenge. Andrew Baker and his four brothers joined the 39th Kentucky late in
1862, shortly after the murder of their father by Confederate deserters. Others joined because
they were tired of having their livestock and their crops stolen.
John Wells mentions that Rebel Bill Smith was able to recruit an entire battalion from
deserters from the Union Army following the “Battle of Louisa,” but it must be pointed out
that a majority of the soldiers in the 39th chose to stay with the regiment. Those who chose to
stay apparently didn’t have a problem with fighting side-by-side with the black regiments. If
emancipation did bother them, they didn’t feel strongly enough about it to join the Confederacy.
However, a significant minority felt so strongly about the idea of fighting to gain emancipation
for the blacks that they each chose to change their allegiance: between 130 and 150 deserted
from a total strength of at least 600 to 800 in the wake of this tragedy. The rest of Rebel Bill
Smith’s recruits must have come from other Union units which may have witnessed,
participated in, or heard about this racially-motivated battle.
I have a strange feeling that this was not an isolated incident. I am fairly certain that the
same reaction was experienced almost everywhere black soldiers were lined up with white
soldiers. Although I am sure that it was a rare occurrence when blood was shed, I don’t
believe that this occurred only here in Eastern Kentucky and nowhere else. Perhaps this was a
bit more common in the ranks of the Federal Army than we are led to believe.
Robert M. Baker
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