The AFRICAN AMERICAN Narrative in Civil War Arkansas, including the Slaughter at the Battle of Helena – Letter by 7th Rhode Island Infantry Officer Peleg E. Peckham – “IT IS A SAFE CALCULATION TO MAKE THE STATEMENT THAT ONE HALF OF THE NEGROES WHO AVAIL THEMSELVES OF THE PRESIDENT’S EMANCIPATION LEAGUE WILL NOT LIVE SIX MONTHS.” – At Helena “THEY WERE PLACED IN A RIFLE PIT BY OUR TROOPS & TOLD TO REMAIN THERE & FIGHT. THEY DID NOT UNDERSTAND THE MODE OR MANNER OF ATTACK, & THEIR OFFICERS LEFT THEM, TELLING THEM TO SHOOT EVERY REBEL THEY SAW UNTIL THEY GOT TO THE PIT & THEN RUN FOR THE SHORE. THE REBS CAME, THE NEGROES FIRED A FEW SHOTS WITHOUT EFFECT. THE REBS CHARGED TO THE BANK IN FRONT OF THE PIT & SHOT… THROUGH THE HEAD.”
This 4-page letter in ink is written on blue stationery. It is headed, “On Board Steamer David Tatum Opposite Helena, Arkansas Aug. 12th, 1863.” WHAT FOLLOWS ARE SOME AMAZING DESCRIPTIONS OF HOW THE BLACKS WERE TREATED IN ARKANSAS.
Peckham, a resident of Shannock Mills, RI., enlisted as a Sergeant in 1862 and quickly advanced to Lieutenant in the 7th Rhode Island. Writing his friend, Dave, here is the content:
- On Board Steamer David Tatum Opposite Helena, Arkansas Aug. 12th, 1863.
- Dear Friend Dave: Nothing to do but write, eat, drink, “Commissary,” play cards & sleep. The Campaign in Miss. is over at least so far as the 9th Army Corps is to participate for our Brigade, the rear guard is all on board the “David Tatum” & Little Tug Yankie, lashed together & steaming up the River at the rate of about 8 miles an hour & we make out to run, counting out accidents about one half the time that is we make about 100 miles a day & as it is six hundred sixty miles, it will probably take us seven days to get to Cairo.
- From the time we started, we have had a very rough campaign in Miss. I TELL YOU & THE LOSS OF THE 9TH ARMY CORPS IN THE TWO MONTHS SERVICE UNDER GRANT WILL BE AT LEAST SIX PERCENT IN KILLED & THOSE THAT DIE FROM DISEASE.
- 50 percent are now sick & no doubt one half of those will be discharged before November for disability. So at a less calculation than some place it. I THINK IT SAFE TO SAY THAT THE 9TH CORPS OF 8,000 MEN WHO CAME FROM KY. ON THE 7TH OF JUNE, WE WILL LOSE 2,000 MEN FROM THE RANKS AND OFFICERS. WELL WE HAVE GOT 9 FOR DUTY IN OUR REGT. OUT OF 26.
- Four are now absent on sick leaves and 2 more are going as soon as we arrive at Cincinnati, Ohio. “Played out.” OUR REGT. HAS BURIED 18 MEN SINCE WE LEFT KY.
- WE LEFT MILLDALE, MISS. AUG. 8TH & TODAY IS THE 12TH. FROM OF THAT, 18 HAVE DIED ON THE PASSAGE.
- Tom Ray Kenyon of Co. A died Aug. 9th of typhoid fever. WE BURIED HIM AT MIDNIGHT AT THE MOUTH OF THE YAZOO RIVER! Yesterday Wanton Austin Co. G, Wm. H. Spencer Co. B, & Benjamin Peckham of Company I died. WE BURIED THEM THIS MORNING AT 1 O’CLOCK AT THE MOUTH OF THE ARKANSAS RIVER IN ARKANSAS SOIL.
- WE ARE NOW COMING IN SIGHT OF HELENA, THE SCENE OF THE RECENT FIGHT, WITH PRICE & HIS MARAUDERS. We will probably tie up here tonight & remain until morning. And now what do you want to know most? I am sure I do not know what would most interest you. I suppose you want to know whether I got your letters or not. Yes, I did & right glad was I for I began to think you had forgotten “the Sergeant.” But one thing I have not got & that is the $10 from Joyce. He is out of money again & says I must wait until we are paid off again. I expect we will get paid off when we get to Cincinnati & as soon as he is paid, I shall politely ask for it & then I will send it to you immediately. I told Joyce I had been making a trade with you & that the money belongs to me, trusting I might get it sooner, but it was no use.
- He has taken a notion to be a little mean about it & he means to be. He talks of resigning in Oct. I hope to God he will for I think I should just about fill his place to the much better satisfaction of Col. Bliss or Arnold Hunt.
- Wiegand, Stone and Capt. Daniels with Lt. Col. Arnold will leave on absence at Cincinnati for 30 days. I was with them but somebody must remain here and it falls to my lot, of course.
- Lt. Stone is recommended for a Captaincy and his Com. will probably meet him in Cincinnati. Merrill Young & Parkins are to be 1st Lts. & orderly Cole of Co. B is to be a 2nd Lt.
- I HAD THE PLEASURE OF COMMANDING CO. B IN THE JACKSON FIGHT & HAVE SINCE. Capt. W. left for home July 3rd. Some think he never will come back. I hope not for he has done a year of good service & ought to be willing to resign & stay at home and give some one else a chance to fill a Captaincy. I like Co. B much better than I expected & I like to have my own way. I find quite a difference between com’g & being com’d. Besides it makes my pay $120.50 & as I am a little avaricious just now, why I feel a little better. Henry Gardner, Amos Lillibridge, & Perry & finally all of Co. A are well & with us.
- “CONTRABANDS,” WELL, THERE ARE ABOUT 20 WITH US, GOING UP TO ISLAND (NO. 10) TO DIE. YOU MAY THINK I AM TELLING A LARGE STORY THAT TWO THIRDS OF THE PLANTATION NEGROES THAT GO IN TO THE CONTRABAND CORPS DIE OF DISEASE WITHIN THE FIRST 3 MONTHS, BUT IT IS SO & FROM THE BEST AUTHORITY I CAN GET, 1/2 OF THE OTHER 3RD WILL DIE WITHIN THE NEXT 7 MONTHS AFTER…
- …and IT IS A SAFE CALCULATION TO MAKE THE STATEMENT THAT ONE HALF OF THE NEGROES WHO AVAIL THEMSELVES OF THE PRESIDENT’S EMANCIPATION LEAGUE WILL NOT LIVE SIX MONTHS.
- IT IS TRUE THE MOST OF THOSE WHO DIE ARE THE WOMEN & CHILDREN & I DO NOT FEEL IT IS ALL RIGHT & THE BEST THING COULD BE DONE WITH THEM FOR THEY WILL BE ANNIHILATED IN TWO GENERATIONS AND WILL BE NO LONGER HERE TO CURSE US WITH THE INSTITUTION OF SLAVERY.
- THE PAPERS TELL YOU THAT THE NEGROES FOUGHT LIKE HELL AT HELENA, BUT IT IS NOT SO. THEY WERE PLACED IN A RIFLE PIT BY OUR TROOPS & TOLD TO REMAIN THERE & FIGHT.
- THEY DID NOT UNDERSTAND THE MODE OR MANNER OF ATTACK, & THEIR OFFICERS LEFT THEM, TELLING THEM TO SHOOT EVERY REBEL THEY SAW UNTIL THEY GOT TO THE PIT & THEN RUN FOR THE SHORE.
- THE REBS CAME, THE NEGROES FIRED A FEW SHOTS WITHOUT EFFECT. THE REBS CHARGED TO THE BANK IN FRONT OF THE PIT & SHOT THE ACCURSED BLACK SONS OF HAM RIGHT DOWN THROUGH THE HEAD.
- WHILE THIS WAS GOING ON, OUR FORCES LAY UNDER COVER OF THE GUNBOATS. THE REBS SUPPOSING THEY HAD WON THE FIELD WHEN THEY HAD KILLED THE GREATER PART OF THE TWO NEGRO REGTS. WITHOUT WHITE OFFICERS ADVANCED TO A RIVER OR JUNGLE TO COME THROUGH & ADVANCE ON THE TOWN.
- Our forces made a flank movement at the same time, crossed the ravine near the river & came up in the enemy’s rear. When the gunboats opened on them in front & they were badly cut up, but THE NEGROES DID NOT HELP DO IT FOR THEY WILL NOT FIGHT. THEY ARE LIKE THE DAMNED COWARDS AND CANNOT BE TRUSTED. NEGRO SOLDIERS, HA! THEY ARE NOT SOLDIERS. THEY ARE LIVING TOOLS THAT WILL NOT WORK WITHOUT THE LASH NOR FIGHT WHERE DEATH IS TO BE FACED.
- THE NEGROES SUPERIOR INTELLECT, HIS TALENT MAY BE HELD UP TO THE END OF TIME, BUT IT WILL NEVER MAKE HIM WHAT HE IS IN STATURE, A MAN! But I am nearing the bottom of the page & so must close. I will write you as soon as I arrive in C. Hoping to hear from you soon. I am yours. Very Respectfully, Peleg E. Peckham
Lt. Peckham advanced from Lieutenant to Captain and to Major by Brevet. Before being killed In Petersburg, Va. just before the war closed on April 2nd, 1865. This is the only letter we have had discussing the plight of the Negro in Confederate Arkansas.
#L8-12-63RI – Price $1,295