Strother and the 1st New York Cavalry on African-American Conscripts in Winchester

Posted on June 14, 2014 by


David Hunter Strother

David Hunter Strother

I’ve been enjoying myself much this morning by reading through David Hunter Strother’s coverage of events from March to June 1864. Whenever I read Strother, I’m never disappointed at his observations and what he is thinking. That said, I’m pretty sure if I actually had the opportunity, this guy would be at the top of my list among persons out of history, with whom I’d like to spend an afternoon (if not several, actually) with, chatting.

Anyway, though I’m not hitting the dates of his thoughts on the actual Sesqui, I’m playing catch-up, and will comment accordingly.

So, for starters, consider his entry on April 8…

A Negro regiment was stationed in Winchester to recruit and conscript all the Negroes about there. Returning to Martinsburg they were attacked by bushwhackers and resisted with spirit. At length they met with a scout of the 1st New York Cavalry and, their blood being up, they opened on it. The New Yorkers tried to convince them that they were friends, but being unable to stop the fire they returned it, killing and wounding some of the Negroes. During the fight, all the conscripts obtained at Winchester ran away. In Martinsburg the Negroes then went around searching houses to find Negro men for recruits, taking them by force. Ed Pendleton his man and armed himself to resist the search of his house…

Since I’m rather interested in the 1st New York because of their participation in the Shenandoah Valley through a good deal of the war, I’m keen on the resources for the unit. I wanted to zero-in on anything that might be said by one of the members of that unit. My findings… though William H. Beach (The First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry) mentions nothing of this incident, Capt. James H. Stevenson (in Boots and Saddles A History of the First Volunteer Cavalry of the War, known as the First New York Lincoln Cavalry…)

Of the incident, Stevenson recalled (and that it took place on April 3):

The first regiment of colored troops that I ever saw passed our camp about that time (April 3, 1864), on their way up the Valley, for the purpose of conscripting negroes for the service.

As they passed up they met one of our scouting parties returning, and took them for rebels. The negroes got behind fences, and our boys “went for them” and one of the “darkeys” was severely wounded, and the rest of them badly scared, before the matter as properly understood. The negroes in the Valley took to the Blue Ridge to escape the draft…, which didn’t look very patriotic, to say nothing of ingratitude.

I’d be curious to see what some folks think of this, especially for those who have a rather static view on the soldiers of the USCT and their “enthusiasm” for enlisting… not to mention the opportunity, via enlistment, to “get back” at those who held them in bondage… and wanted to keep them as such. I doubt this was a reaction seen only in the Shenandoah Valley, but, at the same time, I’m sure there were, in fact, those who did enlist just for those very reasons.

Just as much as there is a diverse range of reasons behind why men were in the ranks of the Confederate army (volunteers and conscripts), certainly we should understand the same for the Union army… and that the USCT was no exception to this, as well.

William W. Averell

William W. Averell

This all said, we also need to understand David Hunter Strother’s views on African-Americans and the war. Did he give a nod of understanding to what the New Yorkers encountered that day? Interestingly, back in March, Strother, in conversation with William W. Averell, heard Averell express his thoughts on the USCT. Strother recalled:

He (Averell) thinks the enlisting and killing off of the Negroes will help to solve the question of the African in America… Party spirit is rampant now and everything succumbs to it. All this will pass away some day and with peace the empire of reason will again return. When that will be, God knows.

I’m not positive, but it seems as if Strother, in the second part of that statement, beginning with “Party spirit”, is suggesting that there was what some might call a climate of “political correctness” (I’m struggling for another phrase, because I detest how the label “PC” is used… indeed, overused and misused… by many) that seemed to pervade, thanks to the spirit behind the “Black Republicans” (understand, I use this phrase only as a way to illustrate how many in the South saw the Republican agenda at the time… and the the phrase was a common one used even before the war). Furthermore, is Strother forecasting the way of things to come, after the war?