The 59th U.S. Colored Infantry

Claudine Burnett

Fighting for Freedom

Last year I wrote two articles about Bouton Lake, once a major source of water for Long Beach, upon which much of Lakewood sits. I wondered about the man who purchased the 7,136 acres of Rancho Los Cerritos land in 1887 and subsequently brought in one of the biggest artesian water wells in Southland history. If Civil War General Edward Bouton’s dream had come true as originally envisioned, the community of Lakewood would be known today as Bouton, but instead Bouton gave up his idea of forming a new city and instead went into the water business.

In looking through newspaper articles from the 1880s until Bouton’s death in 1921, his life and accomplishments are touted. He even wrote a book in 1906 “Events of the Civil War,” which is largely autobiographical, though others contributed their thoughts on Bouton’s career. Born in Avoca, New York, on April 12, 1834, Bouton started a grain business in Chicago in the 1850s and when the Civil War broke out, he sold his business and raised a battery which throughout the war was familiarly known as Bouton’s Battery, its official designation being Battery 1, First Regiment, Illinois Light Artillery. When President Lincoln authorized the use of African American troops to fight for the Union in 1863, Bouton was selected to head a unit and became a Colonel and commander of the 59th United States Colored Infantry.

On June 10, 1864, at the Battle of Guntown, Mississippi, Bouton proved that African American troops were as brave and loyal as any whites in the military. That fateful day, Bouton’s troops were guarding a long wagon train bringing supplies to the troops. Reaching the battlefield they found Union soldiers in retreat, pursued by Southern forces. Though outnumbered nearly eight to one, Bouton’s Brigade held the enemy in check, allowing the demoralized white troops to get away. At the end of this disastrous day Bouton gathered all the men he still had fit for duty, some 450, to defend the rear of General Sturges’ disheartened army. For two days, while under continuous fire, the African Americans held the Rebels, some 8,000 strong, from marching to Germantown, near Memphis, 81 miles away.

As Bouton’s Brigade advanced towards Memphis, they marched proudly some of them hatless and barefooted. They represented the remaining effective strength of some 13,000 Union men who had marched into battle 10 days earlier. The Union lost Memphis, but Bouton’s troops were not ready to admit defeat. Retreating to Pontotoc, they joined the 61st and 68th Colored Infantry totaling 1,835 enlisted men and 64 commissioned officers. This newly formed brigade, headed by Bouton, was only supplied with forty rounds of ammunition to guard the supply train and fight off opposing troops. They marched 22 miles in one day from Pontotoc to Tupelo, Mississippi, guarding a heavy supply train of three hundred wagons and fighting at the same time four distinct battles, each successful, and against superior odds. On July 14, 1864, the African American brigade kept the supply train and rail lines safe from the enemy and even drove the Southerners from a strategic ridge. With limited ammunition, they attacked with fixed bayonets. One man of the 59th was killed and 8 wounded; 6 killed and 40 wounded of the 61st; 1 killed and 6 wounded of the 68th. Though neither side could claim a clear victory, the Colored Infantry had succeeded in keeping the Confederates away from Union railroads in Tennessee and ensured the safety of Sherman’s supply lines during the Battle for Atlanta.

The Confederates were incensed at the Union arming blacks and concentrated their efforts in destroying what they were pleased to call “Bouton’s Nig****.” Many of the former slaves bore scars on their blacks inflicted by their present opponents, and were anxious for an opportunity to even the score. This feeling became more intense after the massacre of troops at Fort Pillow, 40 miles north of Memphis, a portion of whom belonged to Bouton’s command.

The Fort Pillow Massacre in Tennessee on April 12, 1864, in which some 300 Union soldiers, of which 200 were African Americans, were killed was one of the most controversial events of the Civil War. Of the 567 Union troops stationed at the fort, 70% of white soldiers survived, but only 35%  of African Americans. According to eyewitness reports, Confederates murdered Union prisoners, including the wounded, after the fort had been taken. But the massacre did not deter black troops from serving in the Union Army. “Remember Fort Pillow” became a rally cry for African American soldiers.

After the war, Colonel Bouton was brevetted (meaning he got the title but not the pay and allowances) Brigadier General, Feb. 23, 1865, in recognition of his war-time services. In his autobiography, his Civil War experiences were confirmed by others, but I decided to research the autobiographical part, to find out, as radio broadcaster Paul Harvey used to say “the rest of the story.”

In 1868, Bouton and wife Margaret moved to California and purchased the San Jacinto Ranch, 90 miles east of Los Angeles, and raised sheep. Bouton writes in this autobiography that in July 1879, he and his partner were attacked by bandits who somehow knew he was carrying $18,000 to buy 9,000 sheep. It became clear to Bouton that the bandits intended not only to rob Bouton but kill him and his partner J.C. Collins as well. Bouton managed to open the chain that held his wrists and secure a small revolver he had in his hip pocket and shoot and kill one of the highwaymen, John Wakefield.

Charles Lummis, shared the story in the St. Louis Republic (Jan. 8, 1891) “Stories of Pioneer Daring,” as did numerous newspapers of 1879. I decided to check out the facts since no mention of Bouton carrying a large sum of money was reported in newspapers of the time. I found that the story, mostly true, did omit some important details.

In 1879, both the San Diego Union and Ventura Signal added more to the story. It seemed Bouton had defrauded Nancy Wakefield out of money he owed her on the San Jacinto ranch he purchased from her in 1875 for $9,324. He paid 1/3rd down, the second third was to be paid one year from date of purchase, and the balance in two years. When the first payment fell due, Bouton failed to meet it. Mrs. Wakefield, after waiting some time, threatened to foreclose. Bouton then wrote to her to meet him in Los Angeles, saying the money was ready. She met him only to be informed he was still $1000 short, and requested further time, which she gave him. He convinced her she could only get the rest of her money if he sold the ranch. But in order to do so she needed to release him from a lien. She agreed, signing a document transferring the mortgage to him, trusting in his honesty. She did not think to have the note he gave her, promising a sale and payment, legally notarized before handing over the mortgage documents. With the mortgage papers in hand, he legally transferred the property to his wife, so he wouldn’t be held responsible, and made no attempt to sell the ranch. Mrs. Wakefield sued and a jury ruled in favor of Mrs. Wakefield, but the judge set aside the jury verdict and divided the property between General Bouton, his wife, and Mrs. Wakefield.

John Wakefield, upset at what the judge ruled and what his mother had to go through to get the money owed her, sought revenge. Wakefield and two friends did attack Bouton and Collins and planned to take Bouton prisoner and scare him a bit, in retaliation for the way Bouton had treated Wakefield’s mother. Instead, Wakefield was shot and killed by Bouton. Wakefield’s companions later said they had a cabin in the secluded San Jacinto mountains and planned to keep Bouton there for a while and demand the money John thought his mother deserved.

A judge later ruled Bouton had shot in self-defense. Bouton did not press charges against the other two men and they were released.

And that’s the rest of the story!

You will find more on African Americans in the Civil War (and in Long Beach history) in my book African Americans in Long Beach and Southern California: a History, which I will be discussing at the Ruth Bach Library (4055 N. Bellflower, Long Beach) on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023, 2-3 p.m. Copies of the book will be available for purchase, cash or check only. For further information call (562) 570-1038.


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