|Henry G. Thomas|
May 8-9, 1864 – 23rd was placed in charge of the army’s supply train then located at Belle Plain Landing on the Potomac River. They were also charged with escorting wounded men to Belle Plain. Once they arrived, the supply wagons were refilled and the regiment turned around to head back to the Army of the Potomac. In these first marches and movements some of the black troops fell into enemy hands. This was the first time that armed African American soldiers were taken prisoner in this theater of operations, but their fate differed little from that being suffered by their western comrades. Charles Hopkins, a white soldier who had been captured during the Wilderness fighting, was witness to the hanging of a black POW at Orange Court House on the morning of May 9. An even more chilling incident is related in the diary of a Virginia cavalryman named Byrd C. Willis. “we captured three negro soldiers the first we had seen. They were taken out on the road side and shot, & their bodies left there.”
May 15, 1864 – 23rd USCT returns from Belle Plain Landing. They are then called upon for what will be the first clash of black troops against Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia north of the James River. As described by Noel Harrison at Mysteries & Conundrums: “On May 15, 1864, [Gen. Thomas L. ]Rosser’s men sought information on a Union army corps as it shifted southeastward towards Spotsylvania Court House. Apprised by the retreating Ohioans of Rosser’s approach, the 23rd United States Colored Infantry, joined by some members of the 30th United States Colored Infantry, hastened southeast from Chancellorsville, where those and other African American regiments of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s division had bivouacked. Moving in column along the plank road, the reinforced 23rd first made contact through its deployed skirmishers with Rosser’s men. The Confederate troopers had stopped short of the Catharpin-plank road intersection to occupy the southwestern side of the Alrich clearing, holding an edge-of-tree line position that likely straddled Catharpin Road. The climax of the action came when the column of the 23rd reached the intersection and faced right. In an account recently uncovered by historian Gordon C. Rhea, one of the Ohio cavalrymen wrote, “It did us good to see the long line of glittering bayonets approach, although those who bore them were Blacks, and as they came nearer they were greeted by loud cheers.” The 23rd charged southwest toward the tree line. Rosser’s men withdrew, pursued by the now-reformed Ohio cavalrymen. The engagement had taken the lives of several Confederates and wounded several Federals. A small action indeed, otherwise not important, save for the first shots in anger fired by USCTs–some of them former slaves.”
May 16 – June 15, 1864 – The 23rd continues to follow Grant’s army, but sees no major action. As the army moves south, Ferrero’s black troops became the instruments of liberation for many of the slaves who were confined between Fredericksburg and Richmond. A soldier in the 43rd USCT wrote that “we have been instrumental in liberating some five hundred of our sisters and brothers from the accursed yoke of human bondage. You see them coming in every direction, some in carts, some on their masters’ horses, and great numbers on foot…Several of them remarked to me [that] it seemed to them like heaven, so greatly did they realize the difference between slavery and freedom.”
|Hanging of William Johnson|
July 30, 1864 – The Battle of the Crater. After the mine explosion early on the morning of July 30, Capt. Warren H. Hurd of the 23rd watched in awe as a “large black cloud…appeared to rise out of the ground.” White troops of the Third Division advanced into the Rebel works and after 90 indecisive minutes, the Fourth Division was called in to support the attack. Hurd remembered that “it seemed [to take] forever [to move forward]. The whole [division]…filed through a single parallel… we were hindered by officers and orderlies coming to the rear, the parallel being only six feet wide.” The 23rd charged forward but could not get past the crater itself. Lt. Beecham remembered of the crater – “The black boys formed up promptly. There was no flinching on their part. They came to the shoulder…like true soldiers, as ready to face the enemy and meet death on the field as the bravest and best soldiers that ever lived.” Beecham and the rest of the 23rd held a portion of the crater until around 2 p.m. when the Confederates counterattacked and swept over them, killing many men who were attempting to surrender. Historian Earl J. Hess speculates that the 23rd lost their flag during this counterassault. The 23rd sustained the heaviest losses of the entire Fourth Division.
|Alfred Waud's Sketch of the 23rd USCT going into the Battle of the Crater.|
December 1864 – The 23rd USCT is transferred to the Army of the James, where it will serve in Brig. Gen. Henry G. Thomas’s Third Brigade of Maj. Gen. August V. Kautz’s First Division of the all-black 25th Corps.
April 1865 – The 23rd enters the fallen Rebel capital of Richmond and is at Appomattox for Lee’s surrender.
November 30, 1865 – The 23rd USCT is officially mustered out of United States service