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.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Question of the Day

I was at a Civil War relic show over the weekend and, of the myriad relics that I saw that were beyond what most normal human beings could pay in a lifetime ($24,000 for a Le Mat Revolver is but one example) I came across the photograph shown above. It immediately caught my eye, as I thought it looked like an African American soldier, but the vendor who was selling the item did not seem to think that the gentleman in the photo was a USCT. My gut told me that he was, however, so I went ahead and paid a very reasonable price (less than what I spend on groceries) in the hopes that I could do further research and find out just who the gentleman portrayed in the photo is. There’s a handwritten note glued to the back that states that the gentleman is “Uncle Hugh” and the picture was taken “in Virginia during the Civil War 46 years ago when he was 35 years of age.”

All of that being said, I thought I would ask you, gentle readers, what you think.

Does this look like an African American soldier to you?

Are there any distinctive markings that I’m oblivious to that can lead to a conclusive answer?

Whatever the case may be, I’m still very pleased with my purchase and I now have an irrepressible urge to start collecting more period images.

Please don’t tell my wife…

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The 23rd USCT, Then & Now

Pvt. George Washington, Co. D, 23rd USCT
As the Sesquicentennial rolls along, it is of vital importance to ensure that stories that have languished in the shadows for the past 150 years come to light. Therefore it is my pleasure to report that one of those stories – that of the 23rd United States Colored Troops – is getting renewed attention in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania region.

By now many of you are familiar with the excellent research that the crew over at Mysteries & Conundrums has uncovered regarding this regiment and its first action at the Alrich Farm on May 15, 1864, which you can read here. But there is more to the story of the 23rd than just this one fight.

Lt. Robert K. Beecham, 23rd USCT
The 23rd USCT was organized at Camp Casey, Va. from November 1863 – April 1864. That month it was ordered to Manassas Junction to become part of the 2nd Brigade, 4th Division of Burnside’s Ninth Corps. Lt. Robert Beecham, who had helped recruit and train the unit, later said of them:
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.
At the outset of the Overland Campaign in May of 1864, the 4th Division was assigned to guard Germanna ford. It was during this time that they would be called upon to help repel Confederate cavalry at the Alrich farm, which marked the first time that USCTs had clashed with the Army of Northern Virginia north of the James River. As the campaign continued to unfold and then wind down, the 23rd found itself at Petersburg where it would participate in the notorious Battle of the Crater, in which they sustained 74 men killed, 115 wounded, and 121 missing.

The men of the 23rd stayed at Petersburg, where they would see large scale action again at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run on October 27, 1864. By the time that Richmond fell, the 23rd – now part of the 25th Corps of the Army of the James – had to march up a road strewn with landmines to get into the capital city. Like many USCT units, the 23rd ended its days in Texas after the fighting had ceased. They lost a grand total of 165 men from disease and 172 men killed or mortally wounded during the war.

For over 140 years the story of the 23rd has coasted under the radar, their fight at the Alrich farm nearly forgotten. But now I am happy to report that the 23rd United States Colored Troops is being reborn for the Sesquicentennial. Most of you must have read by now the post on John Cummings’ Spotsylvania Civil War Blog about the core group that is hoping to take the story of the 23rd into the nearby community and generate enough interest to have a proper commemoration of the clash at the Alrich Farm in May of 2014.

Since this is such an important task, I have decided to “join up” and will be portraying a 1st Lieutenant with the group and I would ask anyone in Central and Northern Virginia with an interest in portraying the African American fighting man of 1863-1865 to consider joining us in this effort. The unit has already partnered with the John J. Wright Educational & Cultural Center Museum and we are actively seeking other members and sponsors to help us in our task.

Please take the time to consider the part you can play in helping us with this effort and look for updates on this blog as to the progress we make prior to our “big day” in 2014!