“The Camp of Skulkers and Cowards.” In October 1864, the colonel commanding the main black Civil War regiment I’ve been researching openly shamed 23 of his men as cowards and relegated them to a pariah camp. I recently uncovered his directive, issued in the aftermath of the bloody Battle of New Market Heights, where the regiment had been in the forefront of the uphill charge. The officer, Joseph B. Kiddoo, said the men “Straggled and Skulked and played the coward in the late battles and some of them actually ran away while their brave comrades were fighting the enemy.” The accused had survived prior traumatic combat at Petersburg, where at least one had been wounded, but Kiddoo gave them no quarter. “All good soldiers should frown upon them with that contempt due to their cowardly conduct,” he decreed. “It is therefore ordered that these men be placed in the rear in a camp by themselves called the Camp of Skulkers and Cowards and that they do all the fatigue duty of the Regiment till it again moves against the enemy when an opportunity will be given them to retrieve their lost honor.” Their opportunity came a month later, at the Second Battle of Fair Oaks. The regiment (the 22nd U.S. Colored Troops) assaulted Rebel entrenchments and suffered “heavy slaughter,” losing more than 100 killed or wounded. A quick check of regimental records showed two of the “skulkers” among the wounded.
Book Progress. I've signed my book contract with Sunbury Press, and am still gathering last-minute information to plug into the manuscript. Two weeks ago I attended the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference, in Cambridge, Md., where I learned more tidbits and got a tip that sent me back to the National Archives in D.C. (where I came upon the "skulkers and cowards" edict). Meanwhile, my book maps are all in hand, as are the rights to 80 illustrations I'll be submitting to Sunbury. And I've gotten an eminent testimonial. Sherman Wooden, head of the Center for Anti-Slavery Studies, read the manuscript and deemed it "a research gem."
Sedition, Part II. Let me close with another nugget about The Chicago Defender. Last month I told you how, as World War I was beginning, the Post Office complained that the black newspaper's coverage of a brutal lynching undermined the war effort. The government actually threatened to shut the paper down under sedition laws. Well, it turns out the same thing happened during World War II. I've read farther into an important new book about The Defender and see that, in 1942, the paper's coverage of discrimination against black soldiers was called unpatriotic and "close to being seditious" by U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle. Just as in World War I, the publisher called the government's bluff and kept on reporting the unpleasant truth.