Photo by Shelly Liebler
by Leonne Hudson
Black Soldiers would never stand up to real combat, the critics said; but the truth came out along the James River in spring 1864
The Federal soldiers stood behind parapets they had built with their own hands and trained their rifles on the dismounted Rebel cavalry charging toward them. This was their chance to prove themselves, to show that they – a brigade of mostly untested black soldiers – could hold their own against a foe who outnumbered them more than two to one. If these black troops failed, Union army operations around Richmond, Virginia, would be in terrible jeopardy
It was May 24, 1864, and. the fight the black troops were about to experience was a seemingly small part of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. Grant’s strategy was to cripple the Confederate capital and thereby topple the Confederacy before the end of 1864. According to the general’s plan, Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac, accompanied by Grant himself, would move against Richmond from the north, Meanwhile, Major General Franz Sigel’s 6,500-man Army of West Virginia would move southeast toward the city from the Shenandoah Valley. A third component – perhaps the most critical one – depended on Major General Benjamin F. Butler, whose Army of the James would approach Richmond from the south. Buttressed by the navy’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron commanded by Acting Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, Butler’s army would cut the Rebel communication lines near Petersburg, which connected Richmond to the states farther south. The three land forces would converge on Richmond, destroying General Robert E. Lee’s venerable Army of Northern Virginia and forcing the Confederacy to surrender.
The Army of the James consisted of the X and XVIII Corps; some 40 percent of the army’s 33,000 men were black. Butler was confident his “colored troops” would do all the Union hoped and more, He realized they viewed their service as a chance to gain rights they had never had before for themselves and for their families. Success on the battlefield would be a giant first step toward making blacks free and equal to whites. Butler also believed that fear of capture and a return to slavery would inspire former slaves to fight more fierce than white troops.
In early May, Butler and his army left Fort Monroe at the mouth of the James River and drove upriver toward Bermuda Hundred, about 14 miles south of Richmond. The general believed he would be in a better position to attack the capital from this strip of land, which lies at the point where the Appomattox River meets the James. This location would also make it easy for Butler’s forces to disable rail transportation south of Richmond and with it, communication between the capital and points south. But to succeed the Army of the James had to protect itself from any rear assault and maintain its line of communication to Fort Monroe. So as it headed west, the army seized a handful of key landings on the James.
Two such spots were Wilson’s Wharf, on the north side of the James about 20 miles downriver from Bermuda Hundred, and Fort Powhatan, an old Confederate base about seven miles upriver from Wilson’s Wharf. Late on the afternoon of May 5, a week before the army’s arrival on Bermuda Hundred, Butler reported to Grant that Brigadier General Edward A. Wild’s brigade of black troops had cap-tured these two sites without opposition. Their arrival, Butler wrote, was “apparently a complete surprise” to the Confederates. Of the 1,800 troops in Wild’s lst Brigade, about 1,100 disembarked at Wilson’s Wharf while the rest continued to Fort Powhatan, which would be garrisoned by Brigadier General Edward W Hinks’s all-black 3d Division. Wild’s brigade consisted of the 1st, 10th, 22d, and 37th U.S. Colored Infantry. Battery B of the 2d U.S. Colored Light Artillery was attached to his brigade.
According to historian Edward Longacre, Wild, an abolitionist from Massachusetts, was a man whose “rabid idealism, tinder-dry temper, and thirst for conflict gained him nearly as many enemies in blue as in gray.” Severely wounded in the right hand at the Battles of Seven Pines in Virginia in the spring of 1862, he lost his left arm at the Battle of South Mountain, Maryland, in September that same year. In April 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent him to recruit black troops in North Carolina, and by November Wild had formed his first unit of black volunteers., which came to be known as the “African Brigade.”
In an article that appeared on May 10 in the Christian Recorder, Sergeant George W. Hatton of the 1st U.S. Colored Infantry, stationed at Wilson’s Wharf, described the irony of the black Federal post’s location. It was “a few miles above Jamestown, the very spot where the first sons of Africa were landed” in 1619. The sight of former slaves coming ashore at Wilson’s Wharf must have worried local planters; many of the troops had once been held in bondage in the surrounding region.
Shortly after the brigade’s arrival, a foraging party captured William H. Clopton, a wealthy planter known for his brutality. Wild, with his profound hatred of slavery, ordered his men to tie Clopton to a tree and expose his back. Then Wild ordered William Harris of Company E forward to flog his former master, Cheers echoed through the African Brigade. “Mr. Harris played his part conspicuously,” Sergeant Hatton recalled, “bringing the blood from his loins at every stroke, and not forgetting to remind the gentleman of the days gone by.” Wild described the lashing of Clopton to Hinks as “the administration of Poetical justice.”
Flogging planters was the least of Wild’s concerns at Wilson’s Wharf, however. He immediately put his troops to work on an earthwork fortification on a bluff over the James and dubbed it Fort Pocahontas. Heavy parapets surrounded the fort, and abatis pointed out at the field of fire around it. A stream 15 feet across, running in front of the semicircular fort, served as a moat, making the position even more formidable. The troops cleared the bluff of trees and underbrush and positioned their batteries to defend the post against any attack from the direction of Richmond.
Meanwhile, Confederate Major General Fitzhugh Lee rode south with a division of cavalry numbering about 3,000 men, determined to break through Butler’s lines, A Virginian, Lee was the nephew of the Confederacy’s most celebrated military leader, General Robert E. Lee. He had graduated from West Point near the bottom of his class in 1856 and after leaving the academy had taught cavalry tactics. Lee promptly joined the Southern army when his native state left the Union, and as a cavalry commander, he earned a reputation as an intrepid leader. He chose Wilson’s Wharf as his point of attack.
After riding all night, Lee’s men reached the James early on the morning of May 24. Once there, the general reconnoitered the fort to determine its strength. What he saw astounded him. Lee believed the black Federals posed a double threat: not only were they well entrenched, they were black, and defeat at their hands would be humiliating. Still, Lee believed his troops could capture the African Brigade, or at least force it to abandon Wilson’s Wharf. He believed the Richmond Daily Examiner’s report that the black Federals were “committing the most atrocious outrage on the people,” and he was bent on avenging this brutal treatment of the citizens of Charles City County.
Lee marched his men quietly to the edge of the woods around the fort and ordered them to dismount. The Rebels, convinced they were superior to the black Federals inside the fort, thought their famous yell would be enough to force their opponents to surrender. At 12:30 P.M. on May 24, the Confederate battle cry rang through the trees, and the attack began. The Union soldiers discarded their midday meals and quickly got into position to fend off their uninvited guests.
Lee’s goal was to overwhelm the garrison with his numerically superior forces. But companies led by Captains Stephen A. Boyden and Giles H. Rich of the 1st U.S. Colored Infantry slowed the Confederate advance. These Federal skirmishers fought until they reached the protection of their earthworks., where they joined the line of battle. Meanwhile, the Confederates enveloped the front of the fort and occupied the woods on the northern bank of the river, hoping to cut off all communication with the gunboats that could come to assist the Federal defenders. Next, Lee ordered his men to cross an open field, ford a ravine, and capture the fort. The Southerners charged.
Inside the fort, Wild told his men to hold their fire until the Confederates were within easy range. Though anxious to shoot back, his troops waited. Below them,, the Southerners pressed toward the Federal left flank until they became tangled in the abatis. Taking advantage of the Rebels’ misfortune, Wild gave the order to fire, and the former slaves sprayed volley after volley on the Confederates.
The sound was deafening, and bullets fell like rain, The cavalrymen charged forward gallantly, but the black troops’ deadly fire prevented them from reaching the earthworks. Finally, after 90 minutes of fighting, the Rebel attackers recoiled in chaos. A flag of truce waved over Lee’s men, and Wild ordered his troops to cease fire.
According to Wild’s official report of the fight, Lee then sent a message ordering the Federals to relinquish the fortification. If they surrendered, Lee would deliver the black captives to Richmond as prisoners of war. If they refused,”[Lee] would not be answerable for consequences when he took the place.” This was an obvious reference to the Fort Pillow massacre in Tennessee only six weeks earlier; the Confederates there took few black troops as prisoners. Most of them instead were summarily executed. Wild was also aware of the rumor circulating around his camp that the Rebels had executed two black soldiers they captured on May 21, making Lee’s threat more ominous. Angered by Lee’s arrogance, Wild refused to surrender.
Lee’s troops reopened the hostilities at 2:30 P.M. An eyewitness called the fighting “very wicked” and concluded that Lee was intent on conquering the post at any cost. The Confederates assailed Wild’s right flank with a heavy concentration of troops and simultaneously kept up a steady fire along the front and left flank of the fort. Lee was sure that flanking movements in conjunction with a frontal assault would dislodge the entrenched Federals.
His confidence proved costly. With a loud yell, the 5th North Carolina Cavalry made a terrific charge, advancing toward the fort as “fast as the obstructions would permit,” one eye-witness recalled. The Confederates reached the very threshold of Wild’s breastworks, but the black troops maintained their composure and poured a severe crossfire into the approaching Rebels while the one-armed Wild, pistol in hand, urged his men to victory. Exploding shells from Battery Bs guns echoed like thunder and caused “the earth [to] tremble…and the atmosphere [to] jar and quake” with each discharge, one participant later wrote. According to one Union officer, the Confederates came with a yell, but our boys gave a louder yell, and poured so much lead among them, that they broke and ran like sheep.”
The Confederate attack stalled within 30 feet of the parapet, and Lee ordered a retreat, “We retired under that awful fire from the most useless and unwise attack, and the most singular failure we were ever engaged in,” one member of the 5th North Carolina later wrote.
Still, the Confederates kept coming. In all, they assaulted the Federal works three times, and each charge ended in failure. Lee finally accepted that he could not break through the works. With night approaching, the discouraged general ordered his exhausted men to leave the field, By 6:00 P.M., the clash was over. As Lee withdrew, Federal reinforcements were landing at Wilson’s Wharf from Fort Powhatan and City Point, but Wild chose not to pursue the retreat-ing Rebels – at least not yet.
After dark, Wild sent out pickets to find Lee’s horsemen, The Confederate troopers were seen huddled around campfires deep in the Virginia forest. So, at sunrise on May 25, Wild ordered his brigade to advance on the cavalrymen, It was too late; the Rebels had slipped away safely to Bottom’s Bridge, about 18 miles northwest of Wilson’s Wharf. The black troops had saved Butlers line of communication, and their fort would remain in Union hands for the rest of the war.
Hinks telegraphed Butler on May 25 to inform him that Lee had abandoned his efforts to take the fort and that all was quiet at Wilson’s Wharf. Wild was thrilled with his men’s per-formance. “Within my own command, all behaved steadily and well'” he said. “[They] stood up to their work like veterans … [against a force] at least double my own, and probably triple.” In summing up the battle, Butler stated that “the Negroes held firmly…and Lee retired beaten in disgrace, leaving his dead on the field.” Lee himself later admitted that his troops had “found a foe worthy of their steel.”
Chaplain Henry M. Turner, a Union veteran of the engagement at Wilson’s Wharf, remembered it as a “terrific battle … but the coolness and cheerfulness of the men, the precision with which they shot, and the vast number of rebels they mercifully slaughtered, won for them the highest regard of both the General and his staff, and every white soldier that was on the field…. The rebels were handsomely whipped.” Hatton recorded for posterity the performance of his regiment at the battle, noting that the heroism displayed by the gallant boys of the 1st needs no comment, for they have won for themselves unfading laurels, to be stamped on the pages of history.” Ruphus Wright of the 1st Colored Infantry remembered it more suc-cinctly: “We whipp the rebls out.”
The fight at Wilson’s Wharf proved costly for the Confederates. Lee’s division lost at least 20 killed and 19 captured. More than 100 others were wounded, possibly as many as 200. “We might have slaughtered twice as many of them,” Wild reported, but we were at the time short of artillery ammunition… and economized our stock, fearing a lengthened siege.” For the Federals, fighting behind entrenchments, casualties had been much lower. Wild reported 2 killed, 19 wounded, and 1 missing. Later estimates would indicate two dozen had been wounded.
A correspondent for the New York Times who watched the battle rhapsodized that “the chivalry of Fitzhugh Lee and his cavalry division was badly worsted in the contest last Tuesday with negro troops, composing the garrison at Wilson’s Landing.” Southern editors, meanwhile, tried to soothe their readers. One newspaper charged that the only way in which the black soldiers had distinguished themselves was in the number of atrocities they had committed upon Charles City County’s “defenseless inhabitants.”
Wild gave much of the credit for his victory to the Union navy, especially the gunboat U.S.S. Dawn. Acting Rear Admiral Lee had the ship stationed below Wilson’s Wharf a few days before the battle. As the fight raged, gunfire from the Dawn dislodged Confederates occupying part of the woods near Fort Pocahontas. Lieutenant John W. Simmons, commander of the Dawn, was impressed with the courage and “great coolness his gunners showed in the face of musket fire from Rebel sharp-shooters. Fitzhugh Lee found himself preoccupied by both land and naval forces. Having to fight on two fronts simultaneously without artillery only accelerated his defeat.
Lees Confederate comrades in other parts of Virginia did better. His uncle’s Army of Northern Virginia bloodily turned away each of Grant’s thrusts toward Richmond, keeping the Union commander from the capital,, and Sigel’s army was soundly defeated at New Market on May 15. Nevertheless, Wild’s black soldiers had proven themselves and affirmed what their leader had known all along: black soldiers could fight just as well as white soldiers. In this case, they fought even better. “The United States Colored Troops,” concluded historian Joseph T. Glatthaar, “became the great symbol of hope for blacks -in both the North and the South.” Wild was right, and when the war finally ended a year later, his men were among the first to enter the captured Confederate capital.
Article originally appeared in the Civil War Times Illustrated, March 1998
Leonne Hudson is an assistant professor of history at Kent State University, Ohio. His as yet untitled biography of Confederate Major General Gustavus Woodson Smith, will be published by Mercer University Press.
Early in 1864, Confederates took insult at the very notion of black troops being sent to flight white men. But this attitude bred overconfidence. At Wilson’s Wharf on Virginia s James River troops including the 1st U.S. Colored Infantry (left), fighting from fortifications much like the one above shook the confidence of Fitz Lee’s cavalry. The black soldiers were motivated by a vision
of freedom, equality, and citizenship expressed in William
Spang’s circa 1865 painting The Armed Slave.
Black troops like these of the 107th Infantry (below) won praise for precision at drill and soldierly appearance. But would they fight? General Fitzhugh Lee (left) thought not. He assumed the Rebel Yell and a charge would oust the black soldiers from Fort Pocahontas, a Fort along the James at Wilson’s Wharf, seven miles from Fort Powhaton (below, right).
The black soldiers at Fort Pocahontas, led by Brigadier General Edward A. Wild (above, left), would prove Lee wrong. Their stand would help preserve the Union line of communications from the mouth of the James to U.S. . Grant’s base at City Point (above), outside Richmond.