Saturday, February 7, 2015
10th Cavalry Regiment
Violence in the South was not confined to organizations such as the Sons of the Confederacy. Often, they were spontaneous riots of civilians in poorly garrisoned regions. One of the larger riots struck Jackson, Mississippi on August 8, 1918. One of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s pet projects was the establishment of schools for the children of former slaves. Even in States were Free Blacks were allowed to live, they were seldom allowed an education. In almost all cases, any education took form in what would now be called home schooling.
More than three thousand of Jackson’s White population showed out in protest, surrounding the refurbished barn on the outskirts of town that would serve as a school. With an unemployment rate of upwards to 25%, much of the city’s population had nothing better to do with their time than to heckle Northern institutions. Within this protest were members of the Mississippi Home Guard, an organization similar to the Sons of the Confederacy, though focusing more on racial purity than simply killing Yankees.
The MHG planned to torched the new school during an incited riot. It was hoped that the law in the city would either be too busy trying to reign in the rioters or be sympathetic to the Guard’s cause. What they did not intend was for a company from the 61st Ohio Guard to appear in the city. Upon hearing of a fomenting riot, the commander of the company had his unit surround the school. Over the menacing crowd, Captain Ed Howards ordered the crowd to disperse. Even as his machine gun squads began to set up the tools of their trade the crowd did not back down.
In hindsight, it was a very foolish move. The former Confederacy was under martial law and Mississippi was no exception. If anything, it was stricter than and in Alabama than any other occupied States. Howards had hoped to break it up peacefully, a hope that was shattered along with a bottle full of gasoline hurled at one of the company’s vehicles. Sensing it was under attack, the company opened fire on the crowd of civilians, killing two hundred seven of them.
It was a step to maintain order too far. Northern newspapers, long since supporting Reconstruction and the punishment of the South, denounced the Jackson Massacre and its butchering of unarmed civilians. Unfortunately, not a single Home Guard member was found among the dead. The official response from the Roosevelt Administration was that if rioters did not wish to be shot then they should behave themselves. Behind the scenes, he sought for means to prevent excessive violence. Bringing the South back into the Union was hard enough without a civilian populace completely hostile towards it.
The 10th Cavalry Regiment, the famed and feared Buffalo Soldiers, back on their horses occupied a piece of Mississippi centered around the small town of Tupelo. For many in the regiment, it was a homecoming of sorts. Of these soldiers, Captain Hiram Wellington returned to a land he had not seen in twenty years. He was born on a plantation not far from Tupelo in 1874. In 1889, he managed to successfully runaway from his plantation. After a hair raising odyssey northward, he managed to cross the international boundary and reach the land of liberty.
Though Kentucky was one of the United States, its government and elite were not overly fond of Blacks, especially escaped slaves. Populated largely by pro-Union Southerners who relocated north after the States’ War, the White populace saw him as trouble. The Black population saw him as competition. After two years working odd jobs, he enlisted in the Army where he was assigned to the “all-Black” 10th Cavalry. In 1891, only the enlisted personnel were all Black. It was not until the Great War, when NCOs earned battlefield commissions did Black soldiers become officers.
Wellington was one such man, earning a commission in early 1916, seven months after being awarded the Silver Star in the previous year. By the time Tennessee surrendered, Wellington earned the rank of Captain, the highest rank any Black soldier could achieve at the time. In command of a cavalry regiment, he helped confiscate plantations and free slaves, including the home of his former owner, Jonathan Wellington. Wellington, the White Wellington and his family left Mississippi after losing much of their wealth, opting to start over in Chile. Hiram Wellington led the eviction of his former owners, one of the high points in his life.
After the riot in Jackson, the Secretary of the Interior and the Attorney General urged Roosevelt to remove the 10th Cavalry from occupation duty. They feared the political firestorm that would erupt if Black soldiers were forced to gun down unarmed White civilians. Roosevelt conceded the point yet refused to simply yank the 10th off the lines. The unit held an exemplary war record and to pull them off duty would be bad for troop morale. He sought a means of getting them off the front lines of Reconstruction while saving face.
He came up with the idea of converting the 10th Cavalry from horses to engines. The Great War saw the armored vehicle supplant the horse and most cavalry units were gradually transition to mechanical mounts. He decided to convert the 10th. His plan met with resistance in the War Department with the Secretary of War reminding the President that an armored vehicle was considerably more sophisticated than a horse. The War Department and Army remained skeptical whether or not Black soldiers could handle machinery.
Roosevelt countered with examples of intelligent Blacks, such as George Washington Carver, a man who was born a slave and became one of the premier minds of the Union’s Black community. If a Black man could claim a number of inventions then surely one could be trained how to maintain an engine. Even with this argument, he still agreed to give the 10th the simplest of the armored vehicles, the M3 Jackson scout/light armored vehicle.
Withdrawal from Mississippi and redeployment at Fort Knox for training on the M3 was played for all its propaganda value. In the United States, ones ability counted for far more than one’s race, ethnicity or legal status upon birth. A few editorials, such as one in the New York Times, pointed out the timing of this reassignment. For the Freedmen of the South, it was sign of hope. One could achieve anything in the United States. Unfortunately, for them the United States was not Alabama or Georgia but Illinois, Ohio and New York. This reassignment saw the start of a gradual movement of the Black population northward.
Towards the end of his life, Wellington dictated his memoirs to a former reporter of the Chicago Tribune. Being born a slave and educated later in his life, Wellington was only semi-literate. He could read orders as well as any soldier though his writing skills were sorely lacking. His book ‘Born a Slave and Died Free’ was published posthumously in 1931.