The soldiers forming the garrison at Waterproof, at that time, were from a regiment raised by Colonel Eaton, superintendent of contrabands at Vicksburg. They were recruited in the vicinity of Vicksburg and Milliken’s Bend, especially for local defense. They made, as the negro everywhere has made, excellent material for the army. Easily subordinate, prompt, reliable, and keenly alert when on duty (as their shooting at me will evince), they completely gave the lie to the Rebel assertion that the negro would prove worthless under arms.
On one point only were they inclined to be mutinous. Their home ties were very strong, and their affection for their wives and children could not be overcome at once. It appeared that when this regiment was organized it was expected to remain at Milliken’s Bend, where the families of nearly all the men were gathered. The order transferring them to Waterproof was unlooked for, and the men made some complaint. This was soon silenced, but after the regiment had been there three or four weeks, a half-dozen of the men went out of the lines one night, and started to walk to Milliken’s Bend. They were brought back, and, after several days in the guardhouse, returned to duty. Others followed their example in attempting to go home, and for a while the camp was in a disturbed condition. Desertions were of daily occurrence.
It was difficult to make them understand they were doing wrong. The army regulations and the intricacies of military law were unknown to them. They had never studied any of General Halleck’s translations from the French, and, had they done so, I doubt if they would have been much enlightened. None of them knew what “desertion” meant, nor the duties of a soldier to adhere to his flag at all times. All intended to return to the post after making a brief visit to their families. Most of them would request their comrades to notify their captains that they would only be absent a short time. Two, who succeeded in eluding pursuit, made their appearance one morning as if nothing had happened, and assured their officers that others would shortly be back again. Gradually they came to understand the wickedness of desertion, or absence without leave, but this comprehension of their obligations was not easily acquired.
A captain, commanding a company at Waterproof, told me an amusing story of a soldier “handing in his resignation.” As the captain was sitting in front of his quarters, one of his men approached him, carrying his musket and all his accoutrements. Without a word the man laid his entire outfit upon the ground, in front of the captain, and then turned to walk away.
“Come back here,” said the officer; “what do you mean by this?”
“I’se tired of staying here, and I’se going home,” was the negro’s answer, and he again attempted to move off.
“Come back here and pick these things up,” and the captain spoke in a tone that convinced the negro he would do well to obey.