At the beginning of the Overland Campaign, the 23rd Regiment United States Colored Troops was an infantry regiment in the 4th Division of the independent IX Army Corps. This regiment became the first black regiment to fight in directed combat against the Army of Northern Virginia. This happened 150 years ago today, on May 15, 1864.
The 23rd was organized at Camp Casey, Virginia—in the area of where the Pentagon is today—on November 23, 1863 until June 30, 1864. The unit consisted of freed and escaped slaves, plus a few freemen. Some of the men that we know who escaped and came back as members of the 23rd USCT were, Peter Churchwell, Andrew Weaver, and Abraham Tuckson. These men escaped for the vicinity of Fredericksburg, Virginia.
In January 1864, General Ambrose E. Burnside was asked to reorganize the IX Corps. He asked for and was granted permission by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, to form a division of “colored troops.” The 4th Division of the IX Corps would consist entirely of black troops fighting for the Union and be commanded by General Edward Ferrero. The regiments were divided into two brigades: the first brigade was made up by the 27th, 30th, 39th, and 43rd USCT; the second brigade was made up by the 30th Connecticut Colored Infantry (only 4 companies), 19th, and 23rd USCT. Later in May, the 30th Connecticut was merged into the 31st USCT, which had joined the second brigade. In late June, the 28th and 29th USCT regiments were added to the second brigade. These regiments came from all across the North, from Illinois to Connecticut and the east from New York to Virginia. There are stories that when the entire division was at Petersburg, their relatives who had escaped slavery saw other relatives in different units–a homecoming of sort–to these men.
When the 4th Division of the IX Corps left Camp Stanton in Annapolis Maryland, they were paraded in front of President Abraham Lincoln and General Burnside in Washington, DC. The 23rd joined the division when they marched across the Potomac River into Virginia.
This picture is of Sergeant Nimrod Burke. Originally from Prince William County, Virginia, his family had been freed and moved to Ohio. In 1861, Burke was a teamster and scout for the 36th Ohio infantry. In 1864, he joined the 23rd USCT and was promoted to sergeant. This picture is widely circulated—in some cases, as an unidentified soldier. His family now has a website devoted to him.
Burke is just one of many of the soldiers in the 23rd who were from Virginia. We have traced men back to the city of Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, Culpeper, Fauquier, Orange, Prince William, Rappahannock, Spotsylvania, and Stafford. Many of these men escaped from slavery during the Union occupation of Fredericksburg from April to early September 1862, when over 12,000 slaves escaped their “masters.” These men escaped only to come back and fight with the United States Colored Troops – many of them with the 23rd USCT.
They were sent to Manassas and arrived there by train on May 1, 1864. General Burnside ordered General Ferrero to practice his troops “at target and drill.” On May 4, the division marched to Warrenton Junction.
On May 5, General Ferrero wanted to rest his men since they had marched over 30 miles within 24 hours. However, as soon as General Burnside heard about the fighting in the Wilderness, the 4th Division was told to move immediately. By May 6, they crossed Germanna Ford and were ordered to report to General John Sedgwick of the VI Corps. Two regiments were ordered to guard the ford, and the rest were deployed to the right of the VI Corps. After the VI corps was broken by Confederate General John B. Gordon’s flank attack, the 4th Division was ordered down the Plank Road to guard wagon trains.
From May 7 until the end of the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the 4th Division guarded and escorted wagon trains behind the lines and to the Belle Plains depot. On May 12, they escort Confederate prisoners back to the rear. There was a famous Harper’s Weekly showing black soldiers guarding captured Confederate generals “Allegheny” Johnson and “Maryland” Steuart. These soldiers would have been from the 4th Division of the IX Corps.
During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the 23rd Regiment USCT was at the Chancellorsville ruins, guarding wagon trains on May 15, 1864, when the 2nd Ohio Cavalry asked for assistance. The Ohioans were being attacked by General Thomas Rosser’s Confederate Cavalry Brigade. General Edward Ferrero marched the 23rd at the double quick to the intersection, now known as the Catharpin and Old Plank Roads intersection.
“It did us good to see the long line of glittering bayonets approach, although those who bore them were Blacks,” one Buckeye wrote, “and as they came nearer they were greeted by loud cheers.”
The 23rd USCT formed a battle line and fired on the Confederate army and drove them away. They became the first African American soldiers to fight in “directed combat” against the Army of Northern Virginia. They were cheered by the white soldiers of the 2nd Ohio, who now knew that these black soldiers would fight against the Confederates.
General Ferrero wrote this report of this engagement and sent it to Brigadier-General Rawlins, General Grant’s Chief of Staff,
HDQRS. FOURTH DIVISION, NINTH ARMY CORPS,
Miller’s House, on Plank Road east of Alrich’s, May 15, 1864
GENERAL: I have the honor to report that at 12:30 p. m. this day
The Second Ohio cavalry, stationed at Piney Branch Church, were compelled to fall back, being attacked by superior forces, consisting of one brigade of cavalry, with two pieces of artillery. I immediately ordered the Fourth Division in readiness, and marched the Twenty-third U. S. Colored Troops to support the cavalry. On arriving at Alrich’s, on the plank road, I found the Second Ohio driven across the road, and the enemy occupying the cross-roads. I ordered the colored regiment to advance on the enemy in line of battle, which they did, and drove the enemy in perfect rout. Not being able to pursue with infantry, the Second Ohio formed and gave chase to Piney Branch Church, which they (the Second Ohio) now occupy. All quiet elsewhere. Our loss amounted to about 8 or 10 wounded. The enemy lost some 5 horses killed. I have changed my position to a more secure one, to protect the trains and roads leading to the army. I have since learned from one of my scouts that Hampton’s brigade is in full retreat, in perfect disorder, toward Todd’s Tavern.
I am general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Chief of Staff.
Rosser, on the other hand, mentioned the engagement in his report only briefly and, even then, he neglected to mention that he’d encountered black troops.
The 23rd USCT and the 4th Division would fight on throughout the rest of the Civil War. Their most famous battle was in Petersburg at the “Battle of the Crater” on July 30, 1864. The 23rd suffered the most casualties of all of the black regiments in the battle.
In December of 1864, all of the black regiments in the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James were put in the XXV Corps–the largest grouping of African American men in the Civil War. Those men would fight in Petersburg, Richmond, and all the way to Appomattox Court House. After the war, the XXV Corps was sent to Texas with General Phil Sheridan. The 23rd is mustered out on November 30, 1865.
In the final picture, members of the reenacting unit stand at the Chancellorsville ruins. They are from left to right, James Anderson, John Cummings (co-founder), Jerry Richards, Kevin Williams, Sr., Steward Henderson (me, co-founder), and Reverend Hashmel Turner. We took this picture in anticipation of our May 17, 2014 Commemoration Day to the 23rd USCT. On that day, in partnership with the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Spotsylvania County, Women of the American Civil War, John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum, Spotsylvania Sunday School Union, and the 54th Massachusetts Company B, we will present “Fighting for Freedom and Firesides: The Rise of the United States Colored Troops.” We will have a living history program, a National Park Service program titled “The Rise of the USCT,” and “Footsteps to Battle: A Procession.” In the procession, we will march from the Chancellorsville Battlefield (Driving Tour Stop 5) to the actual site where the 23rd’s skirmish with the Army of Northern Virginia was fought. We will have a Virginia state marker dedicated to the 23rd unveiled. We will have some of the descendants of the original 23rd USCT at this ceremony.
On that day, the Park will also formally reopen its newly renovated Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, with one of the exhibits telling the story of the 23rd.
In three and a half years of existence, the re-created 23rd USCT has made the name of the 23rd United States Colored Troops stand among some of its more famous brethren. We have an exhibit on the Spotsylvania African American History Trail, a state marker near the site of their skirmish, and an exhibit in the Chancellorsville Visitor Center. Our next mission is to build a monument to the 23rd and the other black regiments of the 4th Division of the IX Corps. We have told an untold story of a black regiment that should be known to American history–the story of the 23rd Regiment United States Colored Troops!