Significant USCT Sites in the Eastern Theater: Virginia and Washington, DC

(Library of Congress)

I have had a few inquiries about significant sites for the United States Colored Troops. Over the past several years, I have spoken about each of the five sites that I am writing about in this blog.

I participated in the 150th anniversaries of the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg and the Battle of New Market Heights reenactments. I participated in the 150th Anniversary of the 23rd USCT skirmish against the Army of Northern Virginia at the Heflin farm, the site of that skirmish. I have tried to make the reenactment at Fort Pocahontas twice, site of the Battle of Wilson’s Wharf, but because of heavy rain on both occasions, I was unable to attend; I will try again this year. I have visited the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum on numerous occasions. These sites are very important to me as a Civil War living historian and a writer, who focuses on the United States Colored Troops.

The Old Alrich Farm (currently Heflin Farm) at the Intersection of Catharpin and Orange Plank (currently Old Plank) Roads, Spotsylvania County, VA

This is the site of the 23rd United States Colored Troops’ skirmish, the first time black troops fought in directed combat against the army of Northern Virginia. This site is important to the Fredericksburg area because some of the men who fought in the 23rd USCT had been formerly enslaved in this area. They escaped slavery during the first Union occupation of Fredericksburg between April and August of 1862.  From November 23, 1863 until at least July 8, 1864, the 23rd was organized at Camp Casey, Virginia.

The 23rd US Colored Infantry was a regiment in the 4th Division of the IX Corps, and the infantry in this division were all US Colored Troops. In May 1864, most of the regiment moved in the Overland Campaign.  During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, they went into combat for the first time. Although it was known in some Union armies that blacks would fight, this was the first time that African Americans had served with the Army of the Potomac. At the time, they were in the independent IX Army Corps, but by the Battle of North Anna River, they had joined the Army of the Potomac. That army did not think highly of the new soldiers, and they were better appreciated after their transfer to the Army of the James in December 1864. General Benjamin Butler tried to get the “colored division” of the Army of the Potomac into his army before the Battle of the Crater; he was unsuccessful at that time.

In May 1864, the 23rd stationed at the Chancellorsville ruins, and General Edward Ferrero ordered them to double quick two miles to the intersection of the Orange Plank and Catharpin Roads. They arrived and formed a battle line just in time, as Confederate General Thomas Rosser’s cavalry chased the 2nd Ohio Cavalry. The 23rd drove Rosser’s men away from the area. Previously, the white regiments did not think that these former slaves would fight. Now, they knew that these black men, formerly enslaved, would fight their former slaveowners and overseers. The men in the 23rd and the 4th Division fought at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, the Siege of Petersburg, and the Appomattox Campaign. After the Civil War, they journeyed to Texas with General Philip Sheridan.

Today, there are two remembrances of the 23rd’s skirmish, on the Catharpin Road. One, a Virginia State Marker, was dedicated on May 17, 2014, during the 150th Anniversary ceremonies. The second is an exhibit marker at the Wilderness Elementary School, and it is at a stop on the Spotsylvania County African American Heritage Trail.

The 23rd USCT is very important to me because Spotsylvania historian, John Cummings and I co-founded the 23rd USCT living history regiment.

Wilson’s Wharf – Fort Pocahontas, Charles City County, Virginia

This is the site of the first major action between the United States Colored Troops and the Army of Northern Virginia. The Battle of Wilson’s Wharf or Wilson’s Landing occurred on May 24th, 1864, just nine days after the first skirmish.

At 6 pm on May 24, 1864, the first major action between the United States Colored Troops and the Army of Northern Virginia had just been decided. Army of the James General Edward A. Wild’s African Brigade had just defeated General Fitz Lee’s cavalry division, at a little discussed battle, Wilson’s Wharf or Wilson’s Landing.

Wild’s African Brigade had been recruited by Brigadier General Edward Augustus Wild, “an enthusiast on the subject of colored troops.” He recruited several black regiments and formed his brigade. General Wild’s command at Fort Powhatan and Wilson’s Wharf, 1st Brigade, 3rd Division (General Edward Hinks Division), XVIII Corps:

1st USCT, 10th USCT, 22nd USCT, 37th USCT, Battery B 2nd Light Colored Artillery, Battery M New York Light Artillery

I follow the 1st USCT because the living history group representing them, is based at the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, DC, my home town.

The 1st USCT became the first new regiment mustered into US service, under the Bureau of Colored Troops, organized June 30, 1863 in Washington, DC. The regiment participated in several important actions including the Battle of Wilson’s Wharf; first assaults on Petersburg; Battle of Chaffin’s Farm (New Market Heights); Battle of Fair Oaks; expedition to Fort Fisher; capture of Wilmington. They mustered out on September 29, 1865.

Map of Wilson’s Wharf Battlefield and key battlefield areas. (Public Domain)

On May 4, 1864, as part of General Ulysses S. Grant’s strategy of exhaustion, attacking all of the Confederate armies and destroying the South’s infrastructure, General Benjamin Butler, commanding the Army of the James began moving toward Richmond. His army’s objective was to attack Richmond by way of the James Peninsula, thereby making the Confederate defenders stationary in their Richmond defenses. On May 5, 1864, Wild’s African Brigade captured Wilson’s Wharf and Fort Powhatan on the James River. Half of his brigade occupied Wilson’s Wharf and the other Fort Powhatan. On May 10th, his pickets captured William Clopton, a cruel slave holder, and had four of his former slaves whip him. His soldiers were accused of looting and burning farms.  Newspapers in Richmond picked up the stories. President Jefferson Davis’ military advisor, General Braxton Bragg ordered General Fitz Lee to attack Wilson’s Wharf.

The Battle of Wilson’s Landing or Wilson’s Wharf on May 24, 1864, in Charles City County, Virginia, pitted 900 men of the 1st and 10th USCT, plus 150 white soldiers from a transport and two cannon from battery M of the 3rd NY Light Artillery, under General Edward Wild, against a force of 2,500 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.” Then he added, “Present my compliments to Gen. Fitz lee and tell him to go to hell.” 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 numbered 47 and Confederate casualties ranged from 175 to 200. This major action was fought, as Grant and Meade engaged with General Robert E. Lee, during the Overland Campaign.

General Wild’s Brigade continued improvements on the trenches and established Fort Pocahontas, so named in August 1864. This site is important to me because it proved black soldiers could fight against larger numbers of the Army of Northern Virginia – and win. Plus, it showed to the Army of the James that its white and black soldiers could fight together to defeat the enemy.

The Eastern Front and Crater at Petersburg Battlefield, Petersburg, Virginia          

USCT played a prominent role in capturing redoubts at the beginning of the battle, but at the “Crater” ended up in a disaster. The first attacks on Petersburg, June 15 – 17, 1864, involved black troops, who captured some of the defensive works outside of the city. The USCT fought ferociously, with a battle cry, “Remember Fort Pillow.” That day the black soldiers took no prisoners – executing wounded and surrendering Confederates – until their white officers got tired of seeing so much bloodshed. They did however capture Confederate Batteries 6 through 11. The 1st USCT fought in this engagement and helped capture Battery 7.

Battle of the Crater

However, on July 30, 1864, in the Battle of the Crater, the black troops of the IX Corps, who had trained to lead the attack, were position as the last attacking division. They attacked by going around the Crater and made a movement closer to the objective. By that time, the strong Confederate counter attack, drove the Union soldiers – white and black – into the Crater. When the Confederates saw black Union soldiers, they were enraged and took few black prisoners. They yelled “no quarter” and executed black soldiers, who were wounded or surrendered, on the field. The 23rd USCT sustained the most casualties of any of the black regiments.

In the Crater, white Union IX Corps soldiers killed black IX Corps Union soldiers because they did not want to be seen helping the black soldiers, while facing enraged Confederates. This debacle forced all black troopers in the Army of the Potomac to transfer to the Army of the James. Together with the other African American soldiers, already in the Army of the James, they formed the XXV Corps – the largest grouping of black soldiers in the Civil War.

In many battles, after Fort Pillow, black soldiers offered no quarter to Confederate soldiers, as Confederate soldiers did the same – and on more occasions than the black soldiers did.

As a member of both the 23rd USCT and 54th Massachusetts Co. B, I have participated in several living history programs at Petersburg, including three events that included the Battle of the Crater anniversaries.

New Market Heights – The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm,  Henrico County, Virginia

Fourteen black soldiers and two of their white officers received sixteen Medals of Honor for driving off the famed Texas Brigade in the Battle of New Market Heights – one of the engagements in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm.

The Battle of New Market Heights was fought on September 29, 1864, with troops of the Army of the James attacking fortifications defending the Confederate capital of Richmond. Colonel Samuel Duncan’s Brigade, XVIII Corps led the assault. The 4th USCT spearheaded the charge at New Market Heights, followed by the 6th USCT. They faced the galling fire and fought their way to the fortifications but were repulsed with heavy loss. They faced the famous Texas Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia.

General Charles Paine’s 3rd Division of the XVIII Corps was three brigades of black troops and General William Birney had a colored brigade of the X Corps. The black troops faced a galling fire but succeeded in capturing New Market Heights. Fourteen black soldiers and two of their white officers earned the Medal of Honor for their actions at New Market Heights.

The Texas Brigade alerted to the threat at Fort Harrison, after they repulsed the first attack at New Market Heights. Since the fort stood closer to Richmond, they started to prepare to evacuate to go to the assistance of Fort Harrison, but the Federals attacked again, this time in greater force.

Colonel Alonzo Draper’s Brigade, Paine’s Division, charged the works, and they too faced the galling fire of the Texas Brigade and wavered for thirty minutes.

The officers got their men moving again, the 5th 36th, and 38th USCT lead the attack with the 22nd USCT on their left. To their right were four white regiments of Colonel Abbot’s Brigade, the 6th and 7th Connecticut, the 3rd New Hampshire, and 24th Massachusetts. The rear guard was the 1st and 37th USCT of Colonel John Holman’s Brigade. With a shout Draper’s men got through the obstructions and “with exultant cheers the column swept forward over the parapet, and occupied the coveted prize.” A Confederate officer trying to inspire his men also leapt upon the parapet and was shot and bayoneted by Pvt. James Gardiner of the 36th USCT. Attacked all along their defensive line, the Confederates made a hasty retreat. Contrary to Confederate accounts of an orderly retreat, several Confederates stated that they retreated in panic or were routed. One quipped that “on the principle that the chased dog is generally the fleetest.”

Company I of the 36th USCT

Although suffering tremendous casualties, the black troops prevailed.  General Benjamin Butler proved his point that black troops could fight and defeat Confederate soldiers and restored some honor for the USCT after receiving blame at the Battle of the Crater.

After this battle, Butler always remembered his Colored soldiers, he even produced the “Butler Medal” to reward them. He did not believe at the time that many of his men would earn the Medal of Honor, so he had Tiffany and company make his own medal.

He supported his men’s valor and swore an oath to his sable army. In December, 1864, he took command of the old 4th Division of the IX Corps, those soldiers who were wrongly discredited at the Battle of the Crater. Together with his two divisions in the Army of the James, the three divisions formed the XXV Corps – the largest grouping of African American soldiers in the Civil War!

Most of the African American Medals of Honor recipients were awarded for non-commissioned officers leading their regiments, after their officers were killed and wounded and for saving the flags of their regiments. In the flag that Sergeant Christian Fleetwood rescued, more than 22 bullet holes were found and the staff had been sliced in half.

This site is important to me because of the performance of the USCT and the Medals of Honor earned.

Steward, ready for a reenactmen

The last reenactments that I participated in, were the battles of New Market Heights and Fort Harrison, both part of the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm.  Kevin Williams, one of my best friends, and I spent much of these two battles, side by side.  In the Battle of Fort Harrison, I was helping Kevin and the other African American hospital stewards help with the wounded US Colored Troops. In the Battle of New Market Heights, I carried the 4th USCT regimental flag to the heights, before being wounded and passing the flag to a color sergeant on top of the heights. Kevin treated me for my wounds, then climbed the heights to help the wounded inside the Confederate lines.  Kevin, only 53, passed away on April 8, 2019, I felt like I lost my brother.  So, I give three Huzzahs to Kevin Williams, Sr. Rest in Peace!

My friend and our Lieutenant Jimmy Price, 23rd USCT, wrote the book, The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword. I also recorded the voiceover for the American Battlefield Trust for the New Market Heights site, last year, a quote from Sergeant Fleetwood about rescuing the flag. Then in November of last year, I gave a talk on the Battle of New Market Heights, for a Henrico County event.  So, New Market Heights is a special place for me.

African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, Washington, DC

At Vermont Avenue and U Streets, NW, Washington, DC sits the African American Civil War Monument and Memorial to the United States Colored Troops – just above the Metro Station. Just across the street is the African American Civil War Museum. Last year, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the memorial. This museum is the home for all of the USCT living history regiments and reenactor groups.  It is also the home of FREED, Female Re-Enactors of Distinction, the women’s auxiliary to the African American Civil War Museum.

The Women of the Civil War Era, the 23rd USCT, and the 54th Massachusetts Co. B acted in a movie, The Spy Within, this movie is shown in the museum.  I have visited this museum on several occasions, including the grand unveiling of the memorial in 1998 and the 20th anniversary events in 2018. This is a significant site of importance to all of the African American Civil War reenactors, soldier living historians, and civilian historians.

Descendants of USCT, white, black, and Hispanic, can research their ancestors in this museum. School children visit and hear historians lecture about the Civil War and the roles of the United States Colored Troops.

In 2015, the museum hosted the 150th Anniversary of the Grand Review of the Union Armies. Although most of the USCT did not march in the original parade, plenty of us marched in the anniversary parade. There were several different events that took place in and around the museum.

The museum has exhibits and movies that tell the story of the USCT and the abolitionists, men and women that helped recruit for the USCT. It is starting an expansion that will enable it to add new exhibits, a multitude of new artifacts and a state of the art media theater.  One of the new exhibits, “Slavery to the White House: the USCT Heritage of First Lady Michelle Obama,” will feature Mrs. Obama’s two USCT ancestors, Jerry Sutton/Suter of the 55th USCT and Ceaser Cohen, 128th USCT. Both men have their names listed, with their regiments, on the memorial.

Finally, let me say that there are many more significant sites for the USCT, these are five that are the most special to me because I have either visited them or talked about them many times.  Please add a comment and let me know of your favorite or significant sites for the United States Colored Troops.

Bibliography –

  • The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs By the Sword – James S. Price
  • Black, Copper, and Bright: The District of Columbia’s Black civil War Regiment – C.R. Gibbs
  • S. Colored Troops Defeat Confederate Cavalry: Action at Wilson’s Wharf, Virginia, 24 May 1864
  • African American Civil War Memorial and Museum website

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.
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5 Responses to Significant USCT Sites in the Eastern Theater: Virginia and Washington, DC

  1. John Pryor says:

    Pvt Gardiner of the 36th USCT has a memorial dedicated to him in Gloucester, Va, his home town. It stands right next to a traditional and early version of the Confederate Old Soldier statue, erected by the widows and orphans left behind. The juxtapositioning was very moving to me; you stood there and breathed in the moving air of liberty and loss. You felt that you were being treated as an adult. It was not an easy place to be.

  2. Thank you for all this useful information.

    I am writing an article for our Round Table newsletter about Harriet Tubman and her relationship with William Seward since a statue of the two of them was dedicated on Saturday, May 17, in front of the Schenectady City Library. She, of course, was a scout for Colonel James Montgomery in the Combahee River Raid in South Carolina in June of 1863. She also worked with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner in July of 1863.

    One of the great treats of Remembrance Day at Gettysburg is the march (singing every time I have been there) of one of the 54th Massachusetts reenactment groups. Historically accurately, they bring up the end of the parade, but you can hear them singing for blocks.

    Someone told me there is a height requirement in at least one of the reenactment units. I wondered if that was true and you are the first reenactor I have ever had a chance to ask that question. The unit certainly is tall and very proud. Its participation is definitely one of the highlights of that beloved parade.

  3. Excellent article… don’t forget about Fort Gilmer at Chaffin’s Farm on September 29, 1864.

  4. Janet Chase says:

    I too have visited the African American Civil War Museum and Memorial. I was honored with a request to make a presentation as a proud descendant of a captain in the 22nd USCT, Captain William W Burke. I hope to have a chance to hear more about his regiment’s contributions to the success of its war efforts.

  5. Clay Feeter says:

    Thank you for SUCH rich detail, Steward.

    It is overdue!

    My 2nd cousin John D. Gray was a lieut. in the 121st NY

    He then became a captain of the 23rd USCT on July 21st, 1864…

    … 9 days later the 23rd was heavily engaged at the Crater where the regiment suffered 57 casualties including 19 killed.

    Even though the 23rd had the normal contingency of white officers and black enlisted men, all 19 of those killed were black soldiers.

    And of the 23 wounded in the reg that day just one was a white officer (lieut. Carter)

    Such was the Crater: very selective shooting by the Rebs. “_ (& as this article points out also by 9th Corps white soldiers who also shot their own black comrads!)

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