“They Will Charge to the Cannon’s Mouth:” A Story of the 3rd United States Colored Cavalry

ECW welcomes back guest author Jeff T. Giambrone

(Editor’s Note: the primary source contains the historic use of a racial slur.)

The 3rd United States Colored Cavalry bringing Confederate prisoners into Vicksburg. (New York Public Library)

I have been reading the wartime issues of the Vicksburg Daily Herald for years, but despite all the time I have spent on this task, I still manage to find new and interesting information that I have never seen before. Recently I ran across the following brief article in the July 29, 1864, edition of the Herald:

LACONIC – The other day we were handed, by a clerk in the post office, the following laconic verses written upon the envelope of a letter for a certain individual hereabouts:

Go, you old ugly letter,

The quicker you make the trip the better,

To Co. H, 3d Colored Cavalry,

 

Who are at Vicksburg, Mississippi,

Charley and I were in the Mo. 7th,

Until last October, 11th,

 

Then he went to conscript nigger,

And re-enlisted where pay was bigger;

I got discharged in ’64,

 

But Charley is fast for three years more,

Now I will put this in the mail,

Send it to Lester, without fail,

If I find you did not – darn you,

The wrath of John shall fall upon you.[i]

These few lines of verse struck a chord with me, as the 3rd United States Colored Cavalry is a unit I have researched in the past. They were the only Black cavalry regiment raised in the Magnolia State and were originally known as the 1st Mississippi Cavalry, African Descent. The mobility afforded them by their horses meant they were often used in raids and scouting efforts into parts of Mississippi that were still under Confederate control and they saw extensive combat as a result.

My curiosity aroused, I decided to see if I could figure out who had written these verses and for whom they were intended. The second part was easy; the writer gives the name of his friend as “Charley,” and in a later verse stated “Send it to Lester.” I figured that the intended recipient of the letter was Charley Lester, and a quick trip to Fold3.com, a military genealogy website, confirmed my hunch was correct. Using the site I consulted the digitized Union service records and found Private Charles N. Lester in Company I, 7th Missouri Infantry U.S. He enlisted June 3, 1861, in Chicago, Illinois, for a three year term of service.[ii] Lester may have joined a Missouri unit because at the time of his enlistment, the quota for all of the Illinois regiments had been filled.[iii]

The 7th Missouri Infantry U.S. served in Brig. Gen. John D. Stevenson’s Brigade, which was part of the Third Division, Seventeenth Army Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson. The 7th Missouri saw heavy action during the May 22, 1863, assault on Vicksburg, having 9 men killed and 93 wounded in a furious charge on the Great Redoubt.[iv]

After the siege ended, the 7th Missouri was put on occupation duty as provost guards in Vicksburg, a job they continued for almost a year. While Lester was serving in Vicksburg the recruitment of African Americans for the Union army kicked into high gear. All of the commissioned officers in Black regiments were white; some of the non-commissioned officer positions went to white soldiers as well. In his service record, Lester is listed as “On detached service in 1st Miss Cav., by special order No. 266” for the muster roll dated November – December 1863. He continued on this special duty until March 7, 1864, when he was discharged to enlist as 1st sergeant in Company H, 3rd United States Colored Cavalry.[v]

During his service with the 3rd Cavalry, Lester saw plenty of action as the regiment was constantly on the move, taking the war into Confederate-held Mississippi. The new soldiers acquitted themselves well against the enemy and their exploits made many in Vicksburg take notice. In the October 13, 1864, edition of the Vicksburg Herald, the paper ran a complimentary article titled “The ‘Black Horse’ Cavalry,” about the regiment’s recent raid into Wilkinson County:

We learn the black horse cavalry (U.S. 3d colored) under their gallant leader Maj. Cook, captured the three pieces of artillery which were brought here as the trophies of the late fight near Woodville, Miss. It has been the custom of some ‘white folks’ to underrate the courage of the negro soldiers; but we have heard officers and men of white commands who have been in action with the 3d colored cavalry say that they are as good fighters as there are in the U.S. army, and under the lead of the chivalrous Cook they will charge to the cannon’s mouth.

The next month the 3rd Cavalry cemented its reputation as a hard-fighting unit when it took part in a raid on Vaughan’s Station in Madison County, Mississippi. The target of the expedition was a Mississippi Central Railroad bridge that crossed the Big Black River. The railroad was a major source of supplies for the Confederates in central Mississippi, and taking out the bridge would be a significant blow against the Southern war effort in the state. The only problem was that the bridge was well defended and any attack on the structure was liable to be a very bloody affair. In his history of the 3rd United States Cavalry, Edward Main, an officer in the regiment, wrote of just how difficult a target the railroad bridge was:

The railroad bridge over Big Black river was situated four miles below Vaughan Station. The Third U.S. Colored Cavalry, Major Cook commanding, was sent to destroy the bridge. This bridge was situated in an almost impenetrable swamp, and was inaccessible except over the narrow railroad track, which was broken at intervals by open trestle-work. From the nature of things the use of artillery was impracticable, leaving no alternative but a direct charge over the railroad ties and trestle-work. The bridge was defended by a large force of infantry, at least one regiment, who were strongly posted in stockades on both sides of the river, and from which they could concentrate a deadly fire on the bridge and its approaches without exposing themselves to danger. The position was considered well nigh impregnable. Two previous attempts by some of the best troops in the department had failed to dislodge the enemy and destroy the bridge. That these assaults had been desperately maintained and the bridge heroically defended, its blackened and bullet-torn timbers attested.[vi]

Map of Central Mississippi showing the location of the Big Black River Bridge, about 9 miles north of the town of Canton. (Library of Congress)

The assault on the Big Black River railroad bridge was going to take a determined attack; fortunately the Union high command in Vicksburg had picked the right man for the job. Major Jeremiah Cook, commander of the 3rd Cavalry, was a very determined man. The Vicksburg Herald wrote a detailed account of the assault on the bridge which took place on November 27, 1864:

Major Cook had orders to burn this bridge, and when he is told to do anything, he does not know how to keep from doing it to save his life! He advanced his men down the track, throwing a company on either flank in the swamp below. At some distance from the bridge the skirmishers engaged, and the bank of the river and the first stockade was gained only by sharp fighting. Repeated volleys failing to dislodge the enemy from his stockade on the opposite bank, Major Cook formed three companies on the trestle work, and with only the railroad ties for a path, charged and carried the stockade under a heavy fire, the enemy only retiring when Maj. Cook’s advance was almost within the works. Being heavily reinforced from Way’s Bluff Station, one mile distant, the enemy advanced to recover the lost ground, but despite their efforts, they were beaten back. Brush and dry wood were collected, the bridge and trestle work were fired, and the wind favoring, the whole of the trestle work and the greater portion of the bridge were destroyed, repeated volleys from our men keeping the rebels at bay.[vii]

Fortunately Charles Lester survived the attack on the Big Black River Bridge and was able to bask in the glory that came to the 3rd Cavalry for their successful mission. Soon after their return to Vicksburg, Major Jeremiah B. Cook was promoted to lieutenant colonel, with the commission dated November 27, 1864, the day of the successful attack on the bridge.[viii]

Photograph taken at Vicksburg of Lieutenant Colonel Jeremiah B. Cook, who led the 3rd United States Colored Cavalry in a successful attack on the Big Black River Bridge. (Library of Congress)

In the course of my research, I tried to determine who wrote the verses on the letter that was sent to Charles Lester. The only clues were that the person had the first name “John,” and he was a member of Company I, 7th Missouri Infantry U.S. with Lester. I searched the service records of Company I, and found 12 men with the first name John. I was able to eliminate all but three: 1st Lieutenant John K. Aldrich, Private John Goddard, and Private John S. Lingrel. All three men served with Lester and mustered out of service on June 14, 1864, which matches the information in the verses on the letter. Unfortunately I was not able to find any additional facts so which of these soldiers was the writer remains unknown at this time.[ix]

Charles N. Lester mustered out of the army on August 4, 1865. He returned home to Kewanee, Illinois, where he lived the rest of his life. When he died on August 21, 1935, his local newspaper noted that after his death there were only two Civil War veterans still living in Kewanee.[x] Lester is buried in Wethersfield Cemetery and has a military tombstone, but it only lists him as a veteran of the 7th Missouri Infantry U.S. There is nothing to indicate that he once served in the 3rd United States Colored Cavalry, a regiment willing to “charge to the cannon’s mouth.”

Jeff T. Giambrone is a native of Bolton, Mississippi. He has a B.A. in history from Mississippi State University and an M.A. in history from Mississippi College. He is employed as a Historic Resources Specialist Senior at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Giambrone has published four books: Beneath Torn and Tattered Flags: A Regimental History of the 38th Mississippi Infantry, C.S.A.; Vicksburg and the War, which he co-authored with Gordon Cotton; An Illustrated Guide to the Vicksburg Campaign and National Military Park; and Remembering Mississippi’s Confederates. In addition, he has written articles for publications such as North South Civil War Magazine, Military Images Magazine, Civil War Monitor, and North South Trader’s Civil War Magazine.


 

[i] “Laconic.” The Vicksburg Herald, July 29, 1864.

[ii] Compiled Service Record of Charles N. Lester; 7th Missouri Infantry U.S., accessed on Fold3.com, May 6, 2020.

[iii] Piston, W. and Sweeney, T., 2009. Portraits of conflict. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, page 248.

[iv] Bearss, Edwin Cole. The Campaign for Vicksburg. Vol. 3. Dayton, OH: Morningside, 1986, pages 820-821 & 867.

[v] Compiled Service Record of Charles N. Lester; 7th Missouri Infantry U.S., accessed on Fold3.com, May 6, 2020.

[vi] Main, E.M., 1908. The Story of the Marches, Battles and Incidents of the Third United States Colored Cavalry, Louisville, KY: Globe Company, pages 200-201.

[vii] “Daring and Successful Raid.” The Vicksburg Herald, December 7, 1864.

[viii] Compiled Service Record of Jeremiah B. Cook; 3rd United States Colored Cavalry, accessed on Fold3.com, November 12, 2021.

[ix] Compiled Service Records of John K. Aldrich, John Goddard, and John S. Lingrel; 7th Missouri Infantry U.S., accessed on Fold3.com, May 8, 2020.

[x] “Two Veterans Left.” Dixon Evening Telegraph, August 22, 1935.

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3 Responses to “They Will Charge to the Cannon’s Mouth:” A Story of the 3rd United States Colored Cavalry

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    A lovely read, and an informative piece. It is so nice to begin to separate out individuals. Thanks for your work.

  2. darylmcdonald0208 says:

    This is certainly a fresh and fertile area for emerging research and writing too often overlooked in the past. Well done! Thank you.

  3. Scott Shuster says:

    A very interesting article! Thanks for your efforts to bring these lesser known actions to our attention.

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