Editor’s Note: Some of this article covers topics just prior to the Siege of Petersburg. In this case, I’ve left the early part of the article because it is covers the Bermuda Hundred Campaign and is relevant to what the 3rd Division, 18th Corps did later at Petersburg. Solon A. Carter was the Ating Assitant Adjutant General of the 3rd (Colored) Division, 18th Corps, Army of the James during its time at Petersburg.
Fourteen Months’ Service with Colored Troops.1
BREVET-LIEUTENANT COLONEL SOLON A. CARTER, U.S.V.
The object of the present paper is to tell in simple language, without exaggeration or embellishment, the story of what the Colored Division of the Eighteenth Corps did, and how they did it, throwing here and there a side light upon previous descriptions of their deeds of valor and heroism. That the lights are of such exceedingly limited power must be attributed to the fault of the instrument, rather than lack of loyalty to the memory of the gallant officers and brave men, living and dead, whose acts are commemorated.
Late in the month of April, 1864, Brigadier General Edward W. Hincks, at that time in command of the camp for rebel prisoners at Point Lookout, Maryland, was summoned to Fortress Monroe by Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, for consultation with reference to the campaign soon to be inaugurated. As the result of this interview, General Hincks returned to Point Lookout, and made arrangements for the transfer of his command to other hands. Within forty-eight hours of the receipt of his verbal instructions from General Butler, he established head quarters at Camp Hamilton, near Fortress Monroe, and upon the same day that his formal instructions were received from department head quarters, issued the following order:
“Head Quarters Of Division At Camp Hamilton, Va.
General Order, No. I. April 22nd, 1864.
In compliance with Par. X. S. O. No. 123, dated Head Quarters Department of Va. and N. C. April 22nd, 1864, the undersigned hereby assumes command of all troops at Camp Hamilton, Va. The following Division Staff Officers are announced, and will be obeyed and respected accordingly:
Capt. Solon A. Carter, 14th N. H. Vols., Act’g Ass’t Adj’t Gen.
Capt. John E. White, 99th N. Y. Vols., A. A. D. C.
Capt. Thos. L. Livermore, 5th N. H. Vols., A. A. D. C. & A. A. Q. M.
2nd Lieut. Robert N. Verplanck, 6th U. S. Col. Troops, A. A. D. C.
(signed) Edw. W. Hincks,
Brig. Gen. U. S. Vols.
(signed) Solon A. Carter,
Capt. and Act’g Ass’t Adj’t Genl.”
The troops composing the new command consisted of,
Battery B, 2nd U. S. Colored Light Artillery, Captain F. C. Choate.
1st U. S. Colored Cavalry, Colonel Jeptha Garrard.
2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry, Colonel George W. Cole.
The three foregoing organizations had been recruited at Camp Hamilton during the late autumn of 1863, and the winter of 1863-4.
1st Regiment U. S. Colored Troops, Colonel John H. Holman; (organized in the District of Columbia.)
4th Regiment U. S. Colored Troops, Colonel Samuel A. Duncan; (organized at Baltimore.)
5th Regiment U. S. Colored Troops, Colonel Conine, subsequently Colonel G. W. Shurtleff; (organized at Camp Delaware, Ohio.)
6th Regiment U. S. Colored Troops, Colonel John W. Ames; (organized at Camp William Penn, Philadelphia.)
10th Regiment U. S. Colored Troops, Colonel Stafford, subsequently Colonel Elias Wright; (organized in Virginia.)
22nd Regiment U. S. Colored Troops, Colonel Joseph B. Kiddoo; (organized at Philadelphia.)
37th Regiment U. S. Colored Troops, Lieutenant Colonel A. G. Chamberlain, subsequenly Colonel Nathan Goff; (organized at Norfolk, Va.)
The 36th Regiment U. S. Colored Troops, Colonel Alonzo G. Draper, which was organized at Portsmouth, Va., was at that time on duty at Point Lookout, Md., but joined the division during the summer.
The 1st U. S. Colored Cavalry was not recognized as a part of the division after breaking camp at Camp Hamilton, never thereafter reporting to division head quarters; but the 2nd U. S. Colored Cavalry was at intervals attached to the division, participating with it in some of its most important engagements, and furnishing a goodly number of capable officers for staff duty, not only to the division to which it was attached, but to other commands.
The organization of the division was further perfected by the formation of two brigades, the 1st, 10th, 22nd and 37th Regiments constituting the First Brigade, under the command of Brigadier General E[dward]. A. Wild. The Second Brigade consisted of the 4th, 5th and 6th Regiments, under the command of Colonel Samuel A. Duncan.
The short time intervening between the organization of the command and its departure from Camp Hamilton to become a part of the Army of the James, was spent in drill, in which most of the regiments were exceptionally proficient; and in supplying it with the necessary clothing, ammunition and equipment for active service in the field.
A feature of the formation of one of the regiments of the command (the 4th, Colonel Duncan), is perhaps worthy of mention, not in disparagement of any other, but because it was unique and had several advantages to recommend it. The usual formation of an infantry regiment was by placing the tallest man in each company on the right, giving the regiment, when in line, a somewhat jagged appearance. Colonel Duncan being given a thousand men, placed the tallest in the color company, tapering gradually to the wings. By this arrangement, his command when in line, especially when viewed from the front, gave the spectator the impression that the men were above the average height.
This formation greatly simplified the work of the captains in making requisitions for clothing.
ASCENT OF THE JAMES.
The hour was at hand for the general forward movement of all the armies of the Union, in accordance with a comprehensive plan.
The grand old battle-scarred Army of the Potomac was soon to grapple again with its old-time antagonist, and once more the battle should be joined, was never to loose its grip until victory, complete and decisive, should crown its efforts.
The Army of the James, consisting of the Eighteenth and Tenth Army Corps, under the command of Generals William F. Smith and Quincy A. Gillmore, had been concentrated at Yorktown, Gloucester Point, and Norfolk (with the exception of the Third Division of the Eighteenth Corps, which was at Camp Hamilton) ready to embark on transports when the movement of the Army of the Potomac should be announced. The Rapidan was crossed May 4th, and on the evening of that day the Army of the James embarked upon transports and dropped anchor in Hampton Roads.
At the dawn of the 5th of May, a motley fleet of upwards of one hundred and fifty vessels of all classes, but of sufficient capacity to transport an army of more than thirty thousand men, with their ammunition, camp equipage, commissary stores, artillery and horses, at a given signal weighed anchor, and convoyed by the naval fleet, bore away for the mouth of the James.
The little fleet of the Naval Brigade of the Army of the James, under command of Brigadier-General Charles K. Graham, had preceded the movement, destroying the enemy’s signal stations.
The transport fleet as far as practicable was grouped in brigade and division formation, but such formation was not wholly maintained, owing to the varying speed of the vessels.
It was an inspiring sight, and never to be forgotten by one who was privileged to witness it, and consider himself a unit in the magnificent pageant.
The sky was clear, the air balmy, and the banks of the stream were clothed with the luxuriant verdure of the rapidly advancing season. As each bend in the river disclosed a new vista, surpassing the former in beauty, the beholders forgot for the moment the scenes of carnage to which they were surely moving forward.
It was surprising that the onward movement of the fleet was not obstructed, as there were several points upon the river banks where artillery would have seriously delayed its progress.
Evidently the enemy had been taken by surprise; the audacity of the movement was our greatest security.
What of the Third Division? They occupied a peculiar position. For the first time, in Virginia at least, they were to be put to the supreme test. At Port Hudson and Wagner, indeed, they had given proof of their capacity, and their deeds had been published to the country, but there was an unmistakable feeling of distrust in the minds of many, soldiers and civilians as well, and a fear amounting to conviction, that they would flinch in an emergency.
These sentiments were not shared by the officers in immediate command of the colored troops, and they waited with impatience for an opportunity of demonstrating their steadiness and courage.
Forty miles above the mouth of the river, and nearly twenty miles below City Point, at Wilson’s Wharf, afterwards known as Fort Pocahontas, the first detachment was landed, consisting of the 1st, 22nd, and 37th Regiments, U. S. Colored Troops, and Captain Choate’s battery. General Wild was in command. Intrenchments were thrown up, and preparations made for a vigorous defence of the position, which commanded the river at that point.
Seven miles above, at Fort Powhattan, the remaining regiment of General Wild’s brigade (the 10th) was landed, and a few days later, as the importance of the position became apparent, the 22nd Regiment was transferred from Wilson’s Wharf to Powhattan, Colonel Kiddoo assuming command of the post.
At four o’clock in the afternoon, on May 5th, the little steamer upon which were General Hincks and staff and a small provost guard, made fast to the partially destroyed wharf at City Point, encountering no opposition from a detachment of the 8th North Carolina Confederate regiment stationed there.
Head quarters were quickly transferred from the steamer to to [sic] Dr. Eppes’ cottage, on the bluff (subsequently occupied by General Grant as army head quarters from the middle of June until the surrender of Lee’s army).
Colonel Duncan’s brigade was quickly landed, and dispositions made to intrench and hold the position so easily acquired.
A few days later the 4th and 6th Regiments of Duncan’s brigade moved out six or seven miles towards Petersburg, and constructed a strong redoubt at Spring Hill, on the right bank of the Appomattox, a position which, if controlled by the enemy, would have commanded the left of the line on the Bermuda front. The 5th Massachusetts Cavalry (colored), Colonel H. S. Russell, and a battalion of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry, Colonel Arnold A. Rand, relieved Colonel Duncan’s brigade in the intrenchments at City Point.
This post, in the spring of 1864, was the point at which the exchange of prisoners of war was effected; Major Mulford and Robert Ould being the Federal and Confederate commissioners, respectively.
The Colored Division was in the enemy’s country, but scattered from Spring Hill, on the Appomattox, to Wilson’s Wharf, on the James, a distance of twenty-five miles.
The enemy made an occasional reconnoissance from Petersburg toward the work at Spring Hill and also towards our position at City Point; but no formidable demonstration was attempted upon either.
The position of General Wild’s brigade was an important one, commanding the river for a considerable distance, and was coveted by the Confederates.
On the 24th of May, General Fitz Hugh Lee, with a considerable force of cavalry, appeared before the works, and after a sharp skirmish drove our pickets inside the intrenchments.
He then sent to General Wild a formal summons to surrender, promising that both officers and men should be treated as prisoners of war, adding that in the event of a failure to comply with his demand, he would immediately assault, in which event he would not be responsible for the consequences. The interpretation of this threat was that colored soldiers taken as prisoners should be returned to their former masters, and their officers be delivered to the state authorities to be dealt with for inciting insurrection.
General Wild’s reply to Lee’s demand was that he was ready to try conclusions with him.
Lee dismounted his troopers, and at half past twelve o’clock made a furious attack upon the works. The colored soldiers withheld their fire until the assailants were entangled in the abattis, when it was delivered with murderous effect. The enemy recoiled and sought shelter; a second and third time they renewed the attack, and were as often repulsed. After five hours of fruitless effort, they withdrew, chagrined and disgusted, leaving their dead upon the field.
General Wild reported twenty-four of the enemy killed, including one major and a captain, and ten prisoners; also that the enemy had opportunity to remove their dead and wounded from all parts of the field, except the abattis. His own losses were two killed, nineteen wounded, and one missing.2
The results of this first encounter were highly gratifying, demonstrating that the colored troops possessed nerve and courage. Their critics were compelled to admit they had shown good qualities behind breastworks, but were still sceptical as to their ability to assault them.
Preparations were completed for an advance in force upon Petersburg on the 20th of May, but the movement was abandoned, owing to the withdrawal of sixteen thousand troops from the Bermuda front under General W. F. Smith, to reinforce the Army of the Potomac at Cold Harbor.
It was believed by General Butler that the defences of Petersburg had been weakened by the withdrawal of troops to send to the Army of Northern Virginia, and he planned to send General Hincks to attempt the capture of the city, with reasonable expectations of success.
General Gillmore, learning of the contemplated movement, expressed a desire to command it, and his request was acceded to.
On the ninth of June the demonstration was made with a column of sixty-five hundred infantry and artillery under the command of General Gillmore, besides a body of cavalry, numbering thirteen hundred, under the command of General A[ugust]. V. Kautz. Of the infantry comprising General Gillmore’s force the Third Division contributed three regiments, about nineteen hundred men, with General Hincks in command.
The troops from the Bermuda front had crossed the pontoon bridge at Broadway landing, by half past three o’clock in the morning, where they were joined by General Hincks. At five o’clock the column was in motion, the cavalry in advance, closely followed by the colored troops.
The route of the cavalry was southerly, crossing the City Point, Jordan’s Point, Prince George and Norfolk and Petersburg roads (a detour of nearly twenty miles), to the Jerusalem plank road, striking the latter at a point about four miles from the enemy’s intrenched line.
At seven o’clock the colored troops encountered the Confederate pickets at Bailey’s Creek, on the Jordan’s Point road, and drove them within their works on that front.
General Hincks took a position near the Ruffin house, with skirmishers advanced to the crest from which could be obtained a view of the enemy’s line of works.
It was now ten o’clock. Two hours later the three regiments of colored troops were withdrawn a short distance, and at one o’clock by order of General Gillmore fell back to Bryant’s house and by a subsequent order, at two P.M. General Hincks’ command rejoined General Gillmore’s column at Baylor’s farm.
Meanwhile General Kautz had moved up the Jerusalem plank road, gone within the enemy’s works, destroyed their camps, and captured forty-two prisoners; but hearing nothing from the infantry, had withdrawn by the same route by which he had advanced, without encountering opposition.
Nightfall found all the troops participating in this reconnoissance back in their camps, wondering what the day’s work had amounted to.3
The movements of the Colored Division on the fifteenth of June were in some respects a repetition of those of the 9th, but executed under changed conditions, and with better, if not entirely satisfactory results.
The strength of the division was increased, the 1st Regiment having joined from Wilson’s Wharf, constituting with the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry dismounted, a brigade under command of Colonel Holman, and the 22nd Regiment had been brought up from Powhattan and assigned to Colonel Duncan’s brigade.
It was understood that this time there would be no turning back; accordingly the comfortable head quarters which we had occupied since the fifth of May were abandoned, and all necessary preparations made to take the field and fulfil our part in the general plan of the campaign.
Our route brought the division substantially to the point reached on the ninth. General Smith returned on the evening of the fourteenth with the column he had commanded at Cold Harbor, disembarking from transports near Broadway landing, but on the Bermuda side.
At an early hour on the fifteenth, his two divisions, commanded by Generals Brooks and Martindale, crossed on the pontoon bridge, and preceded by General Kautz’s cavalry and the Colored Division (the latter being now a part of General Smith’s command) moved in the direction of the Petersburg intrenchments. The cavalry encountered the pickets of the enemy on the City Point road, and soon discovered a considerable force with two pieces of artillery in position, protected by an earthwork which had been erected since our former visit, contesting its advance.
General Kautz moved to the left without engaging this force, leaving the 3rd (of the Colored Division) to dislodge them. The field work referred to was on Baylor’s farm, in an open field, and commanded the City Point road. It was hidden from view by a strip of timber perhaps one hundred and fifty yards in width, with a dense undergrowth which separated the open ground in which it stood from another open field, over which the Colored Division must advance. The City Point road led through this timber.
Dispositions were quickly made for the attack, Duncan’s brigade being formed in two lines, the 4th and 6th Regiments on the right of the road, and the 22nd and 5th on the left, the 4th and 22nd Regiments being in the front line. Holman’s brigade was still further to the left.
Skirmishers were thrown forward and the line of battle advanced across the open field in splendid style, though the enemy’s artillery had perfect range and their practice was good.
There was no giving way on any part of the line, although progress through the wood was slow, owing to the tangled undergrowth through which they were obliged to force their way.
Emerging from the timber, the line charged with a rush, the enemy retreating before the furious onset, leaving one of their guns in possession of the 22nd Regiment.
General Hincks and staff closely followed the line of battle moving on the road, and upon reaching the work just captured, found a group of colored soldiers indulging in extravagant demonstrations of delight at their victory, one sable son of Mars being astride the captured gun as if it were a hobby horse, and disclosing a wide expanse of ivory.
Addressing him the general inquired, “What has become of the Johnnies?”
“Well, sah, dey jes’ done lit out; didn’t car’ to make close ‘quaintance. Reckon dey must ha’ smelled us.”
The column was quickly reformed and moving to the left, soon reached the Jordan’s Point road, on which the division advanced.
General Brooks and Martindale moved on the City Point and river roads, later going into position in front of the works on the enemy’s left. It was now nine o’clock. Reaching the Jordan’s Point road at a point nearly two miles from the intrenchments, a company of colored cavalry, from Colonel Coles’ regiment, commanded by Captain Robert Dollard, accompanied by Captain Livermore of the division staff, was placed in advance, and forced back the enemy’s skirmishers. At a favorable point this company dashed up the road, through the enemy’s skirmish line, and deploying to the right and left, cut out from under their guns and brought to the rear a number of prisoners, about equal in number to their own strength.
The division was in position in front of the enemy’s works on that part of the line soon after one o’clock p. m., with skirmishers advanced beyond the crest overlooking the enemy’s position, the line of battle slightly in the rear of the highest point intervening, and but slightly protected by it, from the fire of the batteries in our front and flanks.
Generals Martindale and Brooks had meanwhile taken their positions so that the line was in the following order: General Martindale on the right, General Brooks in the centre, and General Hincks on the left; General Kautz operating independently still farther to the left.
The Petersburg defences consisted of a line encircling the city and a distance about two miles from it, of strong redans or batteries connected by infantry parapets with high profiles, and all with ditches. The line commencing at the Appomattox river on the north of the city, extended nearly a mile in an easterly direction, thence southerly, considerably beyond the position of the Colored Division, and thence around to the river, on the other side of the city. The length of the entire line was upwards of seven miles. The redans were numbered from our right consecutively, battery five forming the salient, and commanded the approaches on both northern and eastern fronts.
The right of the line of the Colored Division was nearly opposite battery six, and connected with the 13th New Hampshire which formed the left of General Brooks’ division, and overlapped battery five.
The connection with General Brooks’ division was not absolutely perfect, a swamp intervening, but the gap was inconsiderable.
For five hours the command remained in this exposed position, swept by, at least, four of the enemy’s batteries, momentarily expecting the signal to attack, and under orders to be ready for instant response.
There they remained throughout the afternoon, hostile shot and shell doing their deadly work until the list of casualties was formidable, the oppressive heat adding to their discomfort, and they were unable to strike a blow in return. It was indeed a severe test for inexperienced troops.
At half-past six the long expected summons came, the skirmish line, which had previously been doubled, was ordered to assault along the whole front. The line moved forward promptly and steadily across the intervening space, in the face of a galling artillery and musketry fire from the parapets; up the slope which was surmounted by the enemy’s fortifications, over the parapet, inside the works, capturing all the guns in position and many prisoners, although many of the Confederates retreated in confusion toward what they must have considered the doomed city. The main line then advanced and occupied the captured line of works.
The charge was simultaneous on the part of the Colored Division and the division under command of General Brooks, and resulted in the capture of the entire line as far to the left as battery number ten, which was situated at the point where the Jordan’s Point road entered the line. There was at that time no obstruction between us and Petersburg.
The Third Division claimed for its share, the line from battery number seven to battery number ten, both inclusive, and immediately after the occupation of the line, a regiment moved to the left inside the Confederate line, and occupied battery eleven also, which was near the Dunn house.
The claim has been advanced by at least two eminent authorities, General Grant, in his memoirs, and General Butler, that it was the colored troops that captured the entire line. The claim is not justified by the facts. The left of General Brooks’ division, or the 13th New Hampshire, captured battery five and the line to and including battery six; and those works were the spoils of General Brooks’ division.
The casualties of the Colored Division, including the affair of the morning, at Baylor’s farm, were five hundred and seven killed and wounded, among the latter being Colonel Russell of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry (temporarily attached to the division) and Lieut. Colonel Goff of the 22nd U. S. Colored Troops. (Colonel Goff returned to duty in November as colonel of the 37th U. S. C. T.)
No attempt was made to press the advantage secured that night, and the colored troops which had sustained themselves so well throughout the day (receiving commendation for their gallantry, in general orders from General Smith), were not allowed to occupy the line they had won, but were withdrawn, being relieved by the Second Corps which had come up late in the afternoon or early evening.4
It was a victory for which the active participants and the country were grateful; but in view of the conditions then existing, the numbers and character of the forces opposing, the absence of Lee’s Army, and the proximity of the veterans of the Army of the Potomac, it is a pertinent question whether it might not have been still more decisive and far reaching in its results.
Let the question be answered in the Yankee fashion, by asking others. 1st. Would the defence of the Confederates have been more stubborn at two o’clock than at half past six, when they must have been emboldened by the apparent timidity of their assailants during the the [sic] whole afternoon? 2nd. Would the assault have been less vigorous and determined at two o’clock, when the colored troops, at least, were elated at their success of the morning, than at sunset, after having been subjected to the demoralizing influences of the afternoon’s exposure?
Candid answers to these questions will suggest the answer to the former, and compel the admission that the same qualities of leadership which were displayed in such a marked degree in the campaign resulting in the surrender of Lee’s Army at Appomattox, if exercised on that day, would have given the Army of the James possession of Petersburg, and greatly simplified subsequent operations.
The Army alas, possessed but one Phil Sheridan!
The division was assigned a place on the right of the line during the earlier stages of the siege and division head quarters were established on the right, near the City Point road.
A battalion of sharp-shooters was organized by a detail of two hundred picked men from the command, suitably officered, which furnished a provost and head quarters guard.5
While occupying this position an order was promulgated, requiring public religious services at division head quarters on Sundays. Pursuant to the order, a colored chaplain was detailed to conduct the service the following Sunday, and as the fact became known there was a large congregation, including many representatives from neighboring head quarters.
The service was unique; the singing by the congregation hearty, as usual; the officiating clergyman read the Scripture lesson appreciatively, and prayed with fervor; but he was visibly embarrassed by the large audience, and his extemporaneous discourse was a decided failure, closing as follows: “Ma deah fren’s, I hopes you will all ‘scuse dis er — er somewhat in-co-herent discose. To tell de tru hones’ truf, de peculiar circumstances ob de occasion have made it jes impossible for me to ventilate myself as I could wish.”
About the first of July, General Hincks, still suffering from wounds received at Antietam, intensified by a fall from his horse during the engagement of June 15th, was advised by competent medical authority that it would be unwise for him to endure the exposure incident to active service in the field.
He reluctantly relinquished his command, greatly to the regret of his superior, as well as his subordinate officers.
July 30th, upon the occasion of firing the mine on General Burnside’s front, the division, being temporarily under the command of General James B. Carr, was assigned and occupied a position on the Ninth Corps front, but was not actively engaged.6
In August, Brigadier General Charles J. Paine was assigned to the command; the detachments from Wilson’s Wharf and Fort Powhattan were brought to the front, and the 36th Regiment joined the division from Point Lookout.
Under General Paine’s watchful eye and careful attention to all the little details, especially to the personel of the division, and the capacity of his brigade and regimental commanders, the command attained a high degree of efficiency.
In September the division left the Petersburg front for Deep Bottom, from which point it moved September 29th to the assault of the enemy’s position at Newmarket Heights, simultaneously with the movement of General Ord upon Fort Harrison, and that of the Tenth Corps under General Birney from Deep Bottom, to which Corps the Third Division was temporarily attached.
This engagement was the severest test of the fighting qualities of colored troops to which the Third Division was subjected, and it is believed to be within the bounds of truth to say that no other command of colored troops ever experienced a more trying ordeal.
The fortification to be attacked was on the Newmarket road, and was practically to the left of the Confederate line. It was defended by about one thousand Confederate veterans7, with artillery in position to command the narrow neck over which the assaulting column must advance. It occupied a considerable elevation and was protected by two lines of abattis; one about fifty yards from the parapet, and the other a very strong line about one hundred yards further down the slope; the position was further protected by a marshy swamp or morass which was imperfectly drained by a sluggish creek through which the assailants must force their way.
The effective strength of the command was not far from three thousand, organized in two brigades, commanded that day by Colonels Draper and Duncan.
The troops were in position at an early hour on the morning of September 29th on open ground descending towards the James, screened from the view of the enemy by the intervening crest; and officers and men were impressed with the idea that the charge must be vigorous and sustained, and that they were expected to capture the work at whatever sacrifice.
Muskets were loaded, but not capped, bayonets fixed, and everything made ready for the dash. At half past four o’clock, in the gray of dawn, the order to advance was given, and the line moved forward. But few moments were required to gain the crest, from which a view of the enemy’s position could be obtained.
The ground descended gradually to the marshy bottom and stream before described, and was exposed for the entire distance to the fire of the guns on the height beyond, which opened as soon as the column advanced beyond the crest, but with little effect at first.
The lines moved forward with steadiness and without any perceptible hesitancy until the marsh and stream were reached. At this point there was a little confusion, the left of the line finding the swamp impassable. This compelled a contraction of the front.
The column pressed forward across the stream and up the slope beyond, encountering the concentrated artillery and musketry fire of the enemy, which was terribly effective.
The first line of abattis was reached without any apparent check, and pioneers with axes commenced the work of removing it. Many were killed while so employed, but others seized the axes and the obstruction disappeared as if by magic.
It was still a hundred yards to the inner, and less formidable line of abattis, but the distance was soon traversed, and the demolition of the second line was commenced.
Here the head of the column seemed literally to melt away under the destructive fire to which it was subjected. It was an anxious moment. Could the men endure the frightful strain?
The obstruction delaying their progress rapidly disappeared under the almost superhuman efforts of the axemen; the officers gallantly rallied and encouraged their commands; the gaps in the ranks were filled and the onward movement was resumed with irresistible force and energy.
The last line of abattis once passed, the enemy did not wait for a bayonet charge, but fled in confusion along the Newmarket road towards the inner defences of Richmond.8
With exultant cheers the column swept forward over the parapet, and occupied the coveted prize.9
The casualties resulting from this brief engagement (it could not have much exceeded thirty minutes) were appalling.
General Butler, who was present, says, “As I rode across the brook and up towards the fort along this line of charge, some eighty feet wide and three or four hundred yards long, there lay in my path five hundred and forty-three dead and wounded of my colored comrades.”
The Official Army Register of the Volunteer Force of the United States Army, states that the casualties of the several regiments composing the assaulting column were five hundred and eighty-seven, as follows:
From this statement it appears that the 36th Regiment of Colonel Draper’s brigade, and the 4th and 6th of Colonel Duncan’s brigade bore the brunt of the engagement.
Many of the companies lost all their officers, and left the field under the command of non-commissioned officers.
Christian A. Fleetwood, late Sergeant Major 4th U. S. Colored Troops, in a paper entitled “The Negro as a Soldier” written for the Negro Congress at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895, compares the work of Duncan’s brigade on September 29th with the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava, as follows: “Sometimes a comparison will illustrate better than figures alone. I give a single instance: Every one has heard of the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava. I will put beside it a Black Brigade of about the same number of men. Here they are:
The Tenth Corps moved up the Newmarket road, and in the afternoon unsuccessfully assaulted Fort Gilmer; in which assault a portion of the Third Division participated.
Meanwhile the white troops of the Eighteenth Corps had captured Fort Harrison with its connecting works at Chapin’s [sic, Chaffin’s] farm, from which line the Army of the James advanced to occupy the Confederate Capital, the following April.
The Third Division was moved to the left during the evening of [September] 29th, head quarters being established for the night within Fort Harrison, and the troops were employed in reversing the captured works.
On the morning of the 30th our wagon was brought up and preparations made for serving our mess with coffee. A convenient spot was selected on the plateau over which the Eighteenth Corps had charged the previous day; and soon the aroma of the refreshing beverage caused a little group to gather, with pleasant anticipations of a treat.
Meanwhile Confederate gun-boats in the river were getting the range and occasionally dropping a shell in the neighborhood.
During the night of the 29th and morning of the 30th the captured line was placed in a tolerable condition for defence; and none too soon; for during the afternoon of the 30th three determined attempts were made by the enemy to retake it, but without success.
During the attack, the left of the division rested on Fort Harrison, extending thence toward the Newmarket road, where the command did effective work in repulsing the repeated assaults of General Hoke’s Confederate division.10
The command later occupied a position on the left of the line of the Eighteenth Corps.
On the 27th of October, the 1st, 22nd and 37th Regiments formed a part of the force under General Weitzel, which moved to the right as far as the Seven Pines battle field of 1862, thence up the Williamsburg road to the enemy’s line. The Colored Brigade, under the command of Colonel Holman, was on the extreme right, beyond the railroad at Fair Oaks Station.
The 1st and 22nd Regiments assaulted at a point between the Williamsburg and Nine Mile roads, carrying the work in their front; dismounted two guns and threw them outside the Confederate work.
They were the only troops that succeeded in breaking the enemy’s line that day, but they were soon withdrawn by order of General Weitzel.
Colonel Holman and Colonel Kiddoo were both severely wounded while gallantly leading the charge; the total casualties in both regiments amounting to one hundred and five killed and wounded.
The brigade left the field under the command of Lieut. Colonel Chamberlain of the 37th Regiment, retreating about ten miles in a pouring rain, over the route by which they had advanced, and bivouacked about midnight.11
An incident illustrating the tenacity with which colored soldiers clung to their weapons occurred during this movement.
The surgeon-in-chief and assistant adjutant general of the division who had accompanied the command, were steaming under the same blanket when they were awakened at daybreak by some one inquiring for “de doctah.”
The caller was a colored soldier who had been shot through the right lung the previous afternoon, the bullet passing through his body. This man had followed the retreating column through mud and rain for ten miles, bringing his gun and equipments with him.
Surgeon Barnes dressed the wound and placed him in charge of the ambulance corps. Asked why he had brought his gun, the brave fellow replied that he “Didn’t car to be in dose parts widout sumpin to protect hisself.”
By direction of the President and an order from the War Department dated December 3, 1864, the Tenth and Eighteenth Army Corps were discontinued and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Corps were constituted, the white infantry troops of the Army of the James constituting the former; and the colored troops of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, the latter.
By this arrangement, the Third (Colored) Division of the Eighteenth Corps became the First Division of the Twenty-fifth Corps, with Brigadier General Charles J. Paine as its commander.
In the reorganization, the division gained four fighting regiments which had seen service with the Ninth Corps,
The 27th [USCT], Colonel A. M. Blackman;
The 30th [USCT], Colonel Delavan C. Bates;
The 39th [USCT], Colonel O. P. Stearns;
The 107th [USCT], Colonel Revere,
and lost the 1st, 10th and 36th Regiments, which were attached to another division.
The First Division, Twenty-fifth Corps, saw little or no service in Virginia after its organization, December 6th, but it accompanied both expeditions to Fort Fisher.
Editor’s Note: The final few pages of this article, which cover the division’s assaults on Fort Fisher and subsequent movements in North Carolina, have not been reproduced here.
- Carter, Solon A. “Fourteen Months’ Service with Colored Troops.” Civil War Papers, Read Before the Commandery of the State of Massachusetts, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Vol. 1, pp. 155-179 ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This was the Battle of Fort Pocahontas, fought on May 24, 1864. Click here for a good article on the battle. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This was the First Battle of Petersburg, or the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys, fought on June 9, 1864, and is sometimes referred to as Butler’s Offensive against Petersburg. This is not to be confused with Grant’s nine subsequent offensives against the Cockade City. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Carter is here describing the fighting on June 15, 1864 at the Second Battle of Petersburg. As he points out, the Union had an unbelievable chance to capture Petersburg that night if they had just moved forward. William F. “Baldy” Smith hesitated, and it would take nine and a half months to eventually cause the city’s fall. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: While the Confederates typically created sharpshooter battalions out of each brigade, the Union army slowly moved to create sharpshooter battalions at the division level. Before reading this account, I was entirely unaware that the 3rd Division, 18th Corps even had a sharpshooter battalion. Fred Ray is in the process of writing a book on the Federal sharpshooters to match the one he wrote on the Confederates. Perhaps he will shed some additional light on this organization. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Carter is here referring to the Battle of the Crater, fought on July 30, 1864. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This was the famed Texas Brigade, commanded by John Gregg. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The Texas Brigade ever after claimed, perhaps fairly, that they had been notified of the fall of Fort Harrison and were rushing back to the next line to shore up the defenses there. For more on this controversy, see Jimmy Price’s book The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This was the Battle of New Market Heights, fought on the morning of Speptember 29, 1864, where more than a dozen Black soldiers won Medals of Honor for their actions that day. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This was the second day of the Battle of Fort Harrison, where Lee’s concerted counterattack failed to dislodge the Yankees from their newly won gains. Generals Field and Hoke, as was so often the case in the last year of the war, failed to cooperate and the attacks did not accomplish their objective. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: This movement was Grant’s “right hook” during the Sixth Offensive, which occurred on October 27-28, 1864. While Hancock’s Second Corps was moving toward Hatcher’s Run and the Boydton Plank Road intersection over on the left, Butler fought the Battle of Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road which included the Second Battle of Fair Oaks. The effort was a failure, with no new ground gained. ↩