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Book Excerpt: The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, Part 2

BattleOfPetersburgJune1864ChickPotomacEditor’s Note: This series of posts offer a look at Sean Chick’s new book The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864.  The Battle of Petersburg was part of Grant’s First Offensive against Petersburg. Sean Michael Chick is a 33 year old New Orleans native who has been reading Civil War book since he first saw the film Glory in 1990. He earned a Masters degree in 2007 from Southeastern Louisiana University. His thesis became the basis of The Battle of Petersburg. His tentative future projects include books on Bermuda Hundred, Honey Hill, Tullahoma, and Confederate New Orleans.  In the coming weeks we’ll be offering up several pages of Chapter 3, which focuses on the first day’s fighting on June 15, 1864.    These posts will take readers up to the release of the book in mid-June 2015, 151 years after the events described within.  Also keep an eye out for an exclusive interview with Sean as the last post in the series.  Be sure to check out the bottom of each post to see links for all of the published posts in this series to date.



The XVIII Corps ran into resistance almost from the moment they crossed the Appomattox. The 89th New York, personally accompanied by Martindale, was in the lead and came under fire from skirmishers and artillery. Lacking cavalry, he could not run down these forces, and so his men moved in cumbersome battle lines through dense forests. The greatest resistance, though, was encountered by Kautz’s horsemen, who were opposed by a patrol from the 4th North Carolina Cavalry, led by the able Captain James T. Mitchell. At 6:00 a.m. the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry overran an enemy outpost at Perkinson’s Mill only to find a defensive position manned by Rebel cavalry and artillery. The position was near Baylor’s Farm, roughly four miles from the defenses of Petersburg. These were James Dearing’s men and they were ably led. Dearing was a young Virginian who had commanded artillery earlier in the war. Although at one-time a proud bachelor, during a horse race outside of Petersburg he fell in love with the beautiful and intelligent Roxana Birchett. She had stayed in Petersburg after the marriage, allowing Dearing to sneak in visits during off hours, but only days earlier she had evacuated the city along with many other residents. Dearing meanwhile had been rapidly promoted, being only a major at Gettysburg. This caused some grumbling, and for all his skill Dearing was a shameless self-promoter who hungered for rank. Today he would show that he was every bit worthy of his quick rise to the rank of general.

Dearing had been monitoring Smith’s advance and sent reports to Henry A. Wise, still posted in Petersburg. Now he had decided to make a stand with two regiments, numbering 850 men, and two artillery pieces from Captain Edward Graham’s Virginia Artillery, an outfit made up of Petersburg natives. Their position had been prepared the previous night by the 4th North Carolina Cavalry, an experienced unit led by Dennis D. Ferebee. He had opposed secession as unconstitutional, and unpopular opinion in the South, but he had shown ability in leading cavalry. He would have immediate command at Baylor’s Farm and he was determined to hold the position. The 4th Wisconsin Artillery tried to silence Graham’s guns but failed. Smith ordered Kautz to take the position, but his men fell back under heavy fire. Kautz  swung south to Petersburg by way of the Jordan’s Point Road, moving passed Dearing, who remained in his position. Smith, having been told by Butler to press forward at all costs, and at the behest of Hinks, he ordered the USCT to strike without delay.

Hinks’ division had not seen much action. Their main experience of war was the construction of fortifications. One of the first they built in Virginia was a camp at Spring Hill, near Petersburg, which oversaw prisoner exchanges. Others had taken part in raids where they freed fellow slaves, stolen or destroyed war supplies, and skirmished with local Confederate forces. In one celebrated instance, they captured and whipped William H. Clopton, a planter noted for his cruelty. Brigadier General Edward A. Wild, a staunch abolitionist, called the beating “the administration of Poetical justice.”[i] Still, such actions drew little praise from white soldiers or notice from reporters.

The reasons for this general inaction were complicated. At a basic level, both North and South were racist societies. The South had seceded first and foremost to defend slavery and its commitment to slavery and black subordination was illustrated throughout the war. It was not that all black Southerners were automatically anti-Confederate. The first black regiments to be raised by either side were Confederate militia units in New Orleans and Memphis. The Louisiana Native Guards were a large outfit and contained black officers. However, they were snubbed by the Confederate authorities and poorly armed. In early 1862, the Louisiana Native Guards were disbanded, returning only briefly to defend New Orleans in April 1862. The outfit was abandoned in the city when the Confederate army withdrew, and the regiment dispersed for a second time, with some joining the Union army. On November 8, 1862, some mulattos in Mobile were enlisted in the city’s defense at the behest of Major General Dabney H. Maury. James Seddon opposed their enlistment in Confederate service, keeping the outfit as an Alabama state force. Seddon made his opposition known to other states that considered using blacks in combat.

Other examples of blacks in the Confederate ranks were so rare as to be a curiosity. On the eve of Shiloh, one battalion in the 13th Louisiana, a unit made up of New Orleans dock workers, apparently counted some blacks in its ranks, but this was likely due to the integrated nature of their antebellum profession and the more cosmopolitan culture of the city. The regiment also included Irish, French, Spanish, German, Mexican, Italian, Dutch, and even Chinese soldiers. Another example of such regional influences was the Donaldsonville Louisiana Artillery. It included Louis G. Lefort, a freeman of high standing, as an aide to Captain Victor Maurin. The outfit’s band was mostly black and were among the most popular musicians in the Confederate army. Donaldsonville though was home to many free blacks, and the city eschewed political radicalism of any stripe. Secession was not popular in the city and Pierre Landry, the first black mayor in American history, was elected in Donaldsonville in 1868 through a biracial coalition. By contrast, the 16th Louisiana, a rural outfit, expelled Private Lufoy Auguste when they discovered he was a mulatto. In general, most antebellum militia outfits out-right banned black soldiers. Virginia only allowed them to serve as musicians.

For most blacks, their experience with the Southern armies was one of servitude. Both freemen and slaves were commonly used as cooks and teamsters or to build fortifications. Wealthy Southerners brought slaves with them as servants. Increasingly, slaves were being pressed into non-combat service and becoming the muscle behind the army’s logistical support. On December 8, 1863, Davis in his annual message to Congress urged the use of slaves as wagoners, cooks, nurses, and laborers on fortifications and government works. By February 1864, the Congress passed a law expanding the use of slaves. Altogether, blacks were a common sight in Confederate camps, but they never served in a major combat role.

The lack of black troops in Confederate gray, particularly after Vicksburg and Gettysburg, showed that the commitment to slavery could even trump military necessity. Major General Patrick Cleburne, one of the best commanders on either side, had argued that blacks should not only be armed and given freedom, but pointed to history and recent battles as evidence that they would make good soldiers. Indeed, during the American Revolution, blacks fought in the American, British, French, and Spanish armies. Slaves who fought under George Washington were freed. Washington was wary of using black troops, but military nesscity ruled out his prejudice. By contrast, on the eve of the Battle of New Orleans, Colonel Pierre Denys de La Ronde protested Jackson’s decision to arm slaves in exchange for freedom. This was in spite of the fact that his plantation was being used by the British, who had recently burned Washington D. C. and might do the same to New Orleans. Jackson armed some slaves anyway, but after the battle he reneged on his promise of freedom. In the decades after the War of 1812, blacks were squeezed out of the American military and militia. Cleburne then was, in a sense, harkening back to Washington and Jackson. Both were slave-masters who had, in desperation, allowed slaves to fight.

Although Cleburne’s plan had some support, many of his fellow officers denounced it. Major General James Patton Anderson, a slave owner and staunch secessionist, denounced it as “revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, and Southern honor.”[ii] Although Jefferson Davis was sympathetic to the idea, he kept his feelings private and Cleburne was told to do the same. Even after the great defeats of 1863, the South was generally unwilling to free slaves for combat service. Much of this can be ascribed to Southern notions of honor and superiority. It would be an admission of weakness to turn to blacks, who most saw as naturally inferior, and ask them to save the country. Indeed, on March 15, 1865, Saxe Joiner, a loyal South Carolina slave, offered to help defend a young girl if the Yankees came. Even in these dark days, with the Union army roving through the countryside, some locals were offended by this. So they dressed up in Confederate costumes and hanged Joiner. His body was left to rot in the open. Such a society could never comprehensively support blacks in combat roles.

The idea of blacks fighting was less revolting in the North, but still controversial. Brigadier General Hugh Reid, who openly supported emancipation and led a brigade of black troops in 1863, nonetheless declared that “every colored soldier who stops a rebel bullet saves a white man’s life.”[iii] Black regiments could rarely provide the services that even Reid desired though. Although often well armed and provided with sharp uniforms, blacks were also given inadequate medical supplies, spoiled rations, mediocre white officers, and untrained physicians, all of which contributed to high death rates. The 65th USCT never fought the enemy in a major battle yet they still lost 755 men to disease, cold weather, and accidents, the second highest death total among any regiment in the Union army. Some regiments were not even trained for combat but were instead used exclusively for labor. Blacks were paid less than white soldiers until July 1864, although former slaves were paid even less until March 1865. White officers could be brutal in their punishments. Since blacks were considered naturally inferior, it was thought that bright uniforms would attract them the way that they attracted children. As a result, morale was often low among black troops not designated for frontline service. Of the 145 USCT regiments raised during the war, only sixty saw any fighting, with only 25% being engaged in major battles.[iv]

The main reason black troops were not used extensively was due to doubts about the ability of the black soldiers under fire. However, by the time Hinks’ men marched on Petersburg, this prejudice was starting to fade. The first time a black unit saw combat was at Island Mound, Missouri, where they defeated Confederate guerillas. In 183 black troops had fought valiantly in several battles including Port Hudson, Milken’s Bend, Honey Springs, and Jenkin’s Ferry. Even Brigadier General Truman Seymour, who had once exclaimed, “put those damned niggers from Massachusetts in the advance; we may as well get rid of them one time as another” had changed his mind after seeing them in action at Fort Wagner and Olustee. Black regiments with good officers who were kept near the fighting, were consistently noted for cast-iron discipline, sharp dress, and a willingness to battle their former oppressors.[v]

In Virginia, their first taste of battle came on May 24 at Wilson’s Wharf on the James River. The 1st and 10th USCT, led by Wild, built Fort Pocahontas on the James River and used it as a base to raid the countryside. Wild’s actions caused a scandal in Richmond and Bragg was pressured into sending Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry to crush Wild. Lee surrounded the fort and asked Wild to surrender, hinting that if the fort fell to an attack he could not be held responsible for his men’s actions. It was an allusion to Fort Pillow, where the black garrison’s failure to surrender had supposedly led to a massacre. Wild, though, was not one to flinch when confronted with danger. He had spent time in Italian prisons, been a doctor in the Turkish army during the Crimean War, and lost his left arm leading the 35th Massachusetts at South Mountain. While recuperating, he raised officers and men for black regiments, leading one of the first all black brigades, known as Wild’s African Brigade. With this outfit he raided North Carolina, freeing slaves and battling partisans. He destroyed property and took hostages, making him a hated man in the South. Unsurprisingly, Wild ignored the threat and then repulsed Lee’s attack, winning a lopsided, if minor victory. Wild, however, was so thoroughly disliked by his fellow officers, that his men received only scant praise and the victory was hardly celebrated.

[i]            Rhea, To the North Anna River, 363.

[ii]           Castel, 36.

[iii]          Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964), 393.

[iv]          Herbert Aptheker, “Negro Casualties in the Civil War,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 32, (No. 1 Jan., 1947), 17-19, 28-29, 33.

[v]           Aptheker, 37-38


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