February 1994

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Horace McGuire

and Black Artillery


Robert G. Koch

Horace McGuire became a notable Rochesterian after growing up in Syracuse and working elsewhere in Western New York. His father left four children when he joined the gold rush to California in 1850. Several years later came word of his death and the proceeds of his estate, less than $300. In the meantime, the Syracuse family struggled. Horace, a nine-year-old newspaper boy, one afternoon in 1851 witnessed the beginnings of the "Jerry [McHenry] Rescue" in which 2,000 Abolitionists at a convention in Syracuse frustrated the new Fugitive Slave Law that freed constables and bounty hunters to return actual or presumed runaways.

More than half a century later McGuire recalled seeing a "colored man handcuffed, dodging his pursuers, among...loads of [fire]wood [offered for sale]. Boy-like, neglectful I fear of our subscribers, I followed the crowd and witnessed the fight. Jerry fought with a determined effort to be free, but was overpowered, his clothing badly torn, his face covered with blood and one of his ribs broken. A passing wagon was impressed into the service of the officers and Jerry thrown into it. One of the officers sitting on his breast and another on his legs and others leading the horses as they drove the prisoner back to the police station." This is not the occasion for details of the rescue, but Jerry was taken to Oswego and smuggled off to Kingston, Ontario.

In Rochester, McGuire, who had acquired typesetting skills, worked for Frederick Douglass's paper, North Star. "I was at the office at six-thirty a.m.," he recalled, "to make the fire and sweep out. I set type, did errands, and tried to make myself generally useful. It was no unusual thing to find . . . refugee slaves, sitting on the stairs as I came to open the office . . . I became conversant with the location of the stations of the so-called 'underground railroad.'"

"The office consisted of but a single room, in one corner of which was Mr. Douglass' desk and around the sides of the room were the cases of type, where his son Frederick, Jr., and sometimes his daughter Rosa, with my help, set the type for the paper...When the forms were locked up we carried them [next door] into the office of the [Rochester] Democrat, where the edition was printed." In this office he observed John Brown apparently trying to convince Douglass to join him in his attack on Harper's Ferry. As described earlier, at Brown's invitation Doug-glass also secretly met the militant abolitionist near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in a final effort to dissuade him from the logistically disastrous attack. However, Douglass's companion and friend, Shields Green, joined the small armed band and was killed. Years later McGuire visited Brown's grave near Lake Placid and in a reminiscence wrote: "...I could not think of him as a martyr to a great cause, but rather as a misguided enthusiast. It is true he was obsessed with the wickedness of human slavery. His error lay in the means of its final extinguishment."

Even as McGuire worked at his trade, he pursued a wider destiny—repairing his lack of education through night school to finish the elementary grades and a flexible secondary school experience, with backing from churchmen he had met along the way. He not only passed the entrance examinations in Latin, Greek, mathematics and civil government required by the new University of Rochester but earned one of two scholarships reserved for city students.

In the meantime, however, the Civil War was sucking young men into its orbit, North and South. As McGuire later recalled, "There was a class of young men in Central Church Sunday School and the average attendance was 40. During the first year and one half of the war the record shows that 38 of these men had enlisted and gone to the front. Over 130 enlisted from the church and Sunday School. Many, very many men never lived to come home...[For example, the 1,000 men in the New York 140th regiment from Rochester] had 502 killed and 170 die in Rebel Prisons."

In 1862 he gave up his coveted university studies to volunteer for Mack's Rifle Battery a locally recruited company, that intended to use a battery of 25 rifles invented by a local gunsmith named Billinghurst. It was supposed to deliver a coordinated round of devastating rifle fire. In the field, the device did not work as intended. The unit was headed by a friend of Billinghurst, A. G. Mack, an Assistant Overseer in the Monroe County Penitentiary. One hundred and fifty men were mustered into the 18th N. Y. Battery, which the publicity conscious Mack captained as "Mack's Battery." He was also a man who carried his prison guard demeanor into the ranks.

Horace McGuire and his younger brother, William, were volunteers in the Union Army's New York 18th Battery. From Rochester they headed for New York and then by a dangerously overcrowded ocean steamer through a storm off Cape Hatteras, round Key West into the Gulf of Mexico, arrived at New Orleans. His duty was in the Union campaign to control the Mississippi River, thereby splitting off the western Confederacy.

The New York 18th Battery became an artillery unit using 20-pound Parrott "Popguns," as McGuire called them. He came through several sharp encounters unharmed, only to, literally, "shoot himself in the foot" while cleaning his revolver. "It was a bad wound," he recalled, "and in that hot and dirty place it looked as though I must loose [sic] the foot by amputation. I begged the doctors not to cut it off." In a letter home, quoted in the University of Rochester Library Bulletin featuring McGuire's memoir, he wrote, "I suffered as much in a short time as any person could endure and still live..." But two months later he returned to active duty. "I wore a felt slipper on my left foot and learned to mount on the other side of the horse and when once mounted I got along as well as the best of them."

Then his Union service changed: "As the government had decided to enlist the slaves as soldiers many white men were wanted to drill them and educate them in the arts of war." In January 1864, he passed the examination for a commission as First Lieutenant in the first regiment recruited in Louisiana.

Frederick Douglass, McGuire's old employer, had argued, "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, 'U. S.,' let him get an eagle on his buttons and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States." Given the opportunity, free black men including Douglass's two sons responded, but not all black soldiers were volunteers.

Recruitment in Louisiana was not subtle. McGuire was assigned "to aid in the conscription of the blacks for military service... [T]he big river steamer Sallie Robinson...made excursions up and down the river taking black men from the plantations and forcing them into the service. We would stop at a plantation...[and with] 40 or 50 armed men...surround [it] and round up every colored man on the place. Run them like sheep up the gangplank and onto the boat. Then they were stripped and physically examined by the doctors on board and those fit for service were at once clothed in blue uniforms and kept on board; the others were sent ashore."

About the same time the Confederate government debated conscripting slaves into the army. One general proposed that they "guarantee freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war." But another countered that this was "the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began... You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers... And if slaves seem good soldiers, Then our whole theory of slavery is wrong."

Horace McGuire was next assigned as a Captain of the 10th U.S. Colored (Heavy) Artillery. He said of his men, "...Company G was as well drilled and presented as fine an appearance as any company white or black in the 19th Army Corps."

The day after Christmas 1864 they were shipped to the small port of Pascagoula, Mississippi, preliminary to an attempt to capture Mobile. Inland lay miles of cypress forest and marshy ground over which they built corduroy roads for the heavy artillery and supply wagons. They were "armed as infantry with old-fashioned Springfield muzzle loading rifles." A pincers attack with Union cavalry failed and the black artillery company was under heavy attack. Outnumbered two to one, they fought all day, retreated at night and lost many men killed and wounded. After two and a half weeks they were able to reboard their ship.

In his memoir McGuire recalled an incident from that campaign. "The First Sergeant of Company G was a giant of 6 feet 4 and black as the night. His name was James Akens. One night I walked by his side over the rough corduroy road. He carried his gun, his blankets, haversack, canteen, and a good supply of cartridges. He also insisted upon carrying my blankets and my sword and still found an arm for me to lean upon. He declared and I think truthfully that for over an hour that night I slept soundly and still kept up my steady step, lifting my feet with even but rather high treads. He said the Captain slept and snored quite loud."

"At the close of the war," as his memoir notes, "there was no civil government in the south. Then came...the problem of getting the colored men to go back to the plantation and get in a crop or starve. [T]here was the question of the adjustment of wages between the returned rebel soldiers to their plantations and the former slaves.

"Until a civil government was established this work devolved upon the commanding officer of a district." McGuire commanded an extensive territory. In September, 1865, he was commended for "the progress...made in establishing peace and order and in.. .being able to have so many colored people actually at work." Captain McGuire's other duties included dismantling fortifications and shipping half a million dollars worth of heavy guns and other ordnance stores to New Orleans, staking out a military graveyard and making a permanent record of the hundreds buried there, and commanding an important fort in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nearly 200,000 black troops fought in the Union army during the Civil War. They were led by about 7,000 white officers. The recent film, Glory, told a version of the story of the famous 54th Massachusetts infantry regiment; the Civil War television documentary by Ken Burns offered further insights. The post-war life of former First Sergeant James Akens, with whom McGuire plodded through a fearful night, is not recorded.

Horace McGuire returned to Rochester, married, and lived a long and productive life as a lawyer.

© 1994, Robert G. Koch
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