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.