150 years ago on October 13, John Bell Hood’s campaign through North Georgia reached the edge of Dalton, a town the army knew very well from their stay there the previous winter. The Dalton they found little resembled what they had left as the Atlanta Campaign began: the town was largely abandoned and with warehouses of supplies. Most striking was a garrison made up largely of a regiment of runaway slaves, the 44th United States Colored Troops. The 44th had been recruited earlier that year in Chattanooga, consisting mostly of escaped slaves from the North Georgia area.
The vanguard of the Army of Tennessee arrived at Dalton late on the morning of October 13 and surrounded the town. The Union garrison pulled itself into an earthen fort built upon high ground on the east side of the town, and a grim site developed in front of its ramparts. Confederate artillery deployed on the heights east of town, and thousands of Infantry filled in all space around them.
Shortly after, a message was delivered to Colonel Lewis Johnson, commander of the 44th and the garrison. “I demand the immediate and unconditional surrender of the post and garrison under your command,” the note said, “and should this be acceded to, all white officers and soldiers will be paroled in a few days. If this place is carried by assault, no prisoners will be taken. Most respectfully, your obedient servant, J.B, Hood, General.”
In fact Hood didn’t need to state his dire threat of no prisoners. Word was already running through the Confederate ranks: “Kill every damn one of them.”
Johnson really had no choice. His garrison of 751 men and two cannon were no match for the 20,000 men and 30 cannon Hood placed around them. Johnston surrendered his command, and he and his men were made prisoner.
This event represented the first contact the majority of the Army of Tennessee had with what was considered by many Southerners as a nightmare, armed former slaves. Indeed, one Confederate officer, Lt. Spencer Talley of the 28th Tennessee related, “We took the white men as prisoners but the negroes were taken as livestock or other property. The separation of these white officers from their negro commands was an interesting as well as a sickening scene to our southern boys. The white officers in bidding farewell with their colored men showed in no uncertain way their love and devotion to the colored race. Their hearty handshakes and expressions of sorrow over their separation will never be forgotten. It was also a part of our business to tear up the railroad and burn the bridge at the place. So we marshalled this body of negroes out to the railroad and piling the crossties, while the crossties were burning, the rail were laid across the heap and when hot, strong men would take hold at each end and rush against something solid, and so bend the rail.”
However, things didn’t go smoothly everywhere. Private William Bevins of the 1st Arkansas remembered, “The prisoners were put to work tearing up the railroad track. One of the negroes protested against the work as he was a sergeant. When he had paid the penalty for disobeying, the rest tore up the road readily and rapidly.”
One of the 44th’s officers, Lieut. Morris Hall, wrote, “I heard all manner of comments upon myself . . . . The terms of surrender were these, the officers to retain their private papers and baggage and side arms and be paroled and the men to be treated as prisoners of war. Whatever this may have meant before signing we soon found out that the (Confederates) expected to make the men do their drudgery, work on their fortifications and trenches, carry their baggage, etc. . . . I and all my brave boys were turned over to the tender mercies of a bitter, relentless foe, and yet this was doubtless for the best, for it saved a massacre of as bad a character as Fort Pillow, as a share of Gen. Hood’s troops were just thirsting for our blood . . . . As soon as the terms of surrender were made known my men flocked around me and asked if I thought their lives would be spared or they would be murdered as they knew at Fort Pillow. Of course I could not answer them positively but quieted their fears as much as possible and told them that they would be more likely to kill me than them.”
Although no massacre took place, some men were killed after surrender, as Pvt. Bevins noted. Other cases of abuse occurred, and constant threats were issued forth as the prisoners were forced to move off with the army. Within days, notices were appearing in Southern newspapers announcing the capture of “negroes” at Dalton—they were never referred to as “soldiers”—and for the owners to come claim them. Those not taken back into slavery stayed with the Army. A few managed to escape, some simply disappeared, and the rest were taken with the army to do a number of tasks, eventually set to work repairing railroads in Mississippi as the army moved into Tennessee.
Thus the first encounter of the Army of Tennessee ended with a rather dark tone. Their second meeting a number of weeks later on the windswept hills around Nashville would turn out differently.