The United States Colored Troops: Fighting for Freedom (part two)

Last week, I wrote about black soldiers who fought on both sides of the war, and I also offered a brief history of the United States Colored Troops. Now let me discuss a few of the battles where the USCT fought.

From Fort Sumter, looking out toward the location of Fort Wagner

Most famous is the Battle of Fort Wagner—depicted in the movie Glory—where the 54th Massachusetts made a grand assault on Battery Wagner in South Carolina and got to the ramparts before being forced to retreat. You have heard about Fort Pillow massacre, where General Nathan Bedford Forrest had the prisoners slaughtered. The first attacks on Petersburg involved black troops who captured some of the defensive works outside of the city, and of course many were involved in the disaster at the Crater.

Black troops were involved in a number of lesser-known battles, too. At Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, a Union garrison of 1,410 men—including 1,250 freed slaves who had mustered in on May 22, 1863—had to fight on June 7 when Confederates tried to take the pressure off of Vicksburg, just 20 miles up the Mississippi River. Some of the black soldiers had just received their muskets on June 6. They held off a Texas brigade in “no quarter” hand-to-hand combat that lasted from about 2:30 am until the afternoon. Admiral David Porter arrived with his flagship and shelled the rebels into retreating, with the black troops chasing them. Charles Dana, assistant secretary of war, stated afterward, “The bravery of the black troops at Milliken’s Bend completely revolutionized the sentiment of the army with the regard to the employment of Negro troops.”

The Louisiana Native Guards on May 27, 1863 made a large assault on the formidable Port Hudson, Louisiana, on a bluff on the Mississippi River in an area where an assault should not have been ordered. The men charged over open ground in front of batteries spewing grape and canister, then they faced a ditch twenty feet wide and filled with eight feet of water. General William Dwight ordered three assaults, but the men got cut up terribly. When finally ordered to retreat, they marched off of the field as if on parade, leaving many of their men dead on the field. Port Hudson finally fell after General U. S. Grant took Vicksburg.

The Battle of Wilson’s Landing or Wilson’s Wharf on May 24, 1864 in Virginia, pitted 900 men of the 1st and 10th USCT, and two cannon from battery M of the 3rd NY Light Artillery, under General Edward Wild, defeated a force of 2500 Confederates under General Fitz Lee, General Robert E. Lee’s nephew. After Lee drove in the Union pickets, he sent in a flag of truce demanding the surrender of the garrison, but general Wild declined the offer by saying, “We will try it.” A transport landed 150 unarmed soldiers, and the gunboat USS Dawn helped the Union forces. General Lee ordered a charge but the garrison proved too strong and Lee retreated. Union casualties were 47 and confederate casualties ranged from 175 to 200.

The Battle of New Market Heights was fought on September 28, 1864, with troops of the Army of the James attacking fortifications defending the confederate capital of Richmond. General Charles Paine’s 3rd Division of the XVIII Corps consisted of three brigades of black troops, and General William Birney had a colored brigade in the X Corps. The black troops faced a galling fire but succeeded in capturing New Market Heights. Fourteen black soldiers won the Medal of Honor for their actions at New Market Heights. (see James Price’s article on the Battle of New Market Heights from last week.)

In the Battle of Nashville, eight regiments of black troops—two brigades—were supposed to make a demonstration against the Confederate right wing so that General George H. Thomas could attack the left wing. Their attack was so strong that the Confederates weakened their left wing. The black troops faced heavy fire from the Confederate batteries and suffered tremendous casualties in two days of fighting, December 15-16, 1864), but Thomas destroyed General John Bell Hood’s Confederate army.

In the area around Fredericksburg, Virginia, the first black troops to fight General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were the men of the 23rd USCT. During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, on May 15, 1864, the 23rd was called on to help the 2nd Ohio Cavalry hold off General Thomas Rosser’s cavalry brigade. They marched, with the color guard of the 30th USCT, from the Chancellorsville ruins to the intersection of Catharpin and Old Plank Road and pushed back Rosser’s brigade. It was a minor skirmish, but it gained a lot of respect from the white troops who cheered their actions. This let the white soldiers know that blacks would fight when given the opportunity. The 23rd went on to fight in the Crater at Petersburg, where it suffered the highest casualties of any of the black troops. The 23rd was present at Appomattox on the day that General Lee surrendered.

The men of the 23rd were recruited in Washington, D.C. and trained at Camp Casey, Virginia, located near the area where the Pentagon is today. A lot of these soldiers were free men and ex-slaves from Virginia, several from Stafford, Spotsylvania, Fredericksburg, Orange, and Caroline. Sgt. Burke was from Prince William.

"Butler Medal" (courtesy of VA Historical Society)

Black soldiers fought in numerous battles—approximately 450—and in those battles they suffered enormous casualties. Depending on how well they were trained and led, they fought very well, average, and poorly—just like white troops. However, many of the soldiers who fought with them talk about their discipline, bravery, and their willingness to keep fighting while suffering so many casualties.

General Benjamin Butler created the Army of the James Medal, commonly called the Butler Medal. It is the only medal ever struck for colored troops. Butler designed and paid for these medals after the Battle of Chapin’s Farm or New Market Heights. I close with this quote from General Butler, who appeared before Congress after the war, advocating the passage of a bill giving civil rights to the Negro Race. He gave an eyewitness account of the fighting at New Market Heights and then said of the dead:

…I looked on their bronzed faces upturned in the shining sun as if in mute appeal against the wrongs of the country for which they had given their lives, and whose flag had only been to them a flag of stripes on which no star of glory had ever shone for them-feeling I had wronged them in the past, and believing what was the future of my country to them-among my dead comrades there I swore to myself a solemn oath: “May my right hand forget its cunning, and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I ever fail to defend the rights of those men who have given their blood for me and my country this day and for their race forever;” and, God helping me, I will keep that oath.

About stewardthenderson

Civil War historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and living historian with the 23rd Regiment USCT and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Co. B. I am also a member of the Trail to Freedom Committee in the Fredericksburg, VA area and a member of the John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania, VA.
This entry was posted in Emerging Civil War, Slavery, USCT and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The United States Colored Troops: Fighting for Freedom (part two)

  1. Daniel Davis says:

    Very good post. Wilson’s Wharf is a really cool battle. I think the site is still owned by the descendents of President John Tyler. I’ve got to get out there sometime.

  2. Pingback: Week of October 3-7 in Review and Upcoming | Emerging Civil War

  3. Lawrence L. Spaulding says:

    One of these days full recognition will be given to the Colored troops who gave their lives for a belief in freedom for All. Amazingly America needs to understand that the Colored Man only wanted to display that he is willing to spill his blood for an opportunity that was given to others who were of a different persuasion.

  4. Willie Brown says:

    The USCT fought gallantly and suffered heavy casualities. The war could not have been won with out there participation and dedication to freedom.

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