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


  1. Jimmy,
    Thank you for posting this succinctly composed summary of the 23rd's history. It well illustrates the ultimate triumph of these men, as well as the tragedies endured along their journey. What an incredible year, from the time they deployed for the field at Manassas Junction, till they entered fallen Richmond. It was a veritable whirlwind of a pilgrimage.

  2. Was the 23rd part of the unlucky force sent to Texas?

  3. So proud to know that my great-great grandfather, Enoch D. Harris served with the 23rd USCT (1863-1865)!He was deployed out of Baltimore, Maryland.