Black Soldiers in Appomattox Campaign during the Final Days

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BLACK SOLDIERS DURING LEE'S RETREAT

Appomattox Campaign & African Americans
Appomattox Campaign & African Americans.gif
Appomattox Civil War Surrender and Black Soldiers

Blacks Serving the Confederacy:

With General Robert E. Lee's manpower reserves quickly draining, on March 23, 1865, General Orders #14 was issued which allowed for the enlistment of Blacks into the Confederate service. Shortly thereafter, a notice was posted in Petersburg's The Daily Express: "The commanding General deems the prompt organization of as large a force of negroes as can be spared, a measure of the utmost importance, and the support and co-operation of the citizens of Petersburg and the surrounding counties is requested by him for the prosecution to success of a scheme which he believes promises so great benefit to our cause...To the slaves is offered freedom and undisturbed residence at their old homes in the Confederacy after the war. Not the freedom of sufferance, but honorable and self won by the gallantry and devotion which grateful countrymen will never cease to reward."

The recruitment effort did bear fruit in Richmond where Majors James W. Pegram and Thomas P. Turner put together a "Negro Brigade" of Confederate States Colored Troops. The Richmond Daily Examiner noted of the unit: "the knowledge of the military art they already exhibit was something remarkable. They moved with evident pride and satisfaction to themselves." 

As the Confederate army abandoned Richmond on April 3rd, apparently these Black Confederate soldiers went along with General Custis Lee's wagon train on its journey. They would move unmolested until they reached the area of Painesville on April 5. Here they were attacked by General Henry Davies' cavalry troopers. A Confederate officer, who rode upon this situation as it was transpiring, recalled: "Several engineer officers were superintending the construction of a line of rude breastworks...Ten or twelve negroes were engaged in the task of pulling down a rail fence; as many more occupied in carrying the rails, one at a time, and several were busy throwing up the dirt...The [Blacks] thus employed all wore good gray uniforms and I was informed that they belonged to the only company of colored troops in the Confederate service, having been enlisted by Major Turner in Richmond. Their muskets were stacked, and it was evident that they regarded their present employment in no very favorable light."

On April 10th, as Confederate prisoners were being marched from Sailor's Creek and elsewhere to City Point (present day Hopewell) and eventually off to Northern prison camps, a Union chaplain observed the column. This incident along the retreat to Painesville, seems to be the only documented episode of "official" Black troops serving the Confederacy in Virginia as armed an unit under fire.

African-Americans also accompanied the Confederate army on the retreat with the First Regiment Engineer Troops and provided yeoman service. One member of this unit remembered that they mounded roads, repaired bridges and cut new parallel roads to old ones when they became impassable. When this was not possible, an engineer officer would post a group near the trouble spot to extricate wagons and artillery pieces.

When Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox, thirty-six African-Americans were listed on the Confederate paroles. Most were either servants, free blacks, musicians, cooks, teamsters or blacksmiths. A Black woman was to become the only civilian casualty in the final fighting at Appomattox. Hannah stayed behind with her husband in the home of Doctor Coleman located on the battlefield and was mortally wounded by an artillery round. A Union chaplain remembered: "she was sick with fever and unable to be moved. As she lay upon her bed, a solid shot had passed through one wall of the house at just the right height to strike her arm, and then passed out through the opposite wall."

Confederates paroled at Appomattox Court House include thirty-nine slaves and free blacks:
QUARTERMASTER'S DEPARTMENT OF THIRD CORPS ORDINANCE TRAIN: 16 Slaves (unnamed) in public service.
EIGHTEENTH GEORGIA BATTALION: Musicians Enlisted for the War: Joe Parkman Co. A, Henry Williams Co. B, George Waddell Co. A, Louis Gardeen Co. C, Cooks Enlisted for the War: James Polk Co. B, William Read Co. C, Scipio Africanus Co. B, John Lery Co. A, QUARTERMASTER DEPT., GARY'S CAVALRY BRIGADE: James Barabsha, Guard Bob (slave of David Bridges), Thomas Bowen Teamster, Teamster Burress Bowen, Teamster Jim (slave of T.M. Dettrick), Teamster John Bowen, Teamster Jack Caldwell, Teamster Solomon Wright, Blacksmith DONALDSONVILLE ARTILLERY, COMPANY B: H. Blum, Cook, Jno. Mamply, Servant L. Leport, Servant Jno. Semple, Servant DETACHED NAVAL BRIGADE: Privates attached to Naval Brigade, Charles Cleoper, Joseph Johnson, James Hicks.

Black Americans Serving the Union:

On August 25, 1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized the enlistment of black troops into the Federal Army. Although enlistments began in 1862, it was not until 1864 that recruitment of blacks gathered momentum. Eventually, 178,982 men served in 166 regiments in the Union Army. These regiments, designated United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.), saw service throughout the South; however, the largest number in any one theater fought in the campaigns against the Army of Northern Virginia.

U.S. Colored Troops in the Retreat to Appomattox The union armies under Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant would sever Confederate General Robert E. Lee's supply line to Petersburg on April 2, 1865. Lee would be forced to evacuate the Confederate Capital of Richmond and the fortified supply center of Petersburg thus beginning his final campaign of the war.

While most of the United States Colored Troops in the Federal Army were involved with the occupation of Richmond on the morning of April 3rd, some did enter Petersburg when it fell on the same day. Brigadier General William Birney's second division, XXV Corps, operating south of the Appomattox River, would be among the first units to come into the city from the west. It was noted that the 7th U.S.C.T. regiment, recruited in Maryland, and the 8th U.S.C.T., from Philadelphia, were on the skirmish line that morning and with those who marched into the evacuated railroad center. The 7th's commander, Lt. Colonel Oscar E. Pratt, wrote: "I entered the city of Petersburg at 6 a.m., amidst the joyous acclamations of its sable citizens." There were seven Black units (approximately 2,000 men, or 3% of the Federal force) which made the journey all the way to Appomattox Court House with Major General Edward Ord's Union Army of the James and arrived in time to be involved in the final fighting.

On their way they passed through the settlements of Blacks & Whites, Nottoway Court House, Burkeville Junction, Rice's Station, and Farmville. From the latter point they stayed south of the Appomattox River and traveled via Walker's Church (present day Hixburg) to Appomattox. These regiments were of Colonel William W. Woodward's brigade, the 29th and 31st U.S.C.T., along with the 116th U.S.C.T., assigned to them from another brigade. Colonel Ulysses Doubleday's brigade, 8th, 41st, 45th, and 127th U.S.C.T., were also present. The first brigade, under Colonel James Shaw, Jr., would not arrive until the day after the surrender, having marched ninety-six miles in four days. His brigade was detached from the others and sent back to Sutherland Station for a period of time, causing their delay.

On the morning of the 9th at Appomattox Court House, the Black units were sent forward to support other Federal units in the closing phase of the battle. Consequently, only Woodward's brigade participated in the final advance on the Confederate line. Some of Doubleday's skirmishers did proceed forward, and the only casualty for the U.S.C.T. brigades was Captain John W. Falconer of Company A, 41st U.S.C.T. - a white officer. He was mortally wounded and died on April 23rd. According to Surgeon-in-Chief Charles P. Heinchhold: "during the entire campaign, the U.S.C.T.'s lost 4 men killed, 1 officer (mortally) and 30 men wounded, a total of 35 casualties."

"We, the colored soldiers, have fairly won our rights by loyalty and bravery -- shall we obtain them? If we are refused now, we shall demand them." Sgt. Maj. William McCeslin, 29th U.S.C.T.

Sources: National Park Service; Appomattox Court House National Historic Park

Recommended Reading: The Negro's Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union. Description: In this classic study, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson deftly narrates the experience of blacks--former slaves and soldiers, preachers, visionaries, doctors, intellectuals, and common people--during the Civil War. Drawing on contemporary journalism, speeches, books, and letters, he presents an eclectic chronicle of their fears and hopes as well as their essential contributions to their own freedom. Continued below...

Through the words of these extraordinary participants, both Northern and Southern, McPherson captures African-American responses to emancipation, the shifting attitudes toward Lincoln and the life of black soldiers in the Union army. Above all, we are allowed to witness the dreams of a disenfranchised people eager to embrace the rights and the equality offered to them, finally, as citizens.

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Recommended Reading: A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army 1861-1865 (Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture). Description: The Civil War stands vivid in the collective memory of the American public. There has always been a profound interest in the subject, and specifically of Blacks' participation in and reactions to the war and the war's outcome. Almost 200,000 African-American soldiers fought for the Union in the Civil War. Although most were illiterate ex-slaves, several thousand were well educated, free black men from the northern states. The 129 letters in this collection were written by black soldiers in the Union army during the Civil War to black and abolitionist newspapers. Continued below...

They provide a unique expression of the black voice that was meant for a public forum. The letters tell of the men's experiences, their fears, and their hopes. They describe in detail their army days--the excitement of combat and the drudgery of digging trenches. Some letters give vivid descriptions of battle; others protest racism; while others call eloquently for civil rights. Many describe their conviction that they are fighting not only to free the slaves but to earn equal rights as citizens. These letters give an extraordinary picture of the war and also reveal the bright expectations, hopes, and ultimately the demands that black soldiers had for the future--for themselves and for their race. As first-person documents of the Civil War, the letters are strong statements of the American dream of justice and equality, and of the human spirit.

 

Recommended Reading: Black Union Soldiers in the Civil War. Description: This book refutes the historical slander that blacks did not fight for their emancipation from slavery. At first harshly rejected in their attempts to enlist in the Union army, blacks were eventually accepted into the service—often through the efforts of individual generals who, frustrated with bureaucratic inaction in the face of dwindling forces, overrode orders from the secretary of war and even the president. Continued below...

By the end of the Civil War, African American soldiers had numbered more than 180,000 and served in 167 regiments. Seventeen were awarded the nation’s highest award for valor and heroism--the Medal of Honor. Theirs was a remarkable achievement whose full story is finally revealed.

 

 

Recommended Reading: The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (Modern War Studies). Description: A bona fide classic, The Sable Arm was the first work to fully chronicle the remarkable story of the nearly 180,000 black troops who served in the Union army. This work paved the way for the exploration of the black military experience in other wars. This edition, with a new foreword by Herman Hattaway and bibliographical essay by the author, makes available once again a pioneering work that will be especially useful for scholars and students of Civil War, black, and military history. Continued below...

Civil War Times Illustrated: "One of the one hundred best books ever written on the Civil War."
 

Recommended Reading: Like Men of War. Description: Although countless books have been written about the Civil War, the role of black troops has been consistently underrepresented until recently. Nearly 180,000 of them fought--mostly for the North, but a handful even took up arms for the slaveholding South. Many wanted to serve at the start of the conflict, but a variety of factors kept them on the sidelines. Until Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, many Union leaders--including the president--held that the war was not about slavery. Racist views caused some to question further the value of black soldiers; there was also genuine concern about how Confederates would treat captured blacks. Continued below...

But, as Noah Andre Trudeau reveals, black soldiers demonstrated bravery and professionalism from the moment they suited up. He recounts well-known events, such as the 54th Massachusetts' attack on Fort Wagner, as well as less familiar ones, such as blacks' involvement in the war's last directed combat one month after Lee's surrender. There were atrocities, too: in 1864, Confederates slaughtered black prisoners of war at Fort Pillow (Southern historians once disputed this brutal act of cold-blooded murder, but most scholars accept it as true today). Although Trudeau sometimes sacrifices his narrative drive to excessive detail, Like Men of War remains a compelling book full of strong battle scenes.

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