Friday, December 9, 2011

An Early Christmas Present & Book Signing Tomorrow

Well, the Christmas season was ushered in with a bang yesterday when I received an e-mail from the Library of Virginia stating that The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword has been nominated for the best nonfiction work for that esteemed institution’s 2012 book awards. Needless to say, I was quite taken aback when I received this notification, but also truly grateful to all of you who have read the book and let me know how much you enjoyed it. What an honor!

And speaking of book signings, I will be at the John J.Wright Museum starting at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow morning signing books. If you’re in the area, stop on by and say hey (and buy a copy or two while you’re at it)!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Civil War Talk Radio Appearance

UPDATE, 12/3/11 - The interview went well, and here's the link if you'd like to listen to it!

For those of you who listen to Gerry Prokopowicz’s Civil WarTalk Radio, be sure to tune in tomorrow as the scheduled guest will be yours truly! The show kicks off at 3:00 p.m. and if you miss it, don’t worry – all shows are archived here.

Also, if you happen to be in our Nation’s capital on Saturday afternoon, I’ll be giving a lecture followed by a book signing at the African American Civil War Museum. The lecture begins at 2:00 p.m. Hope to see you there!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Profile In Courage: Milton M. Holland, Part I

One of the things that I’m sure nags many Civil War authors is the regret that they feel over not being able to include every detail and account that they unearth during their research for their books. For me, one of the great heroes of New Market Heights who I wish I could've spent more time on was 1st Sergeant Milton M. Holland of the 5th USCI. Holland was one of the 14 black Medal of Honor recipients from that historic clash of arms, and his life story is one that I found to be particularly fascinating.

Milton Holland was born in Texas, fathered by Bird Holland, a white slave owner who would later fight for the Confederacy. Milton's mother was a slave on the plantation owned by Bird's brother. Milton was one of three brothers that were born from this relationship. When he and his brothers were young, his father purchased their freedom from his brother, their uncle and slave master, and sent the three boys to a school in Ohio. Holland was still residing in Ohio when Civil War broke out in 1861.
In what will be the first installment of two posts on Holland’s remarkable life, I will now let the good sergeant give you his story in his own words. The following comes from a letter that Holland wrote to Lt. Col. Joseph P. Mitchell, who was then compiling information on Civil War Medal of Honor recipients. It is interesting to note that Holland chose to write the letter in the third person.
 Milton M. Holland was born in the state of Texas in 1844. He was attending school in Athens County, Ohio, in 1861 when the first call was made for volunteer soldiers, and responded to the call of his country. He enlisted in the Union Army in April, 1861, but was rejected on account of his youth. But so determined was he to serve his country that he immediately sought employment in the Quartermaster Department and served under Colonel Nelson H. Van Hores of the 3rd, 18th, and 92nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
He served in this capacity until he was regularly mustered into the Union Army in June 1863 and assigned to the 5th United States Colored Troops, a regiment raised in Ohio and accredited to that state. Within his regiment he engaged in the campaigns in Virginia and North Carolina under the command of General B.F. Butler. In the winter of 1863 he was with his regiment in the raid through the Dismal Swamp into North Carolina, capturing forage and emancipating slaves under the then recent Emancipation Proclamation.
In the early winter and spring of 1864, he was with his regiment in the two raids from Yorktown, Virginia to Bottom’s Bridge just outside Richmond: the first raid being made for the purpose of liberating the Union prisoners confined at Libby Prison; and the second for the purpose of assisting General Kilpatrick who, in his attempt to relieve the Libby Prison men, had been surrounded by the Confederate forces.
He was with the James River fleet in its advance on Richmond and, as the fleet approached City Point, Company C, of which Holland was then the 1st Sergeant, was ordered to make the attack. The order was promptly obeyed and, without landing the vessel, the men jumped from the guard rail of the boat, wading water waist deep to reach the point of attack. They captured the Rebel flag, the signal; station and signal officers of the confederacy, thus stricking [sic] the first signal blow at the Rebel stronghold at Petersburg.
This regiment was part of the famous Black Brigade which General Smith at first refused to use in his charge on Petersburg on June 15, 1864. General Butler, commanding the corps, promptly ordered General Smith to march on Petersburg and storm her breastworks. General Smith led the black phalanx in the charge, and for the courage, the heroism, the daring and skill displayed by the colored troops in that bloody fight, General Smith remarked that he would lead men like those into any fight and rely upon their pluck.
His regiment was at the ‘Mine Explosion’ [The Battle of the Crater] on July 30, and was prepared to make the charge. They received instructions at a given signal to discharge their guns onto the enemy’s line, jump the parapet and the ditch, and make a charge to cover the ‘Crater’. But just before the signal was substituted in their place. This circumstance, young Holland has ever maintained, lost a key to the Union forces that otherwise would have been gained. It was at this battle that Holland had planned and decided to cover himself in glory. He was sorely disappointed but never relinquished the desire and intention to avail him of the first opportunity.
That opportunity would come at a place called New Market Heights… 
1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland, wearing his Medal of Honor. Courtesy Rob Lyon.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

For Those of You Who Worry That the Current Generation Doesn’t Understand or Care For Our Nation’s Past…

…I humbly submit to you this wonderful video about the 54th Massachusetts.

The lyrics are profound, the production is wonderful, and the seamless intertwining of sound clips from the motion picture Glory make this the best original song about the Civil War that I have ever heard in my entire life.

If these talented young artists ever choose to release an entire album of similar songs, well…to quote Thomas from Glory – “Then I am your first volunteer!”

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Quick Hits

Be sure to check out my new interview with Harry Smeltzer over at Bull Runnings. Many thanks to Harry for letting me take up some of his blog space!

My friend and fellow member of the re-formed 23rd USCT Steward Henderson has written a two-part blog post that gives a great overall history of the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War. Steward’s posts can be found over at the Emerging Civil War blog.

Hat tip to Craig Swain for letting me know about the dedication of a new monument for the 8th United States Colored Heavy Artillery this Saturday at the Paducah-McCracken County Convention and Expo Center in Paducah, Kentucky. The 8th USCHA’s most famous day came at the Battle of Olustee and it is fitting that they receive a monument in their home state.

Also happening this Saturday is a book signing featuring your truly at the Civil War Life Museum Store on Caroline Street in Downtown Fredericksburg. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, be sure to swing by and say hey!

Finally, you may notice a new badge on the front page of The Sable Arm. I was informed yesterday that voted The Sable Arm one of the Top 50 Military History Blogs for 2011! Many thanks to them and to all of you who continue to read and support this blog!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Upcoming Signings & Talks

Saturday, October 15th – Richmond Folk Festival: All-day signing at the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar

Saturday October 22nd – Signing at the Civil War Life Museum Store on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg, VA

Saturday November 12th – Signing at Barnes & Noble, Chesterfield Towne Center. Signing begins at 1:00 p.m.

Saturday December 3rd – Talk & book signing at the African American Civil War Museum & Memorial in Washington, DC. Talk begins at 1: 00 p.m.

Saturday December 10th – Talk & book signing at the John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania, VA. Event begins at 10:00 a.m.

As always, if you’d like to set up a time for a lecture and/or book signing, feel free to contact me at

Thursday, September 29, 2011

More Updates

1. ) Many thanks to Kristopher White and the ever-increasing group of talented authors over at the Emerging Civil War blog for allowing me to write a guest post about my book! If you haven’t been following this blog over the past couple of weeks, you’ve really been missing out. Don’t deprive yourself any longer!

2.) If you happen to be going to the ASALH convention in Richmond next week, be sure to stop by the book signing that will be taking place Thursday October 6th at 6:00 p.m. I'll be there signing books and I hope to see you there!

3.) Finally, today is the 147th anniversary of the Battle of New Market Heights. If you’re the reflecting type, take a moment tonight and think about the significance of September 29, 1864.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Busy Weekend Awaits

Go ahead Johnny Reb. Make my day.
If you happen to be in the Richmond area over the weekend, please be sure to check out one of the free events that I’ll be signing books at!

Tomorrow I will be speaking at the “Henrico County: Gateway to Richmond” Symposium along with Frank O’Reilly, John Coski, and Robert E.L. Krick. The symposium runs from 10 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and there will be a book signing by all authors after the last lecture.

After that, I’m off to one of my favorite sites in the whole world – Fort Harrison, which in my opinion is the crown jewel of all the sites operated by Richmond National Battlefield Park. I’ll be there on Saturday and Sunday signing books and portraying Lt. Nathan Edgerton, who was one of the Medal of Honor recipients from New Market Heights.

All in all, it should be a great time and I hope to see you there!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Stuff & Civil War Trust Interview

Well, in case you hadn’t heard, my New Market Heights book is out and about, so be sure to head over to your local bookstore and demand that they carry it! Assuming, of course, you have any bookstores left in your town. If not, you can order it here and here, among many other places.

In the world of book signings, I will be speaking at what looks to be a first rate symposium entitled “Henrico County: Gateway to Richmond” this Friday and doing a signing after the event. I will also be at Fort Harrison this weekend signing books, so stop on by and say hello if you get a chance. I’ll be updating this site with new book signings as requests come in, so keep checking back to see if I’ll be coming to a theater near you.

Finally, I wanted to point you over to the Civil War Trust’s website where you can read a brand new interview with yours truly about the book. Many thanks to Jim Lighthizer, Rob Shenk, and the great crew over at the CWT for making this happen!

As always, if you’d like to set up an interview or book signing, just shoot me an e-mail and let me know!

I apologize for the lack of substantive posts as of late, but after the book craze slows down look for a return to posts that don’t have to do with my book.

Friday, August 26, 2011

New Blog About To Appomattox Miniseries

Greg Caggiano and Steven Hancock have started a new blog that will have all of the latest updates and information about the upcoming miniseries To Appomattox. I recently had the chance to review and rewrite portions of the script that had to do with USCTs and I can tell you that this is going to be an excellent series once it debuts in 2013. For those who can’t endure the wait, this new blog will give you your weekly fix and a fascinating insider’s view of the series as production move forward.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs By The Sword Now Available For Pre-Order!

Well, after two years of research and writing I am happy to finally be able to say that my battle history of New Market Heights is now available for pre-order from The History Press! The official release date is September 15th, so if you want to be sure that you have a copy in your hands on that day, be sure to order your copy today!

From the Publisher:

In the predawn darkness of September 29, 1864, black Union soldiers attacked a heavily fortified position on the outskirts of the Confederate capital of Richmond. In a few hours of desperate fighting, these African American soldiers struck a blow against Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia and proved to detractors that they could fight for freedom and citizenship for themselves and their enslaved brethren. For fourteen of the black soldiers who stormed New Market Heights that day, their bravery would be awarded with the nation’s highest honor—the Congressional Medal of Honor. With vivid firsthand accounts and meticulous tactical detail, James S. Price brings the Battle of New Market Heights into brilliant focus, with maps by master cartographer Steven Stanley.

Monday, August 8, 2011

If You Happen To Be in Richmond on September 23rd... sure to check out what should be a great event that is being sponsored by the County of Henrico. Held in honor of the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War a FREE symposium will be the kickoff for the county's sesquicentennial  commemoration, bringing together nationally-renowned authors and experts for a discussion of the crucial role played by Henrico County in the American Civil War.

The symposium will feature:

Moderator-Andrew Talkov, Virginia Historical Society. Creator of the VHS Civil War Sesquicentennial exhibit, “An American Turning Point”

John Coski- Historian at the Museum of the Confederacy and author of Capital Navy: The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron

Robert E. L. Krick, National Park Service Historian and author of “Stuart’s Last Ride: A Confederate View of Sheridan’s Raid"

Frank O’Reilly, National Park Service Historian and author of The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock

Jimmy Price, Historian and author of the forthcoming The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs By The Sword

The event will be held from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. at Henrico Theatre, 305 E. Nine Mile Road, Highland Springs, 23075. To register, call 804-328-4491.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

“To Appomattox” Shaping Up To Be A Great Series

Some of you may recall two posts that I wrote last November and April about the upcoming miniseries event To Appomattox. In both of those posts I revealed my concerns about the lack of an African American presence and my fears that USCTs would be left out of the story entirely. While both of those posts came across as critical and even sparked the ire of producer Michael Frost Beckner, what I failed to communicate adequately was that I have been in this film’s corner rooting for them from the very start – with the proviso that they strive to “get things right.” Well, I can now confidently say that the producers are doing a whole heck of a lot to “get things right.”

First, they have assembled a powerhouse of historical advisors such as Ed Bearss, D. Scott Hartwig, Edward Longacre, John Marszelak, John Michael Priest, J.D. Petruzzi, Gordon Rhea, and Dr. Ronald C. White (and that’s not even all of them – see here for the completer list). With such an all-star team advising the producers, it’s hard to see how there will be any glaring errors or cringe-worthy moments a la the Scott brothers’ recent Gettysburg escapade.

Also, Mr. Beckner was kind enough to share with me that there will indeed be a USCT presence in the film. The story of Captain Andre Cailloux of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard (later the 73rd USCT) who was killed at Port Hudson on May 27, 1863 will be featured in the film as well as a portrayal of the Battle of the Crater that centers on the story of the USCTs in Ferrero’s’ 4th Division. And while I hemmed and hawed about Trace Adkins being involved in the film, I was interested to see that he’s playing John Gregg (whose men defended New Market Heights). Perhaps I can hold out hope that New Market Heights will somehow make it into the film – after all, I hear there’s a great book coming out on the topic…

The miniseries is set to debut during the summer of 2013 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and I guess you can say that I’m on the bandwagon now. If I learn more about how much screen time is allotted to USCTs I will certainly pass it on.

Profile in Courage: Lt. Nathan Edgerton, 6th USCT

In anticipation of the upcoming release of my first book, The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs By The Sword, I thought that I would take the time every once and awhile to share some of the great firsthand accounts of the battle that I could not fit completely into the book. While you will recognize some of the names and parts of their testimony as to what happened on September 29, 1864, I still feel like reading their entire account uninterrupted is of great value.

With that in mind, I thought I’d start off with a bang by sharing the account of Lt. Nathan Edgerton of the 6th USCT. The 6th was part Col. Samuel A. Duncan’s Brigade, which was the first unit to attempt to break the Confederate line in the early morning hours of the 29th. Edgerton was born into a Quaker family in Ohio and was raised to be a pacifist. When war broke out in 1861 he refused to join and it was not until Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg Campaign that he saw the necessity of military service. Edgerton became a lieutenant in the 6th USCT in late 1863. By the time of New Market Heights he was the regimental adjutant and as such he rode behind the men of the 6th as they prepared to seize the New Market Line. The following is Edgerton’s chilling account of what happened next:

As Adjutant of the regiment I received and transmitted to the Company Commanders on the evening of Sept. 28, 1864 and order to equip their men for immediate action, and be ready to form line at daybreak the following morning…We went forward about a mile without encountering the enemy; then our skirmishers came upon their pickets and lively firing began. The enemy, however, gave way almost immediately, falling back upon their reserves, and again on to their main line. Our skirmishers pursued so rapidly that we had to go at a double-quick to keep at proper supporting distance, and we were close upon their heels when they reached the earthworks at Chapin’s Farm. These we charged at once, believing the whole corps was at our backs to support us as we had supported our skirmishers, as we had been told would be the case. The earthwork immediately in front of us was strengthened by an abatis extending along its entire face. This had in front of it a sluggish stream with marshy banks and mossy bottom, about four yards wide. Just at the left of our regiment, the enemy’s earthwork ran at right angle to the front we were charging and enabled him to give us an enfilading fire as we moved forward, which was terribly effective. At the edge of the stream, I jumped from my horse and threw the reins to the orderly, for I was sure the horse would be unable to get across owing to the marshy nature of the ground. The reins had hardly left my hand when the horse went down, shot dead from the opposite bank. When I got over the stream, I found a level space of ground thickly covered with our dead and wounded. Among these I saw Lieutenant Meyers lying upon the flag, dead, but still holding it. I took it from him and pushed forward to bring the colors to their proper place. All at once I went down, but jumped up immediately and tried to raise the flag, for I thought I had fallen over the dewberry vines which grew thickly there, but finding it did not come, I looked down, after trying again, to see why I could not lift it, and found my (517) hand was covered in blood, and perfectly powerless, and the flag staff lying in two pieces. I sheathed my sword, took the flag with its broken staff and reached the abatis. Colonel John W. Ames was there, and about a corporal’s guard of men, others soon appeared out of the powder smoke, which was so dense that we could see only a few feet ahead of us. After waiting a few moments to see how many we could muster, the Colonel said: ‘We must have more help, boys, before we try that. Fall back.’ When we got beyond the stream and out of the cloud smoke, we could begin to see how terribly we had been cut to pieces. We lost more than every other man, and fourteen out of the eighteen officers with which we had begun the fight.
Edgerton was treated for his wound at the Chesapeake Officer’s Hospital where surgeons successfully operated to save his arm. After the war, he launched a successful career as a scientist and inventor, even helping introduce electric power to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. By this time the war must have seemed a distant memory, but not everyone had forgotten what Edgerton did at New Market Heights. On March 22, 1898 he was informed that his valor on that day had earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Edgerton wore his medal proudly until he passed away on October 27, 1932.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Rest in Peace, Dr. Edwin S. Redkey

I was saddened to learn recently that Dr. Edwin S. Redkey died on June 10th at the age of 79.

Dr. Redkey was the editor of the classic work A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (1992), a book which inspired Noah Andre Trudeau to write his book Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 (1998). Trudeau called Redkey’s book “a revelation in every sense of the word” and used it as one of the starting points for his research.

Redkey also contributed an excellent essay entitled “Henry McNeal Turner: Black Chaplain in the Union Army” in Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era (2002) edited by John David Smith.

His obituary states that, “having specialized in American History and Race Relations, Ed helped found the field of African American Studies and made significant scholarly and popular contributions to it.”

He will be missed.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Rappahannock Exodus: The 1862 Flight to Freedom and Beyond

Members of the 23rd USCT

Chief Historian, John Hennessy

At noon this Saturday at the John J. Wright Museum, John Hennessy will be presenting a program entitled “Rappahannock Exodus: The 1862 Flight to Freedom and Beyond.” The recreated 23rd USCT is sponsoring this event along with John J. Wright. After the talk is over, attendees will have the chance to explore the exhibit "Emancipating Their Homeland: Spotsylvania-born U. S. Colored Soldiers” with the members of the 23rd who will be there in uniform to assist and answer questions. This is a free program, so don’t miss your chance to come and learn about a topic that is already growing in popularity. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Gettysburg VS Predator

A couple days ago I received an email from someone at “History” (formerly the History Channel) asking if I would promote their upcoming two hour spectacle Gettysburg, produced by Ridley Scott (Alien, Black Hawk Down) and his brother Tony (The A Team, Pillars of the Earth). The person from “History” even offered a wide assortment of goodies in compensation for my blog space, including high-end items like t-shirts and hand bags.

With such a tantalizing deal before me (I mean who wouldn’t want a white t-shirt with a big “H” on it?), I wisely listened to the little voice in the back of my head that asked, “Yes, but what if you end up hating it?” and ended up turning down the offer.

Needless to say, it’s a good thing I did, because I can now offer you a lighthearted post on how some of my more vociferous and passionate friends on Facebook responded to what turned out to be a disappointing film on many, many levels.

Here’s a sampling of what some folks are saying about Gettysburg that had me writhing with laughter.


"At least Ridley Scott didnt put laser sighters on the enfields."

"seek medical help if this show lasts more than four hours"

"This Gettysburg thing is bizarre! Bad uniforms, beards, hats etc. No one seems to fight in formations. The Rebs apparently all fought in their shirtsleeves. The Rebel yell sounds like a bunch of radical Muslims."

"Calling it putrid is an insult to all of the rotten things in the world."

"The best thing has been the warning when the show comes back after commercials: "Some scenes may disturb viewers". I find the whole damn mess pretty disturbing."

"I think they bought much of the props at the gift shop."

"I like Ewell, he looks like a crazy toupee model."

“Ron Maxwell, you have been vindicated! At least you knew that Lee’s men wore coats, you didn’t try to show sweeping forestry scenes that were reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and you didn’t annoy us with sidebars about the Underground Railroad and the invention of the telegraph. And who in their right mind would’ve thought that the fake beards you used would be shown to be superior?”
Now, in all fairness, I should point out that the historians who were chosen to provide the commentary did an excellent job (it was great to finally see my friend Hari Jones on the History Channel). It was the pairing of such excellent scholarship with awful Hollywood antics, however, that made the film seem disjointed, confusing, and supremely unfulfilling.

Kudos to “History” for trying to contribute to the Sesquicentennial commemoration by seeking out high-end Hollywood producers to help generate interest in America’s greatest conflict.

And here’s to hoping that they never do it again.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 - 'Putting their lives on the line for their country'

Kudos to Clint Schemmer of the Free Lance Star for his excellent article on Take Our Stand: The African American Military Experience in the Age of Jim Crow.

Be sure to check it out! - 'Putting their lives on the line for their country'

Sunday, May 22, 2011

148 Years Ago Today

No. 143



Washington, May 22, 1863.

I -- A Bureau is established in the Adjutant General's Office for the record of all matters relating to the organization of Colored Troops, An officer, will be assigned to the charge of the Bureau, with such number of clerks as may be designated by the Adjutant General.

II -- Three or more field officers will be detailed as Inspectors to supervise the organization of colored troops at such points as may be indicated by the War Department in the Northern and Western States.

III -- Boards will be convened at such posts as may be decided upon by the War Department to examine applicants for commissions to command colored troops, who, on Application to the Adjutant General, may receive authority to present themselves to the board for examination.

IV -- No persons shall be allowed to recruit for colored troops except specially authorized by the War Department; and no such authority will be given to persons who have not been examined and passed by a board; nor will such authority be given any one person to raise more than one regiment.

V -- The reports of Boards will specify the grade of commission for which each candidate is fit, and authority to recruit will be given in accordance. Commissions will be issued from the Adjutant General's Office when the prescribed number of men is ready for muster into service.

VI -- Colored troops maybe accepted by companies, to be afterward consolidated in battalions and regiments by the Adjutant General. The regiments will be numbered seriatim, in the order in which they are raised, the numbers to be determined by the Adjutant General. They will be designated: "——Regiment of U. S. Colored Troops."

VII -- Recruiting stations and depots will be established by the Adjutant General as circumstances shall require, and officers will be detailed to muster and inspect the troops.

VIII -- The non-commissioned officers of colored troops may be selected and appointed from the best men of their number in the usual mode of appointing non-commissioned officers. Meritorious commissioned officers will be entitled to promotion to higher rank if they prove themselves equal to it.

IX -- All personal applications for appointments in colored regiments, or for information concerning them, must be made to the Chief of the Bureau; all written communications should be addressed to the Chief of the Bureau, to the care of the Adjutant General,



Assistant Adjutant General.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

If You Happen To Be In Spotsylvania Tomorrow…

…stop by and meet the members of the newly formed 23rd United States Colored Troops living history group!

We’ll be scouring the crowds looking for potential recruits and educating the public about the history of the 23rd and of USCT history in general.

Members of the recreated 23rd USCT. From left to right: 1st Lt. Jimmy Price, Cpl. Steward Henderson, & Capt. John Cummings III

Hope to see you there!

Monday, May 16, 2011

NPS historian Eric Mink to talk May 17 on U.S. Colored Troops - Past is Prologue

Thanks to Clint Schemmer for his kind mention of The Sable Arm in this article. If you live in the Fredericksburg area, be sure to catch this talk tomorrow night. I'll be there wearing my "foolish re-enactor" clothes representing a member of the 23rd USCT, so I hope to see you there!

NPS historian Eric Mink to talk May 17 on U.S. Colored Troops - Past is Prologue

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

THIS JUST IN: Glenn Lafantasie Doesn’t Like Civil War Re-enactors

If I was a Civil War re-enactor and I happened upon Dr. Glenn W. Lafantasie’s Sunday article over at entitled “The Foolishness of Civil War Reenactors,” I think I might have been offended.

Oh wait.

I am a Civil War re-enactor and I was offended.

In a meandering article that covers the controversial events that took place during the Fort Sumter commemoration last month, a spiteful dressing down of just about every re-enactor who has drawn breath since 1865 (the good doctor doesn’t seem interested in balancing his portrait with re-enactors who are sane, well-adjusted individuals presumably because he doesn’t think they exist), a brief overview of Lafantasie-approved reading on the conflict, and a lament over the month-old sesquicentennial, Lafantasie succeeds mainly in sounding like one of those out of touch academics that Southern heritage types are always crowing about.

He stumbles right out of the gate when he tries to give us “normal folk” a helpful definition of “what living history means.” Living history involves people “dressing up in Union and Confederate uniforms and acting out battles and other significant events that occurred between 1861 and 1865.” Not quite true – living history events are usually more casual happenings with no recreated battles in which the detested re-enactors set up camp and demonstrate life on the field and on the march. A battle re-enactment is an event where a specific battlefield scenario is recreated, such as the one that happened at Fort Sumter to Lafantasie’s everlasting outrage.

Many folks who have been in the hobby a while (myself included) will tell you that they prefer living history events because they are more laid back and offer better opportunities for interacting with the public. “Powder burning fests,” as they are sometimes called, tend to attract the subspecies of re-enactor commonly referred to as a “yahoo.” This type of re-enactor cares little for authenticity and wants to shoot his musket as often as he can so that his childhood fantasy of being Josey Wales will finally be realized. I suspect that this is the type of person that Dr. Lafantasie has so much pent up annoyance over.

As the article chugs right along, Lafantasie becomes more shrill in his denouncement of re-enactors, with statements like this – “I confess to some unease about all this playacting as we look down the road to four years of battle reenactments, fancy-dress balls (modeled on the ones portrayed in the films “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind”), and professions of neo-Confederate sentiments about the war having been fought over states’ rights and not slavery, as if that’s a good thing.”

Well, I shouldn’t need to point out that not every re-enactor out there thinks that such a commemoration would be a “good thing.” I guess in Lafantasie’s world there are no Union re-enactors at all, just long-bearded country folk running around shooting at the air and cursing that tyrant Lincoln. Ramping up his rhetoric, he states that re-enactors “live and breathe the war readily, without hesitation, and with a passion that veers close to a religious experience or even sexual arousal.” All of this “strikes [him] as perverse,” and I must admit that if I ever attend an event where re-enactors are flaunting their sexual arousal, I will be the first one to lead a bayonet charge back to the parking lot and fight my way out at all costs.

As the article continues to develop, the author makes more broad, sweeping statements that prove his lack of familiarity with how the hobby actually works and while he decries the violence that these battle re-enactments allegedly celebrate, he also criticizes them for being bloodless, snarkily describing how “the faux dead and wounded on the field rise up in a mass resurrection resembling the Rapture.” Unless Lafantasie wants real combat fatalities to occur at re-enactments, I’m fairly sure that this is unavoidable and the spectators (who Lafantasie also throws under the bus, comparing them to fans of professional wrestling) really are intelligent enough to draw distinctions between the modern day and 1861.

What really caused me to take issue with this article, however, is his characterization of African Americans. Consider this analysis:

“I’ve never attended a reenactment where the Confederate encampments are replete with compliant African-Americans portraying the slaves who actually accompanied their masters – officers and enlisted men – on the march. No doubt it’s hard to find modern African-Americans willing enough to play slaves alongside white Americans playing Confederate soldiers…It’s telling, of course, that African-Americans don’t often attend Civil War battle reenactments…For good reason, modern blacks are a little sensitive about slavery and anything that seems to suggest – as reenactments most assuredly do – that the Civil War was all about battles, that each side fought with equal courage and grand moral purpose, and that the war had nothing to do with slavery or emancipation.”

Is this all that can be said of how African Americans conceptualize the Civil War? Are camp slaves and contrabands the only opportunities available for any black person who would like to participate in a re-enactment? Does Lafantasie realize that over 179,000 African Americans served the Union cause as United States Colored Troops and that there are re-enactment units that exist to strive to portray these units? (I should know – the unit that I belong to is the 23rd United States Colored Troops.) Apparently USCT re-enactors have no place in Lafantasie’s framework, leaving his readers with the impression that African Americans have nothing to celebrate when it comes to the history of the conflict that freed 4 million of their ancestors. As he cynically notes, “one might successfully argue that the ‘new birth of freedom’ Lincoln hoped for never came about.”

Throughout the article, Lafantasie suggests venues other than Civil War re-enactments where people can come and learn to truly appreciate the history of the Civil War. He rightly suggests that National Parks are a good place to start. But doesn’t Lafantasie know that the NPS relies on re-enactment units on a regular basis to bolster their programs? Attend the wonderful living history weekend held by Richmond National Battlefield at Cold Harbor one June and you will see what I mean.

The article mercifully ends with a nearly incoherent rant about birthers, the Tea Party movement, and immigration reform which is sure to earn him points with some of his fellow academics while leaving the rest of us to think that all Civil War re-enactors are right wing racist lunatics hell-bent on destroying the “true” legacy of the Civil War.

For someone who seems to have such righteous indignation over people who lump entire groups of individuals into one category and discriminate against them, that is exactly what Lafantasie has done with Civil War re-enactors.

Respected re-enactors who are still with us like Greg Urwin and Dana Shoaf, in addition to those who are no longer with us like Chuck Hillsman and Brian Pohanka stand out as sterling examples of re-enactors that don’t fit Lafantasie’s mold.

And, like it or not, re-enactors will play a large role during the sesquicentennial commemoration. Perhaps it would be best to ensure that only the most respected re-enactment units out there are invited to participate in important events rather than denigrating them all because of one event that took place in Charleston last month.

But what do I know?

I’m just a foolish re-enactor.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Random Updates

Pardon the lack of posts as of late, but my beautiful wife and I just welcomed our second child into the world this week. That being said, I thought I’d update all of you on a few things that are worth noting.

1. In the “tooting my own horn” department, Civil War Trust President O. James Lighthizer has kindly agreed to write the forward to my New Market Heights book. Also, check out the site for Colonial Williamsburg’s page for the upcoming electronic field trip entitled When Freedom Came. Yours truly wrote the historical background for said field trip.

2. Check out a very interesting post from Alan Skerrett, Jr. about monuments to United States Colored Troops.

3. Be sure to take a look at the historical consultants for the upcoming miniseries To Appomattox. Quite impressive, to say the least.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Contest Announcement

Gentle Readers of The Sable Arm,

I have acquired an extra copy Jeffrey D. Wert’s new book A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph, 1862-1863, and thought I'd give the book away in a contest.

Here’s what you have to do to win. I am going to give my readers the chance to be a blogger for a day. All you have to do is answer the following question in 1000 words or less:

Q: In your opinion, what is the single most important contribution made by United States Colored Troops during the American Civil War?


1. Only One entry per person.

2. Limit submission to 1000 words or less.

3. Submit via email to with “Sable Arm Contest” as subject heading by April 22, 2011 at 11:59 PM Eastern US Time.

4. One (1) winner will be announced the week of Monday, May 2nd.

5. All contestants agree to allow the use of their submissions as future blog entries.

6. The book will be shipped once I have received the winners address. I will be shipping the book at no cost to the winner.

While the winner will receive the book as a prize, any and all entries that are worthy runners up will be included as guest posts on The Sable Arm throughout the coming months.

Good luck, and get writing!

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Brief Chronology of the 23rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops

November 23, 1863 – Organization of 23rd USCT begins at Camp Casey, VA. Lt. Robert K. Beecham, who had helped organize the regiment, said of the men of the 23rd – “As the 23d was made up mostly of men from Washington and Baltimore, very naturally we found among them some pretty hard cases, the equals, perhaps, of what white troops would show if recruited in the same cities; but as a rule the men were sober, honest, patriotic, and willing to learn and fulfill the duties of soldiers.”

January 26, 1864 – Burnside requests USCT units to form a division of black troops for the 9th Corps

April 1864 – 23rd ordered to Manassas Junction to become part of Col. Henry G. Thomas’s Second Brigade of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division (which consisted of the 19th, 23rd, 28th, 29th, & 31st USCT

Henry G. Thomas

May 6, 1864 – Fourth Division crosses Rapidan River at Germanna Ford for what will become the Overland Campaign (Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, and Cold Harbor)

May 7, 1864 – Fourth Division detached from 9th Corps to guard the roads, bridges, and fords in the rear of the Union May 7th was the first time that many of the white troops of the Army of the Potomac laid eyes on the USCTs of the Fourth Division. A member of Meade’s staff wrote a letter stating that, “As I looked at them my soul was troubled and I would gladly have seen them marched back to Washington…We do not dare trust them in battle. Ah, you may make speeches at home, but here, where it is life or death, we dare not risk it.”

 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.”

June, 1864 – Pvt. William Johnson of the 23rd confessed his guilt to the charges of desertion and rape and was executed within the outer breast works at Petersburg, on an elevation, and in plain view of the enemy, a white flag covering the ceremony. The site is near where the current visitor center sits.

Hanging of William Johnson
June 15-18, 1864 – 23rd participates in the opening battles of outside of Petersburg. Rebels under P.G.T. Beauregard hold on to the city, however, and a siege begins. The 23rd is engaged in building fortifications until late June. In July, Gen. Burnside’s proposed mine attack against the Confederate lines along the Jerusalem Plank Road was underway. “Towards the end of the digging, members of the 23rd United States Colored Troops…were employed to carry dirt from the mine in sacks. They also hauled timber to the gallery [of the mine] for framing its sides.”

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.

October 27, 1864 – The 23rd participates in the Battle of Burgess’ Mill at Petersburg.

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

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Crooked Road To Appomattox

4/18/11 - UPDATE # 2: Historian and fellow blogger J. D. Petruzzi has been called in to serve as an historical advisor for the film. For more, see here.

4/15/11 - UPDATE # 1: From the producer - "Pleased and very honored: reknowned historian, Ronald White--Christopher Award winner for "A. Lincoln: A Biography" and his upcoming Grant biography for Random House, has come on board as a historical advisor and will be paying expert attention to the characterization of President Lincoln." This is a very encouraging development. 

A couple of months ago I posted on the upcoming eight-part miniseries To Appomattox, which is being sponsored by NASCAR and gives all of the signs of being a very Lost Cause friendly dramatization of the American Civil War. The entire country music band Rascal Flatts will play varying parts in the film and stock car racer Carl Edwards is slated to portray Confederate General and post war propagandist John B. Gordon. In my first analysis of the project I expressed hesitant hope that the film will strive for accuracy and not fawn over Lee, Jackson, and “the cause” a la Gods & Generals.

Well, now I’ve discovered that the miniseries has a Facebook page which sheds a lot of light on just what we can expect from this production. First of all, it appears that Trace “I ain’t gonna cut my hair til the South gits her rights” Adkins is being approached for the role of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Although Adkins recently stated that he was certain that Confederate soldiers did not fight for slavery, I wonder how he will approach acting out the Fort Pillow massacre, should the filmmakers decide to include it in the film?

Not surprisingly, the movie has already drawn out the die hards. One exchange on the Facebook page reads like this:

Southern Heritage Type: “i truly hope the dignity of the southern soldger is up held they use facts and dont fill it with federal propaganda lets respect our forefathers not ridicule them”

“To Appomattox”: “Thanks...Over my mantle is the portrait of my great great great grandfather Simeon Howard Calhoun, a quartermaster in Lee's Army.”


On the bright side, however, it appears that the miniseries will strive to portray the contributions of United States Colored Troops. When asked, “You will Add USCT troops in this series will you?” the producers responded:

“Absolutely. We follow the story of Captain Andre Cailloux of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard--the first African-American officer in the U.S. Army--from their recruitment and through their heroic service at Port Hudson... We also spend a great deal of time with the tragedy and heroism of the USCT at the Battle of the Crater.”

So country music stars and NASCAR drivers will portray Rebel generals while reasonable folk and loons alike strive to have their voices heard and make sure that the “real” history will make it into the final cut.

Sounds about right for a Civil War movie…

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Civil War History in Virginia Month

From Governor Bob McDonnell's office:

WHEREAS, the month of April is most closely associated with Virginia’s pivotal role in the American Civil War; it was in April 1861 that Virginia seceded from the Union following a lengthy, contentious and protracted debate within the Commonwealth, and it was in April 1865 that the War was essentially concluded with the South’s surrender at Appomattox. In the four years that fell between those momentous months, Richmond served as the capital of the Confederacy, and it was on Virginia soil that the vast majority of the Civil War’s battles were fought, in places like Manassas, Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, New Market, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, locations now forever linked with the indelible history of this perilous period; and

WHEREAS, the largest wartime population of African-American slaves was in Virginia, yet through their own acts of courage and resilience, as well as the actions of the United States army and federal government, they bequeathed to themselves and posterity a legacy of freedom; and

WHEREAS, slavery was an inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War ended its evil stain on American democracy and set Virginia and America on a still-traveled road to bring to fruition the great promises of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to enjoy equally the blessings of liberty and prosperity; and

WHEREAS, the military leadership and tactics of Virginians like Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Union General George Henry Thomas are still studied, analyzed and discussed today; the heroism of brave individuals like William Harvey Carney, who was born a slave in Norfolk, gained his freedom through the Underground Railroad, and received the Medal of Honor for his valor as a Union soldier at the battle of Fort Wagner, inspires us through the ages; and the Commonwealth is the final resting place of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers; the many cemeteries in which they lie reminding us of the cost and pain of the War and telling the stories of those who fought; and

WHEREAS, following the War, Virginia began the difficult process of returning to a nation that was, in many ways, born within her borders; that transition was aided by the actions of leaders like General Robert E. Lee who set the strong personal example of reconciliation and grace crucial in helping the people of Virginia return peacefully to the Union, instructing Virginians to “....abandon all these local animosities and make your sons Americans."; and former Dinwiddie County slave Elizabeth Keckley who returned to Virginia as a guest of President Lincoln and expressed forgiveness and conciliation stating: “Dear old Virginia! A birthplace is always dear, no matter under what circumstances you were born”; and

WHEREAS, the General Assembly of Virginia created the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission in 2006 “to prepare for and commemorate” the Commonwealth’s participation in the war; and

WHEREAS, from 2011-2015 a diverse and growing Commonwealth will host innumerable public events, lectures, re-enactments, seminars, and remembrances covering every aspect of the war, and no state is more closely connected to this pivotal period of American history, and therefore no state is better suited to host visitors seeking to learn about the Civil War, the Confederacy, slavery, emancipation and the full history of our United States, and for that reason Virginia encourages visitors from across the country and the world to visit the Commonwealth during this period,

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Robert F. McDonnell, Governor of Virginia, do hereby recognize April 2011 as CIVIL WAR HISTORY IN VIRGINIA MONTH, and urge all Virginians to participate in commemorations of the war’s 150th anniversary and reflect upon the lives of the courageous men and women of those difficult times by attending seminars and conferences, and by visiting battlefields, cemeteries, exhibitions, historical markers, libraries, museums and historical sites throughout the Commonwealth, and by taking part in a diversity of events and activities that highlight our shared history and heritage, as we strive to enact the vision laid out in the preamble to the United States Constitution of “a more perfect union.”

Saturday, April 2, 2011

4th USCT Flag to go on Display

Of the host of new exhibitions and special events that will be taking place this month to commemorate the official opening of the Sesquicentennial, there’s one in particular that I would like call attention to. The Maryland Historical Society’s Museum will open an expansive Civil War exhibit on April 15. The impact of the war on the people of Maryland will be told in personal terms in Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War.  The exhibit will occupy over 5,000 square feet and tell the story of the tragedy in three acts: the romantic war, the real war and the long reunion. The Society will display some of the rarer items in its collection, including the national colors of the 4th United States Colored Troops. Yes, the original flag that Sgt. Maj. Christian Fleetwood rescued at New Market Heights will go on display for the entire world to see. The museum will also recreate the scene when the African American ladies of Baltimore officially presented this flag to the regiment before it set out on its first campaign. For more information on this exhibit see here or call 410-685-3750.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Carnage at Fort Gilmer

While most of what I write about on this blog (and in my forthcoming book) deals with the fighting that took place at New Market Heights during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, there is another encounter involving USCTs that took place on the same day that merits examination – the Battle of Fort Gilmer. Fought late in the day on September 29, 1864, this battle came about as a result of the success achieved by Maj. Gen. David Bell Birney’s Tenth Corps at New Market Heights. As Birney’s troops pushed westward up the New Market Road towards Richmond after the battle, the lead division came under heavy artillery fire from Fort Gilmer. After some hemming and hawing, the division commanders deemed it unwise to continue toward Richmond with such a powerful fort in their rear. The decision was made – Fort Gilmer would have to be taken.

The first assault column was ready to go by 12:50 p.m., but did not receive the order to attack until 1:25. Ten minutes later, 1,400 men of Brig. Gen. Robert S. Foster’s Second Division moved forward. The line of advance would take them into the sights of Confederate gunners before they moved across three separate ravines that threw off their alignment and caused great confusion among the ranks. After the third ravine was crossed, they emerged into an open field that was directly in front of the fort. If they could make it across that field, they would encounter one line of fraise (sharpened stakes sticking chest high out of the ground) and one line of abatis (sharpened branches of tree tops interlocked together to form a sort of early barbed wire) and then a ditch, or moat, that was ten feet deep. If by some miracle they could surmount these obstacles, they would then have to climb up the wall of the fort and fight their way in. Needless to say, Foster’s men – who would wind up attacking the fort twice – failed to take the fort.



As the day wore on the Colored Brigade under the command of Brig. Gen. William Birney (the corps commander’s older brother) arrived. Since Foster’s division had failed twice, it was decided that Birney’s brigade would attack next. Birney, unfortunately, threw his men in piecemeal. With two regiments pinned down or withdrawing from the field, a garbled order came down from brigade that the 7th USCT was to attack the fort with only four companies. Captain George R. Sherman of Company C, 7th USCT, chronicled what happened next:

Capt. George R. Sherman, 7th USCT

I was with [the 7th USCT] on Sept. 29, 1864 when Companies C, D, G, and K, were placed under Captain Julius A. Weiss, and ordered to charge and capture a fort in our front. When the order was received the Captain exclaimed, “What, capture a fort with a skirmish line? Who ever heard of such a thing? We’ll try, but it can’t be done.” It proved to be Fort Gilmer, on the main line of Confederate defenses, about six and a half miles from Richmond. A white regiment, the Ninth Maine, had just been repulsed in a charge on the same fort…Advancing as skirmishers we soon encountered a heavy fire of shell and shrapnel, not from the fort in or front alone, but also from one on our right flank, which was quickly followed by canister, and soon supplemented by musketry, the instant it could be utilized. Almost at the same moment the order to charge was given, and we dashed forward, soon to find ourselves plunging into a ditch fully seven feet deep, and twice that width. Pausing only for a breathing spell, the men helped one another up the interior, and nearly perpendicular wall of the ditch, until sixty or more had climbed to the foot of the parapet, and, upon signal, all attempted to scale and storm it. A volley from muskets whose muzzles almost touched us, and whose bullets penetrated the brains and breasts of many of those who showed themselves above the exterior crest, drove them instantly back, tumbling many into the ditch. Hand grenades were also thrown among us, some of which were caught by the men and hurled back at the enemy. The assaulting party was soon rendered perfectly helpless and we were compelled to surrender. All of the four companies except two lieutenants who skulked and one man who escaped from the ditch were either killed, wounded, or captured. One man escaped from the ditch and ran back to the regiment unobserved by our captors, during the excitement attending the surrender, and the transfer of our personal effects to the possession of the victors. One of the prisoners was claimed as a slave, and was delivered over to his would-be master. Of the 150 enlisted men who started, 51, or over 32 percent, were killed or mortally wounded.

 Fort Gilmer would not fall on September 29th. The 7th USCT lost 20 killed, 82 wounded, and 133 missing.

An interesting counterpoint to Sherman’s narrative is the account left to us by Brig. Gen. Edward Porter Alexander, who gives a no-holds-barred description of what happened from the Confederate perspective:

Brig. Gen. E. P. Alexander
Gen. Birney’s command advanced upon the New Market Road, driving in our pickets & taking our Exterior Line where it crossed that road and was practically without any garrison. Thence, some of his troops were pushed over to attack Fort Gilmer & the lines in its vicinity – but the attack failed every where. The best of it was made by Birney’s colored brigade, which was directed upon Fort Gilmer. There was only a picket line of infantry in the fort at that time, and along the neighboring Spur Line intrenchments, & the guns in the fort, some six or eight, were better adapted for distant than for a close defence. So, without much loss, the colored troops made a rush & jumped into the large ditch, some eight to ten feet deep, around the fort. Once in the ditch they were comparatively safe from fire, most of the ditch being dead space. At first they made some effort to scale the parapet. A large Negro helped by his comrades got upon the berm & mounted the exterior slope. He was shot & fell back in the ditch, & his comrades were heard to exclaim, “Dar now! Dey done kill Corporal Dick! Corporal Dick was best man in de regiment!” News spread along the line, on both flanks, that Negro troops were corralled in [the] Fort Gilmer ditch,& many of the Texans & Georgians, who had never met them before, came running into the fort & asking for “a chance to shoot a nigger.” Meanwhile the artillerists lighted shells & rolled them over the parapets to explode in the ditch, & the infantry mounted the parapets to fire into the crowd, & nearly every man in the ditch was finally killed or captured, the majority being killed. After that all colored troops were known in our corps as the “Corporal Dicks.”
Fort Gilmer was yet another instance in which USCTs proved their mettle, getting farther with four companies than an entire division had been able to just hours earlier. Perhaps the best compliment came from a Confederate who was guarding the few men of Birney’s brigade who had been captured. When asked if blacks could fight, the Rebel replied: "By God! If you had been there you would have thought so. They marched up just as if they were on drill, not firing a shot.” After the war, another Confederate was willing to admit that on September 29th, “Richmond came nearer being captured, and that, too, by negro troops, than it ever did during the whole war.”

The Interior of Fort Gilmer Today

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Take Our Stand Comes To Fredericksburg

For those of you who live in the Fredericksburg area, I highly recommend seeing the new traveling exhibit that will be opening at the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center. I must admit that I’m a bit biased since the exhibit was my idea and I wrote the first draft of the script, but…I digress.

 The exhibit I’m speaking of is Take Our Stand: The African American Military Experience in the Age of Jim Crow, which chronicles black military service from the Spanish American War of 1898 through the desegregation of the U.S. military 50 years later. The idea for the exhibit came when I was cataloging a portion of the John H. Motley Collection of African American military artifacts that are housed at the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. The collection ranges from the founding of America through the first Gulf War, including many rare photographs and prints. Interacting with these artifacts had a powerful impact on me and I kept asking myself the same question over and over as I sifted through the collection – why did African Americans enlist in the military and fight for a country that deprived them of their civil rights?

At the grand opening of Take Our Stand, February 2010
 Trying to answer this question led me to many painful incidents, but also led me to many inspiring stories. So if you want to know what motivated the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th & 10th Cavalry, the Harlem Hell Fighters, and the Tuskegee Airmen (to name a few) be sure to check this exhibit out before it moves on to its next stop. The exhibit will run at the FAMCC from April 15 thru August 15, 2011.