“Our Men Did Not Flinch”: United States Colored Troops and the Shenandoah Valley

Today, we are pleased to welcome guest author Jonathan Noyalas

Philip Dickson’s enlistment paper (NARA)

On Sunday, April 3, 1864, troops from the 19th United States Colored Troops (USCT) marched west toward Winchester, Virginia, on the Berryville Pike. The regiment, largely recruited from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, looked to strengthen its ranks with new African American recruits from the Shenandoah Valley. As the 19th USCT trudged along the road to Winchester, shots shattered the air’s stillness several miles east of Winchester. The men in the regiment reasonably surmised that the fire came from a contingent of Confederates. Captain James H. Rickard of Company G recalled that “for a moment some confusion prevailed, as it was expected we were intercepted by a rebel force.”[1]

After the 19th quickly regained its composure it moved off the road to a wooded area on the Berryville Pike’s south side and prepared for an impending battle. One of the regiment’s officers noted that the 19th USCT loaded their muskets, “then returned the fire and did not flinch.” After one volley, one of the 19th USCT’s officers, “was sent forward to ascertain the cause of the firing” and much to the surprise of everyone in the regiment discovered that they were fired upon by Jessie Scouts (Union soldiers who oftentimes disguised themselves in Confederate uniforms in an effort to gather intelligence).[2]

This cruel attempt by the Jessie Scouts to “see how” the men of the 19th USCT “would stand” resulted in one member of the regiment, Private Benjamin Curtis, being wounded. A bullet from one of the Jessie Scouts struck the Prince George, Maryland, native in the forehead and “knocked out” a “piece of his skull as large as a silver half dollar.” Although Curtis eventually lost sight in his left eye as a result of the “friendly fire” he survived his wound and returned to the regiment in November 1864.[3]

Undoubtedly startled by the affair on the Berryville Pike, the 19th USCT’s veterans knew they had to maintain their composure and continue their march to Winchester. When the regiment entered Winchester and bivouacked in Market Square (the present-day location of Rouss City Hall), the town’s Confederate sympathizers could not believe their eyes. Appalled at the sight of armed African Americans in Union uniforms, the staunch Confederate Mary Greenhow Lee penned: “I was in my room and hearing the sound of horses feet look up and saw a white Yankee officers and to my inexpressible horror, a company of negro infantry following him; I was near fainting and more unnerved than by any sight I have seen since the war… there is nothing I have dreaded so much during the war… as being where negro troops were garrisoned.”[4]

For Winchester’s Confederate civilians, the only thing more shocking than the unfolding scene was when troops from the 19th USCT shouted orders at the civilians to clear the street. An exasperated Kate Sperry noted that the men of the 19th USCT, “behaved dreadfully and ordered ladies and gents off the streets… It’s horrible to think of.”[5]

Even some of the community’s Unionist sympathizers could not fathom the sight. Unionist Julia Chase confided to her diary: “We have witnessed a sight today that I never expected to see. A Negro regiment came into town… this causes great excitement among the whites as well as blacks… We shall expect to see almost anything after this.”[6]

During the 19th USCT’s recruiting drive in the lower Shenandoah Valley, the regiment only recruited two men—Henry Woodbury and John Douglas.[7] Although some might interpret the reluctance of the area’s African Americans to join the regiment as an indication of either their ambivalence to the war’s outcome or confirmation that they enjoyed a subservient existence void of equality, the reluctance of area African Americans was the result of myriad fears. What would happen to them if captured in battle by Confederate soldiers? How would white Union soldiers treat them? And perhaps the greatest concern of all—what would happen to family members left behind in the oft-contested region?

Although the 19th USCT’s recruiting effort in April 1864 proved a failure, it did not mean that African Americans from the Shenandoah Valley did not serve in USCT regiments and thus take an active part in their emancipation and the effort to ameliorate conditions for all Africans Americans—slave or free. More than 700 of the region’s African Americans served in the Union army and navy during the conflict, many of whom enlisted prior to the 19th USCT’s recruiting mission.[8]

Among those who enlisted prior to the 19th’s arrival in the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1864 was Phillip Lewis Brent. At the outset of the conflict, Brent was a free black farmer living in Clarke County. In the summer of 1863, Brent journeyed to Baltimore where on August 31, he enlisted in the 4th USCT. Twenty-five years old at the time of his enlistment, Brent served in the regiment until he was mustered out on May 4, 1866. Brent is one among three USCT veterans from the Shenandoah Valley buried in Winchester’s National Cemetery.[9]

Philip Brent’s headstone in the Winchester National Cemetery

Five months before Brent enlisted in the 4th USCT, Edward Hall, a laborer from Winchester, enlisted in the 30th USCT. Shortly after his enlistment Hall was promoted to sergeant. During his service with the 30th USCT, Sergeant Hall fought in the “awful slaughter” at the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864.[10] Additionally, Hall participated in both assaults on Fort Fisher.[11] He served in the regiment until he suffered an injury in March 1865 at Morehead City, North Carolina. After the war Hall received a pension of $27 a month. He died on August 24, 1915, and was buried in Winchester’s Orrick Cemetery.[12]

Three years after Hall’s death, another USCT veteran was laid to rest in Orrick Cemetery—Richard Dickson (alias Festus). A slave prior to the conflict, Dickson fled Winchester during the early part of the war and made his way to Smithfield, Rhode Island, where he enlisted in the regiment that would eventually become the 11th United States Colored Heavy Artillery. In the war’s aftermath, he returned to his native Winchester, married, and tried to integrate into a society that rejected him as a social and political equal. He never owned property and worked for the rest of his life as a laborer.[13]

While many of the region’s African Americans who served in USCT regiments during the conflict survived the war, some paid the ultimate sacrifice in a conflict that preserved the Union and permanently broke slavery’s shackles. Among those who sacrificed all was William Banks, a native of Frederick County, who at the age of twenty-two enlisted in the 32nd USCT. Wounded in action at James Island, South Carolina, on February 10, 1865, Banks lingered for several months and finally succumbed to his wounds at a hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina, on June 21, 1865.[14]

Although the Shenandoah Valley’s African Americans who served in the Union army and navy during the conflict proved an important element in ensuring that one day all of this nation’s citizens, regardless of race, could enjoy freedom, liberty, and equality, those USCT veterans never lived in a world where that existed. Despite slavery’s constitutional destruction and federal laws granting voting rights in the Civil War’s aftermath, oppressive black codes and Jim Crow segregation created a world which emulated antebellum America. Sadly, as one Shenandoah Valley native observed around the time of Sergeant Hall’s death: “While slavery has been abolished in the sense of property interest, the negro is in all those personal characteristics… as much a slave today as he was before the Civil War. He still struggles.”[15]

————

Prof. Jonathan A. Noyalas is director of Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute and the author or editor of eleven books on Civil War era history. His latest book project is Uncertain Freedom: The Shenandoah Valley’s African Americans during the Civil War Era.

Notes

[1] Robert K. Summers, 19th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops: Profiles in Courage (N.P.: N.P., 2016), 249.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Benjamin Curtis, 19th USCT, Compiled Military Service Record. RG 94, Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

[4] Eloise C. Strader, ed., The Civil War Journal of Mary Greenhow Lee (Winchester, VA: Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, 2011), 344-45.

[5] Kate Sperry Diary, April 3, 1864, Stewart Bell Jr. Archives, Handley Regional Library, Winchester, VA.

[6] Michael G. Mahon, ed., Winchester Divided: The Civil War Diaries of Julia Chase & Laura Lee (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002), 138.

[7] Jonathan M. Berkey, “War in the Borderland: The Civilians’ Civil War in Virginia’s Lower Shenandoah Valley” PhD diss., Pennsylvania State University, 2003.

[8] Robin Stevens Lyttle “We Honor Those Who Served: The United States Colored Troops of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia” Last modified August 29, 2017. http://www.valleyblackheritage.org/usct.html

[9] Phillip Lewis Brent, 4th USCT, Compiled Military Service Record. RG 94, Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

[10] F.S. Bowley, A Boy Lieutenant (Philadelphia: Henry Altemas Co., 1906), 95.

[11] L. Allison Wilmer, J.H. Jarrett, and George W.F. Vernon, History and Roster of Maryland Volunteers, War of 1861-5 (Baltimore, MD: Press of Guggenheimer, Weil, and Co., 1899), 2: 250-51.

[12] Edward Hall, 30th USCT, Compiled Military Service Record. RG 94, Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 289.

[13] Richard Dickson, 11th USCHA, Compiled Military Service Record. RG 94, Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Richard Festus, Certificate of Death, File No. 9377, Virginia Death, 1912-2014, Virginia Department of Health, Richmond, VA.

[14] Robin Stevens Lyttle “We Honor Those Who Served: The United States Colored Troops of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia” Last modified August 29, 2017. http://www.valleyblackheritage.org/usct.html

[15] Thomas A. Ashby, The Valley Campaigns: Being the Reminiscences of a Non-Combatant While Between the Lines in the Shenandoah Valley during the War of the States (New York: Neale Publishing Co., 1914), 108.

This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Campaigns, Common Soldier and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Our Men Did Not Flinch”: United States Colored Troops and the Shenandoah Valley

  1. Pingback: ECW Week in Review 11-17 Sept. | Emerging Civil War

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