The Assault on Private Berry Brown: Civilian Violence Against The USCT

ECW welcomes guest author Hugh Goffinet

Battery Sherman, Vicksburg, Mississippi. Library of Congress.

During the War of the Slaveholder’s Rebellion, thousands of regiments served both sides of this defining conflict in United States history. Enthusiasts often remember more famous combat units such as the 20th Maine, 1st Texas, and even the 54th Massachusetts, however, often ignored are the regiments that saw far less action than the above named units. One such military organization is the 5th US Colored Heavy Artillery, which garrisoned the defenses of Vicksburg, Mississippi for its entire term of service. Despite its limited combat experience, the 5th played an incredibly important role for the United States military by providing security for a continually important supply depot and self-emancipated Black Americans in a hostile territory. Few knew just how hostile the Vicksburg, Mississippi area was than Pvt. Berry Brown of the 5th USCHA’s L Company.

On December 20, 1865, Major David Cornwell of the 5th US Colored Heavy Artillery writes a report on the attempted assault on a Black member of his command by a White Vicksburg resident. Cornwell’s report reads as follows:

Statement of Private Berry Brown Co. “L” 5 U.S.C.A.H.

I was coming a cross the road up toward the country and three white men were going along the road, one of them was ahead of the other two. And as I crossed the road he tripped me up. I then  got up and asked him what he meant by tripping a person up when he was not meddling with him. He then said “you god damn black yankee son of a bitch I will cut your damn guts out” and drew out his knife. He further said “in a few days we will have you just [as] we want you. The yankees can fool us now, but in a few days we will have you just as we want you.” The orderly sergeant came down to see what the fuss was about when he commenced cutting at the orderly sergeant. One of the boys then knocked him down with a brick, and he got up and came after me again and then I knocked him down with a brick.

The above statement is partly verified by Sergeants Morgan West and Bracey of Co. D

These men then attempted to arrest him and several whites tried to prevent it one of the White men told one of the soldiers for his Confederate to knife him. The result was that a White person was knocked by soldiers. In the [meantime] the parties had worked their way fairly in town and were getting wound up when Lieut Peasley came along and put a stop to the fuss.

My private opinion is that Brown would have been justified in making a [hole] in the villain that drew the knife up on him and I can only account for their forbearance from the fact that Colored soldiers although insulted daily by white villains are [illegible] severely punished for any difficulty which they may be led into.

While I shall endeavor to teach the [illegible] men of the Regiment to avoid if possible difficulty with the citizens. Yet I will at the same time teach them never to do so at the expense of their dignity and [manhood] and to the disgrace of the uniform they wear.

I am Cap’t

Respy your obedient servant

  1. Cornwell

Maj 5 U.S.C.A.H Comdg Regt

Fifth USC Arty (Heavy)

Vburg Miss Dec 20th 1865[1]

As for who “Private Berry Brown was,” the writer’s best guess from the Descriptive Books of the 5th USCHA’s Company L is a certain 22 year old named Benjamin Brown. Pvt. Brown was 5’2.5” and from McIntosh County, GA. He enlisted in Vicksburg, MS at the tail end of the conflict on January 17, 1865 for three years and was married at the time of enlistment.[2] Brown appears on the 1910 census as a resident of Vicksburg, married to a Sallie Brown of South Carolina. Together, the couple had 11 children with 8 still surviving by the time of the 1910 census.

The rest of Brown’s story is a mystery, however, even with the limited information available, one can assume two things. The first being that Pvt. Brown is a survivor of the domestic slave trade and the second is that he is a survivor of the Vicksburg Massacre of 1874[3]. All these assumed aspects of Brown’s story, combined with the recorded elements of it sheds a very impressive additional light on the victim of this heinous act that occurred in December of 1865.

As addressed earlier, Black units, such as the 5th US Colored Heavy Artillery, that saw little to no action during the course of the war often receive very little attention from scholars of the conflict for a number of honest reasons. However, these units that spent their entire service in garrison faced unimaginable hardships including horrific rates of disease, inadequate housing, abusive leadership, and hostile White community members. The servicemen of the 5th USCHA were a diverse group of individuals, whether it be age, occupation, or place of birth, who collectively shook up racial norms for the era by rallying around the flag of the United States and taking up arms against the people that had held them in chains. Pvt. Brown’s story is just one example of the radical change that the blue uniform of the US Army brought to the 200,000 Black men who wore it.

Hugh Goffinet is a student at Howard University where he studies both History and Africana Studies. He has been a student of Civil War Era history for nearly a decade, and focuses primarily on the Black experience during the conflict. Hugh’s guiding principles in exploring these unique stories is to combine principles from both History & Africana Studies to uplift Black voices in a manner that remains true to them and their experiences.


[1] Regimental Letter Book 5th USCHA, Dec 20, 1865, Record Group 94, Records of the Attorney General Office, NARA 1, Washington DC

[2] Regimental Descriptive Book #2 5th USCHA, Record Group 94, Records of the Attorney General Office, NARA 1, Washington DC

[3] A Reconstruction era racial massacre on December 7, 1874 in Vicksburg, MS in regards to the Black community working to reinstate their Black Sheriff after he was ousted by a White Supremacist coup.

7 Responses to The Assault on Private Berry Brown: Civilian Violence Against The USCT

  1. Excellent post. The violence perpetrated against Union civilians and soldiers involved in Reconstruction is another facet of history awaiting thorough analysis.

  2. Why are people so surprised at violence in this context? It was a civil war, if for reasons we find abhorrent. Do you expect old attitudes to change overnight? To many broken and angry white southerners, these were just members of an occupation force. Frankly, I am more annoyed at how poorly black servicemen were treated in Australia and Great Britain by fellow white servicemen when they were all together to fight a greater tyrrany.

    1. Even if we may not be surprised, it is still worth noting these accounts and highlighting primary sources. They add context to what cities controlled by US troops were like and foreshadow the violence during Reconstruction. White southerners were often more enraged at USCT men than they were at white US troops. Additionally, they often pushed back more against black troops, verbally or physically, because they believed it was less likely that they would be punished than if they assaulted white troops. They were often right.

    2. As Jon so eloquently stated, I certainly hope no-one was surprised by this quote considering violence against Black Americans is as much of a theme in US History as almost any other. However, what I do hope this article accomplishes in the minds of readers is highlight the radical social transformation the US Army provided for Black Americans as well as their resiliency as human beings. The idea that a formerly enslaved man had the power to raise his hand against a White man in Mississippi in 1865 would have been unimaginable to him just a few years earlier. Thanks for reading and adding your voice, John!

  3. Appreciate this contribution to the Emerging Civil War blog. It’s great to read about what was going on at places once the main belligerent armies had moved on or weren’t ever there.

    Many USCT served out their war as garrison troops in Louisiana and Mississippi. Key points and fortifications needed to be held once they had been taken. The fight at Milliken’s Bend jut across the river being an example of accomplishing such an assignment.

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