Robert Scott Davis teaches at Wallace State College, Hanceville, Ala. A longer version of this article appeared as “A Story of Two Soldiers: Colonel Lewis Johnson and Private Hubbard Pryor of the 44th United States Colored Troops in Chattanooga, Dalton, and Nashville,” Chattanooga Area Historical Journal 15 (Winter, 2012): 7-24.
Editor’s note: Second of two parts
With recruitment complete by Sept. 16, 1864, Col. Lewis Johnson and his 44th United States Colored Troops Regiment became the permanent garrison of Dalton, Ga.
On Oct. 13, 1864, Gen. John Bell Hood’s Confederate armies, having given up Atlanta, passed around the federal lines and reached Dalton en route to Tennessee. Johnson’s black soldiers wanted to fight, especially out of fear for what might happen to them as prisoners.
They skirmished with and inflicted at least nine men killed and 20 or more wounded upon the advancing Confederates who took two hills that commanded the blockhouse.
This confrontation between 40,000 white southern troops and the 600 black and 150 white federal soldiers abounded in irony. At Dalton, nine months earlier, Gen. Patrick Ronayne Cleburne had publicly called for granting freedom to slave families whose men enlisted in the Confederate army.
Members of the 44th had previously gotten into a shouting match with Arkansas rebels en route to Atlanta for exchange for white federal soldiers. Cleburne now consented to allowing those Arkansas troops to lead the charge against the 44th. Gen. Hood demanded that these black soldiers surrender and offered to parole the white officers and announced, as he had to the white garrisons along his route, that if he ordered an attack, his men would take no prisoners of either race.
Johnson, with 751 men, 650 muskets, and two heavy guns in a redoubt, now faced down an immediate Confederate force of some 25,000 men with two batteries that totaled 30 guns and which commanded his position. With odds overwhelming and fearing a massacre, his officers were unanimous in urging him to capitulate.
Johnson finally surrendered despite the pleas of his black soldiers to stand and fight. The Confederates released most of the white officers. Two were reportedly executed.
Ragged rebel soldiers robbed their black soldiers of shoes, overcoats and hats, actions not taken with the white prisoners.
The African-American soldiers were put to work at tearing up railroad tracks. A black sergeant refused, and his guards killed him. Rebels executed five men for not keeping up with the march.
Some Confederates attempted to rush and massacre the black prisoners but guards intervened.
A Confederate newspaper reported, “If any of them [the black soldiers] should live long enough they will be reduced to their normal condition [as slaves].” Eventually 250 members of the 44th found themselves back with their former masters. Some 350 of their comrades were rebuilding railroads in Mississippi starting Dec. 1.
By the end of the year, 125 of these men were still alive but in desperate circumstances. They subsisted on only one pint of corn meal per man per day and a small portion of fresh beef once or twice per week.
Around May 1, 1865, after the Confederate armies had surrendered, the survivors were abandoned “in a sick, broken-down, naked and starved condition.”
With members not in Dalton, escapees and new recruits, Col. Johnson quickly created a new 300 man 44th. They arrived by train at blockhouse No. 2, near Nashville, along with the 14th United States Colored Troops.
Despite heavy fire, they managed to reach the blockhouse, but Johnson and his men had to fight from behind stumps and logs against incessant Confederate artillery fire that reduced the blockhouse to ruins. When night came, the federal soldiers fought their way to safety. Of the 227 men of the 44th engaged, nine died and 43 were wounded. Two officers and 37 men went missing.
The survivors made successful charges at Rains’ Cut and Nashville on Dec. 15 and 17 where they took a measure of revenge against Hood’s army and against cavalry responsible for the massacre at Fort Pillow.
Lewis Johnson received a brevet promotion to brigadier general of volunteers for meritorious service.
His involvement with black soldiers did not end with the war. He commanded “Buffalo soldiers,” the Native American name for the African-American units in the West, until he retired as a major in 1895. Johnson died on Sept. 23, 1900, and was buried in Jalapa, Mexico.
In October 2010, the Georgia Historical Society dedicated an historical marker to the 44th at Dalton. Former United Nations Ambassador and compatriot of Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, spoke at the occasion.
View the first part here.