When individual choice and voluntary enlistment procedures failed to meet enrollment goals of white officers of the black regiments, escaped slaves arriving behind Union lines were sometimes forcibly enrolled in USCT regiments. Many of the former slaves “recruited” by Montgomery enrolled voluntarily, but others were coerced into joining his regiment. In the letter below, Montgomery says he “resorted to the draft.” This practice was also followed by officers in the other USCT regiments.
James Montgomery to Mrs. George Stearns
“Your very kind favor found me on a sick bed, but I am happy to inform you that I am now able to be about and improving in strength daily: Indeed, I feel as well as ever.
“My regiment is not yet full. It numbers, now, about five hundred men and is making a very steady growth. Finding it somewhat difficult to induce the negroes to enlist, we resorted to the draft. The negroes vindicate their claim to humanity by shirking the draft in every possible way; acting exactly like white men under similar circumstances. Hence, I conclude, they are undoubtedly human. The only difference that I notice is, the negro, after being drafted, does not desert; but, once dressed in the uniform of a soldier, with arms in his hands, he feels himself a man; and acts like one. At Key West, where I recruited a hundred and thirty men, I found the Colored men very intelligent; and there every man volunteered. The draft was unnecessary. I would say, here, that I put on them the full uniform of a soldier: nothing fantastic, or in any respect differing from the uniform of other soldiers.
“My Florida expedition has not been very correctly reported; and, since you seem to find so much interest in the matter, I will relate it as it happened[:] The expedition consisted of black troops under command of Colonel Higginson of the 1st South Carolina Regiment; and numbered, in all, including the skeleton 2nd Regiment, about nine hundred men. My men (120) were raw recruits, and received their arms at the mouth of the St. Johns River, where they were allowed to fire a few shots, to get the use of their guns.
“Next day, March 10th, we landed at Jacksonville, under cover of gunboats, Norwich, Uncas, and John Adams. My command was assigned to picket duty, on the Rail Road, west of Jacksonville, where we had some skirmishing during the day; the enemy keeping at long range. That evening we went out some distance on the Rail Road, and destroyed a culvert to prevent the enemy from running troops, suddenly, on us at night.
“(3/11) Next morning, at 9 o’clock, while I was engaged in consultation with Col. Higginson, in town, my men were attacked, in front, by a squadron of Mounted Carbiniers, and in flank, by a body of Infantry. After a sharp conflict, the officers finding themselves about to be surrounded, ordered a retreat.
‘I met the men just as the retreat was beginning to degenerate into a rout. They rallied promptly, at the order, and I led them back into the fight; when, the enemy, in turn, retreated; and we reoccupied the ground from which we had been driven.
“At this stage of the fight, the Gun Boats opened in splendid style, throwing their shells over our heads, and hurrying up the retreat of the enemy, most beautifully.
“We lost one man killed, and two wounded, one severely. The enemy confessed to a loss of one man (Dr. Meredith) and three horses killed. They speak, in their reports, of capturing a sett of ‘surgical instruments which showed signs of recent use.’ This is slightly an error. They lost a sett, and we have them now.
“After this, I made a trip up the river. I landed with seventy five men at Orange Mills, and I covered the country on the east bank of the river, up to a point nearly opposite Pilatka, where we camped for the night. Next morning, early, while the men were preparing their breakfast, I ran over to Pilatka in the transport (Gen Meigs) with fifteen men to bring off a colored family (Free) said to be there. Just as we were landing, and when half our men were on the deck, we were fired on by two companies of guerillas concealed in the houses, which appeared to be deserted.
“We replied with shells, from two light pieces, and soon drove them from their shelter. Lt. Col. Billings of the 1st Regiment, and his servant, who happened to be with us, were both wounded, the servant mortally. I expected Col. Higginson up, next day, with his regiment to occupy the place, and, therefore, did not burn it. On my way down, I stopped at Doctor’s Lake, and made an expedition inland, with twenty five men on a night drive.
“We captured a Lieutenant, and 14 men with their arms: (15 Enfield Rifles) two mules, two wagons, and 4000 lbs. Cotton besides a large lot of negroes; and next day evacuated Jacksonville in obedience to orders.”
From the George L. And Mary E Stearns Papers