The Third Cavalry
The Officers and Men of the 4th Illinois Cavalry organized the 1st Mississippi Colored Cavalry Later the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry Regiment into one of the most effective fighting forces in the Mississippi Valley The men of the 4th Illinois rode with the 3rd in many campaign's The Following is the life of Alfred Wood, 3rd Illinois Cavalry
By Bennie J. McRae, Jr.
Copyright 1993. LWF Publications. Posted from Volume 1, Number 1 of Lest We Forget.
Very little is known about the early life of Alfred Wood, except that he had been the chattel of a Doctor Wood. He was said to have been of Choctaw, Caucasian, and African ancestry. The Choctaw Nation once held a vast amount of territory in what is now the State of Mississippi, and when the white settlers began to migrate into and populate this area; many of the natives were driven westward. Alfred fell victim to the deplorable laws of southern slavery due to the African blood in his veins.
During his youth, Alfred became an expert horseman. Because of his ability, Dr. Wood entered Alfred in many of the racing events held annually in New Orleans. Because of his great skill as a horseman, Alfred won considerable notoriety as a jockey. Dr. Wood and Alfred had an unusual relationship with one another, a relationship that allowed the two men to engage in frequent and heated discussion about a variety of subjects, without Alfred feeling the wrath of his owner's temper. Because of the bond of trust they developed, Doctor Wood entrusted Alfred with many of the affairs of the plantation, and gave him privileges denied the other slaves.
Although Alfred had special privileges he had visions of a very different life. As the thundering booms of the Union guns shook Vicksburg, the bells of freedom began to ring more intensely in Alfred's heart. He lost all interest in the affairs of the plantation and began to develop plans for his escape to the Union lines.
The plantation was situated in a remote area, away from the active operations of the Union Army and accessible to Vicksburg only by boat. It was bounded on the west by the Mississippi River, and on the south by the Yazoo River, with many other streams and bayous in the vicinity. The country was patrolled very intensely by the Confederate Cavalry who watched closely for any slaves trying to escape.
Alfred felt that an escape would be more successful if he traveled alone, but he did not want to escape without his wife, Margaret. He knew that he faced many obstacles, including the ever-vigilant Rebel cavalry, and the bloodhounds he knew would quickly be on his tracks. Escape would be difficult. He made detailed plans, and one dark night mounted one of the plantation horses, with Margaret behind him, and they started on a very dangerous journey.
They abandoned the horse and sought safety in the swamps, until reaching the Mississippi River. They hid for a time, waiting for the best moment to try and board a steamer, which would be heading toward the Union lines. Finally an appropriate steamer took them aboard and they landed safely within the Union lines at Vicksburg.
Shortly after arriving in Vicksburg, Alfred secured employment as a body servant to Captain E.D. Osband, who commanded General Grant's escort, Company A, Fourth Illinois Cavalry. In October of 1863, the War Department gave the authorization to organize and recruit ex-slaves into the First Mississippi Cavalry Regiment (African Descent). Alfred's name was one of the first on its rolls and was detailed as an orderly at headquarters. Margaret, who was an outstanding cook, was put in charge of the culinary department. Margaret also tended to the sick and wounded. Nicknames were bestowed on both Alfred and Margaret. He was called Old Alf, and she became Aunt Margaret.
During the early days of the regiment, Alfred became a recruiter and was allowed to come and go at will. He was a keen observer of people, and made sharp and accurate perceptions about the motives of the people he met. While mingling with the people, he was often able to use his instincts to detect spies and traffickers in contraband goods.
On March 11, 1864, the First Mississippi Cavalry (African Descent) was re-designated the Third United States Colored Cavalry. Former officers of the Fourth Illinois Cavalry organized the regiment. The first commander was Lieutenant Colonel J.B. Cook. The majority of the enlisted men were ex-slaves from Mississippi and Tennessee.
Alfred was a superb horseman and became an expert rifleman. His skills were equal to, or better than, the best Union or Confederate scouts. Alfred possessed another skill that was extremely useful; he had a thorough knowledge of the terrain, roads, trails, rivers and plantations. This knowledge was of great value to the regiment in its frequent raids into the interior of the State of Mississippi.
During December of 1863 an expedition was organized to scout territory in Louisiana and Arkansas. The force was composed of detachments of the 1st Mississippi Cavalry and the 4th Illinois Cavalry. The expedition started from Shipwith's Landing on the east bank of the Mississippi River and debarked from a steamer on the Louisiana side, approximately 30 miles south of the Arkansas State line.
Alfred was disguised as a plantation slave, and his assignment was to gain information regarding the whereabouts and movements of the enemy. He was also instructed to proceed as far as possible into the interior during the hours of darkness, and communicate with as many slaves or escaped slaves as possible. He was to quiz them on what they knew, or could obtain, about the enemy's size and movement.
On his first mission, he slipped into the slave quarters of a large plantation and learned from a servant that the plantation owner was entertaining a contingent of Confederate officers. Alfred then spoke with another servant who was tending to the horses of the Confederates soldiers and from these contacts, gained a great deal of information. He set out with haste to report the facts to Major Chapin, the commander of the Union units. Many times Alfred came close to being captured, but always managed to flee the Confederates.
On one mission he was not quite so lucky and was captured by the Confederates. While being escorted, on horseback, to the Colonel, he distracted the guard by knocking him from his horse. Alfred spurred his horse forward, knowing the other rebels would quickly continue the pursuit. Fortunately, the road led through a densely wooded area with many abrupt curves. Alfred forced his pistol at one pursuer, who fell from his horse. The horse was frightened and followed Alfred toward a nearby ferry. Alfred scrambled aboard the ferry with the two horses (his own and the horse of the fallen pursuer) and crossed the river before the remaining cavalrymen could reach the bank. The ferryman was badly frightened by this ordeal, and afraid to face the rebels, elected to mount the captured horse and rode away with Alfred.
On another occasion Alfred was captured and there seemed very little chance of escaping. Before he was shot or hanged he addressed his captors by stating: "Bress de Lawd, ize don' got back wif my sure nuff friends. I thought fus dat youens wus some uv dem pesky Yankees what I done run all nite ter git way from." He was taken to the unit's commander, Colonel Montgomery, and when asked, told Montgomery what he wanted to hear, that the black men in the Union regiment would not fight. At first light, Colonel Montgomery prepared his command to march and predicted that he would wipe out the Union regiment in one day. Montgomery ordered Alfred to remain at camp and take care of his tent and extra horse.
Returning to the tent, Alfred located a pair of heavy revolvers, a saddle and bridle. The only persons left at the camp were the sick and convalescents and they were not astir so Alfred led his horse to the outskirts of the camp, mounted and rode in the opposite direction; riding hard and making wide detours. After reaching the outer boundaries of his own unit he was intercepted, and surrounded by a score of cavalrymen, with leveled carbines. The officer in charge ordered him taken to the commanding officer, under guard. He informed them of the Confederate movement. One unit was ordered to advance and meet the enemy, then fall back, leading the enemy into the clearing where other Union soldiers would be waiting.
When the Confederates entered the clearing they were shocked. The firing was heavy, and their ranks were broken. Retreating, they were shelled out of position. The Confederates, inspired by their hatred of black troops, fought hard and at times seemed invincible. However, the black troops were equally determined and displayed superior discipline under fire. They were victorious.
In the fall of 1864, the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry was part of a force sent to scout the country between Vicksburg and Yazoo City. This area was swarming with the Confederate cavalry. During the raid of 1864, the regiment found itself cut off and surrounded by an overwhelming enemy force. A defensive posture was taken and maintained for twenty-four hours, repulsing several desperate charges. The Confederates, in overpowering numbers and very confident of victory, could foresee a repeat of Fort Pillow. However, "Remember Fort Pillow" was also the battle cry of the black soldiers, and they became more defiant during each onslaught by the Confederates.
As ammunition and other supplies began to run low, plans were made to get volunteers to make an attempt to penetrate and slip through the rebel lines to reach the Union forces at Vicksburg. There were a number of volunteers, however, only Alfred and two other men were selected. They volunteered knowing that if captured certain death would be the outcome. Alfred was the only one of the trio to succeed; the other two brave soldiers were probably captured and killed.
Alfred groped his way among the Confederate dead and stripped the uniform from one of the bodies. After donning the Confederate uniform and taking the weapon and other equipment, he crept stealthily along gullies and washouts, often lying flat on the ground to avoid detection. He passed the first line of rebel sentinels and entered the camp without incident, moving silently among the sleeping soldiers until he reached the rear of the camp where the horses were stabled. Mounting a horse, Alfred rode into the night, avoiding the rebel pickets in an attempt to get to the Union Army at Vicksburg. He reached a Union cavalry unit, and gave the account and location of the besieged 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry. At first light, the boom of cannons and the yells of the Union Cavalry brought cheers and relief to the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry. The siege was over and the garrison relieved.
During the summer of 1864, Alfred had rescued a 14 year-old mulatto youngster, who gave his name as Robert Butler. Robert, or Bob, as he was normally called, was born and grew up in Maryland, near the National Capitol. He attached himself to the Twelfth New York Cavalry as a servant to an officer assigned to the regiment. Bob accompanied the regiment to New Orleans by steamer, and then continued up the Mississippi River to Vicksburg. The boy was separated from the Twelfth New York Cavalry and was searching desperately for the unit, when he was found by Alfred and escorted to the Third U.S. Colored Cavalry. He was given the nickname "Little Bob." He was said to have been remarkably bright and respectful to everyone, and was thought very highly of by all the officers and enlisted men of the regiment.
Alfred assumed the guardianship of Bob, who found a kind friend and second mother in Margaret, Alfred's wife. Bob became a waiter and assisted in the duties at the regimental headquarters' mess.
Colonel E.D. Osband, formerly of the 4th Illinois Cavalry, became commander of the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry in 1864. Alfred, Margaret and Bob remained with the regiment until the end of the war. The regiment was mustered out on January 26, 1866. After the regiment was mustered out, Alfred, Margaret, and Bob went to live on the Mississippi plantation of Colonel Osband. A few months later Colonel Osband became ill and died of what was described as a malignant fever.
Alfred, Margaret, and Bob moved to Arkansas to live on the plantation with Major Ed Main, formerly an officer with the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry. When Major Main established a business in Little Rock, Arkansas, Bob accompanied him. In Little Rock, Bob went to work at a hotel, and later secured a position with the Pullman Car Company. He saved and invested his money in a home, married, and became a noted citizen of that city. It is believed that Alfred and Margaret remained on the plantation.
Gladstone, William A. UNITED STATES COLORED TROOPS - 1863-1867. Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 1990.
Main, Edwin M. THE STORY OF THE MARCHES, BATTLES AND INCIDENTS OF THE THIRD UNITED STATES COLORED CAVALRY. Louisville: Globe Printing Company, 1908. Reprinted, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1970.
Wilson, Joseph T. THE BLACK PHALANX Hartford, CT.: American Publishing Company, 1890. Reprinted, Salem, New Hampshire: Ayers Company Publishers, Inc., 1992. (Reprinted from a copy furnished by the San Mateo County Library)