Ed Besh with Harrison Tyler (owner if Fort Pocahontas), Richard Bowman (descendant of one of the USCT troops that fought at Fort Pocahontas) and Mitch Bowman (Director of Civil War Trails). Ed is the man!
Ed Besch is responsible for Fort Pocahontas being recognized for its historical significance and subsequently being restored by my father, Harrison Tyler. Ed was a military historian who was put in charge of researching some of the lesser known battlefield of the Civil War by the state of Virginia. Ed stumbled onto the story of Fort Pocahontas and then completed a tremendous amount of research to uncover its history.
He showed the following report to my Dad, who was blown away by the report. My Dad grew up at Lyon’s Den, which was President John Tyler’s hunting lodge. From the porch of Lyon’s Den, you can see Fort Pocahontas. My Dad had grown up walking the trenches of Fort Pocahontas and digging out bullets from its walls, but he never knew the history behind it.
After Ed showed my Dad the report on Fort Pocahontas, it only took two years before my Dad put a bid on the property and purchased it. If it was not for Ed, Fort Pocahontas would probably be a subdivision by now.
Action at Wilson’s Wharf, 24 May 1864 & Fort Pocahontas
by Ed Besch
Fort Pocahontas is the site of the land-naval “Action at Wilson’s Wharf.” U. S. Colored Troops‹USCT (black soldiers commanded by white officers) had already fought in many actions in other theaters of war, but the Action on 24 May was the first major clash between USCT and General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Confederates called the Action on 24 May: “Kennon’s Landing (or “Farm”), Fort Kennon,” or “Charles City Court House,” etc.
From 5 May 1864 until the end of the War “Kennon’s,” or “Wilson’s Wharf,” was occupied by combinations of black and white Union troops. The fortifications were not completed and named “Fort Pocahontas” until July 1864, after the U.S. Colored Infantry who fought on 24 May were sent forward and briefly replaced by Ohio National Guard and other USCT infantry, then in turns by New Hampshire, New York, and New Jersey infantrymen. New York artillery units occupied the fort from 20 May 1864 until the end of the war. One or two companies of US Colored Cavalry stayed there after late May until late 1864, and were replaced by New York cavalrymen.
The site, occupied by Native Americans in prehistoric times, was patented by David Jones in 1635. Colonel Guy Molesworth’s 17th century plantation there became the seat of the Kennon family from the late 1730s until 1765. Richard Kennon and his son, William, served in the House of Burgesses, and William was appointed colonel of the Charles City County militia. In 1742, the Virginia Assembly selected “Kennons” as the site of a tobacco inspection station “where warehouses are now kept.” In 1765, William Kennon emigrated to North Carolina.
During Benedict Arnold’s raid on Richmond in January 1781, his British fleet anchored off “Kennon’s” and sent troops ashore there. Virginia Militia General (and later Governor) Thomas Nelson, Jr. ordered two cannon sent to the high point there to attack Arnold’s returning fleet. Upriver, British Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe led his Queen’s Rangers and Hessian jaegers (riflemen) in an assault on Hood’s Point (later named Fort Powhatan).
Kennon’s passed through a succession of owners until Josiah C. Wilson, of Surry County, purchased the 863-acre tract for $3,000 in 1835. Kennon’s Landing then became known also as “Wilson’s Wharf.” In 1857, Edmund Ruffin (noted agriculturist and “fire-eater” secessionist) took the passenger steamer from Berkeley Plantation to “Kennon’s wharf.” From there, he walked “3 _ miles to Sherwood Forest,” residence of ex-President John Tyler, “carrying his very light carpet-bag.”
Josiah C. Wilson died in 1862 and left his land and residence at Kennon’s to his son, Dr. John C. Wilson, and the tract to the west, known as Sturgeon Point, to his older son, Josiah Wilson. The elder Wilson owned 60 slaves, dispersed over his farms, when he died. The farm, unlike some others in Charles City County, escaped damage during Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s 1862 Peninsular Campaign, but not for long.
Early on 5 May 1864, most of Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s 33,000 Union soldiers in the 10th and 18th Corps, Army of the James, advanced up the James River in an Army-Navy fleet of 120 transports, gunboats, ironclads, and assorted vessels in the Union attempt to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital and military production and supply base. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, with Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac, simultaneously began operations against Lee’s army north of Richmond.
Brigadier General Edward A. Wild’s 1st Brigade (1st, 10th, 22nd, 37th Infantry Regiments, USCT), part of Brig. Gen. Edward W. Hinks’ 3rd Division, 18th Corps, Army of the James, seized Wilson’s Wharf and Fort Powhatan, seven miles upriver, while Hinks’ 2nd Brigade of USCT landed at City Point, further upriver. Butler chose Colored Troops to seize key points along his James River line of communications since he knew they would fight more desperately than white soldiers because Confederate policy denied prisoner-of-war status to black Union soldiers and their white officers, if captured. At Fort Pillow, Tennessee on 12 April 1864, a disproportionate number of black Union soldiers were killed or badly wounded, many while trying to surrender. Captain Solon A. Carter, on Hinks’ staff, wrote his wife on 1 May: “We must succeed. Failure for us is death or worse.”
A 7 May Harper’s Weekly article, “Buried Alive,” by a mulatto Union soldier and former slave, must have been read by some officers and men in Hinks’ Colored Division, and perhaps at Wilson’s Wharf. In it, he described being shot at Fort Pillow near the river; then while “running for my life, a burly rebel struck me with his carbine, putting out one eye, and then (he) shot me in two places With half a dozen others, I was picked up and carried to a ditch, into which we were tossed like so many brutes, white (Tennessee Union cavalrymen) and black together. Then they covered us with loose dirt and left us to die. Oh, how dark and desolate it was! with only one hand free, I struggled for air and life yet able to think and pray.” He struggled free, passed out, and awoke in a hospital. He concluded: “I hope to recover and get away from here very soon; I want to be in my place again; for I have something to avenge now, and I can not bear to wait And may God speed the day when this whole slaveholders’ rebellion‹what remains of it‹shall be “Buried Alive!” His account and stirring words must have instilled anger and determination in those Union officers and soldiers‹black or white‹who read them.
Wild’s troops (Col. John H. Holman’s 1st and Col. Joseph B. Kiddoo’s 22nd Regiments, and part of Battery B, 2nd US Colored Light Artillery) landed at Wilson’s Wharf without opposition on 5 May and began to fortify it. Wild’s other troops (Lt. Col. Edward H. Powell’s 10th and Lt. Col. Abiel G. Chamberlain’s 37th Regiments) landed at Fort Powhatan. A New York Times correspondent watched: “The stalwart Africans gaily run up the bluff (at Wilson’s Wharf) and are soon at work swinging axes with a will, and giant trees fall with a mournful crash soon a wide space of woods on the high banks are cleared they achieved a perfect surprise to rebels [who had] a strong force at Charles City Court-house, six miles from Wilson’s Wharf, collecting negroes to work on Richmond fortifications.” Union troops passing on a steamer cheered the “Stars and Stripes” floating over Wilson’s Landing.
During 6-13 May, Wild’s troops, led by Union Signal Officer, 2nd Lt. Julius M. Swain, attacked three Confederate signal stations along the James River, killing four Confederates and wounding and capturing three others, and seizing their arms, signal equipment, and a cipher code.
In a “friendly fire” incident on the evening of 7 May, 1st Lt. William C. Dutton, adjutant of the 22nd Infantry Regiment, USCT, was killed when he failed to halt and give the countersign as he galloped toward the “farthest east” picket post manned by a corporal and three men of Co. G, 1st Regiment, USCT. Mistaking Lt. Dutton and his party for Confederates in the dark, they shot and killed him.
Black Union soldiers, led by white officers, also raided the countryside, causing a Virginia senator to complain: “The people have been compelled to fly to swamps with such provisions as they can take off, and leave their homes prey [to] voracious and heartless brutes in their midst.” The presence and operations of US Colored Troops represented a long-dreaded slave revolt with both real and imagined consequences for a white population whose military-age men-folk were off to war elsewhere.
Wild’s troops also freed slaves, and his officers recruited soldiers from among the free blacks and freed slaves. Robert Brown, a 5 foot, 6 _ inch-tall; 20 year-old mulatto; free and single farmer was enlisted on 19 May at “Wilson’s creek” by Lt. Edward Simonton in Company I, “First Regiment of U.S. Col. Troops,” in time to fight five days later. His descendent, Richard Bowman, served in the U.S. Army 24th Infantry (a Colored Regiment) in 1945, and Mr. Bowman, who also has Indian ancestry, is fittingly the Charles County Historian. At least five other local residents, including Samuel Braxton, Samuel Harrison, Robert Lewis, Robert A. Waters, and Oliver Williams; joined the 1st Regiment, USCT during 12-23 May.
On 11 May, Wild reported that he had ordered a soldier to tie up a 53 year-old farmer, William H. Clopton, “a very cruel slave master [and] active Rebel [and] suffered his own slaves to whip him; among them three women whom he had whipped repeatedly.” The soldier who had tied Clopton up, was Private William Harris, 1st Regiment, USCT, one of Clopton’s own former slaves. Regardless of the justice of the punishment, Wild had no authority to summarily punish a civilian. Brig. Gen. Hinks severely reprimanded Wild: “I wish it to be distinctly understood that I will not countenance, sanction, or permit any conduct on the part of my command not in accordance with the principles recognized for belligerents in modern warfare between civilized nations Barbarism, and cruelty to persons in our power, are not becoming to a man or soldier.” Wild replied indignantly in a long statement. Hinks later had him court-martialed for the whipping incident.
Mr. Clopton complained in a letter to his neighbor, Julia Gardner Tyler, the staunchly pro-Confederate widow of President John Tyler. She had left Sherwood Forest and gone to her mother’s estate on Long Island in 1862 after her husband’s death. She, in turn, wrote letters to President Abraham Lincoln and Maj. Gen. Butler, complaining of his harsh treatment.
The Richmond Examiner editor, John M. Daniel, had made his paper a zealous advocate of secession and southern nationality. He exaggerated this and other incidents attributed to Wild’s soldiers: “Their deeds exceed in enormity anything we have heard during the war. Robbing, burning, and plundering have not been enough, but black scoundrels have literally caught white men [“no less than three citizens”], tied them to trees and whipped them on their bare backs bayoneting and nailing them to trees It is said black demons made some ladies, alone and unprotected, victims of their hellish appetites ” After raising these lurid images, the editor clamored for “Mr. (President) Davis’s much vaunted retaliation.” (Daniel had written in 1861: “Slaveholding begets and fosters the war spirit. After a while the master race begins to think its whole business is to fight, whilst the inferior race does the labor War will do us no harm and much good.” And he was no friend of President Davis.)
Confederates probed Fort Powhatan on 21 May but were driven off. Anticipating further attacks, the U.S. Navy stationed the gunboat USS Dawn on the James River below Wilson’s Wharf, the gunboat USS Pequot above Fort Powhatan, and captured Confederate ironclad Atlanta in between.
On 23 May, General Braxton Bragg, military advisor to President Davis, ordered Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E. Lee, to “surprise and capture if possible a garrison of Negro Soldiers at Kennon’s [Wilson’s] Wharf.” Fitzhugh Lee took Brig. Gen. William C. Wickham’s Brigade (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Virginia Cavalry Regiments) and Brig. Gen. Lunsford L. Lomax’s Brigade (5th, 6th, 15th Virginia Cavalry Regiments). Gordon’s brigade (1st, 2nd, 5th North Carolina Cavalry Regiments) and Colonel John Dunovant’s 5th South Carolina Cavalry Regiment were attached. Shoemaker’s battery of horse artillery sent along one gun under Lt. Edmond H. Moorman. Lee’s total force probably exceeded 2,600 men.
General Lomax and two field officers did not accompany the expedition; all three of his regiments had lost colonels during recent fighting and were commanded by captains. Brig. Gen. James B. Gordon had been wounded in the arm on 12 May and died 18 May; his brigade was commanded by Col. Clinton M. Andrews, 2nd NC Cavalry.
Fitzhugh Lee brought the best mounted men in his division, who remained after engagements with Grant’s army and Sheridan’s cavalry earlier in May had resulted in heavy losses in officers, men, and horses. The 5th SC Cavalry arrived in mid-May and suffered very few casualties at Drewry’s Bluff and two minor actions. Although “traveling light,” Lee’s raiders probably brought along ambulances, supply wagons, and a few of their slaves and hired free blacks who served as cooks, personal servants, etc.
(General Bragg’s order to Fitzhugh Lee implies a political objective of capturing, and thus eliminating a garrison of US Colored Troops in response to the Virginia senator’s complaint about their depredations and to stifle criticism from the editor of the Richmond Examiner. Bragg and Fitzhugh Lee did not mention an objective of interdicting even temporarily Butler’s vital line of communications on the James River. Only one gun, which “didn’t fire any,” came along because of the shortage and poor condition of most horses in the horse artillery battalion. If the raid did have a military objective, a field artillery battery or two could have been sent at a slower pace to occupy the site after its capture by Lee’s cavalry. Furthermore, the small Union garrison posed no threat to Richmond or Lee’s army, which Grant’s and Butler’s armies certainly did.)
Fitzhugh Lee’s antagonist, Edward Augustus Wild, was a Brookline, MA physician who had served as a medical officer in the Turkish army during the Crimean War. He had been wounded at First Bull Run, again during the Peninsula Campaign, and he lost his left arm during the Battle of South Mountain in September, 1862 leading his 35th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. A fervid abolitionist and advocate of enlisting black soldiers, he was promoted to brigadier general and organized “Wild’s African Brigade” in June, 1863 at New Berne, NC and led it on a raid, during which he had personally hanged a Confederate “guerrilla” by kicking a barrel out from under him.
When the Confederate advance arrived at 11 AM on 24 May after an overnight ride from Atlee’s Station northeast of Richmond, Wild reported he had 900 infantry of the 1st Regiment, USCT and four companies of the 10th Regiment, USCT, which had replaced the 22nd Regiment, which had gone to Fort Powhatan. The 1st Regiment was armed with Springfield rifled muskets; the 10th Regiment with Enfield rifled muskets. Wild was supported by Lieutenant Nicholas Hansen’s two 10-pounder Parrott rifled guns from Battery M, 3rd New York Light Artillery (which replaced a section of 6-pounder howitzers from Battery B, 2nd US Colored Light Artillery); 2nd Lt. Julius M. Swain’s signal detachment; and the gunboat USS Dawn, Navy Acting Lt. J.W. Simmons.
At 1 PM on Tuesday, 24 May, on the James River, J.A. Jackaway recorded weather conditions in the log of the USS Dawn: “Wind SW, Force 2 [knots], Weather B [Bright], Temperature 80 [degrees], Barometer 29.18″ [at Noon].” He remarked: “12 to 1.30 an alarm from the fort at Wilsons Landing / hove up anchor and beat to quarters / then shell to westward of the fortification until 4 P.M. / received a galling fire from the enemy’s Sharpshooters on the bank of the river / shifted our position to the Eastward ”
Soon after the Action began, the steamer Thomas Powell, on its way from Fort Monroe to Bermuda Hundred, was stopped by Wild’s adjutant, and 150 unarmed soldiers (probably all whites) were taken off. Some were armed with “guns of our wounded and spare guns”(Wild). Among them were six enlisted men of the First Connecticut Heavy Artillery returning from veteran’s furlough. They replaced a New York cannon crew felled by heat and artilleryman Pvt. John Taylor, who was wounded in the face. They fired 80 rounds, some double-shotted canister. The Thomas Powell took off about 50 women and children from Wilson’s Wharf.
Fitzhugh Lee downplayed his own force of 2,600 or more cavalrymen (which Wild estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000) as: “My total force was about 1,600.” It was standard practice for one-fourth (possibly one-fifth in some companies) of Lee’s troopers to act as horse-holders in the rear while the others fought dismounted. So Lee’s “1,600” would not be very far off; but it certainly was not his “total force,” which implied a dismounted fighting strength of only 1,200 cavalrymen, less than half his actual strength.
On 24 May, the Union fortifications were incomplete. Lt. Edward Simonton, Co. I, 1st Regiment, USCT recalled: “Along one-third of the line ran a ditch 8 feet wide and 5-6 feet deep [but] along the remaining part [there] was no ditch at all; abatis constructed simply of felled trees with trimmed branches and limbs [was] placed outside the ditch. Our intrenchments were only about one-third completed when General Lee’s force came upon us so suddenly. Along the unfinished portion of our line, the enemy could easily and successfully have charged upon the works, but our men were ready for them.”
Chaplain Henry M. Turner, 1st Regiment, USCT was one of only 14 African-American chaplains in the Union Army. Turner was born free in South Carolina, and he described the Action in a letter to the Christian Recorder, the official organ of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, published in Philadelphia on 25 June 1864: “My attention was called to the front of our works by a mighty rushing to arms, shouts of “The rebels! The Rebels! The Rebels are Coming!” The long drum roll began to tell that doleful tale she never tells unless the enemy is about to invade our quarters.”
The Action began about noon with a mounted Confederate charge on the advanced pickets and their support posted some distance in front of the fort. Captain Stephen A. Boyd’s Company F and Captain Giles H. Rich’s Company C of the 1st Regiment, USCT “decidedly checked” the Confederates, but Lee reported they were “immediately” driven in to the fortifications. Chaplain Turner wrote: [The officers] “with their gallant companies, were at some distance in front, skirmishing with the advance guard of the rebels. It was the grandest sight I ever beheld.”
However, some Union soldiers were cut off and captured. Confederate Major J. D. Ferguson reported: “A few negro prisoners were shot attempting to escape, but one was brought away and sent to his master in Richmond.” Col. John H. Holman, 1st Regiment, reported Private George Wilson, 19, Co. F: “Missing, was on picket at time of attack by rebels, never heard from,” and a notation “Slave” appears on his regimental record, but he survived the war. Pvt. James Connelly (Conly), 21, was shot in the “posterior right scapula” (back), but escaped. Privates Samuel Langley, Co. F, “shot in the head, skull fractured, died 1 August;” and Pvt. Dempsey Mabey (Maby), Co. F, “a brave soldier, shot through the breast,” possibly were shot at close range after their capture.
Following the attack on Union pickets, Lee deployed Wickham’s left wing (“detachment”) and Dunovant’s right wing (“detachment”) in a line of skirmishers and advanced on the Federal works, but finding them too strong, he dismounted more men. Wild reported: “They encompassed our front, and filling the wood on the river bluff to our north (west), tried to stop all communication with steamers coming to our aid, and harassed our landing place.” Lt. Swain’s signal station on the bank of the river, within ten yards of the rifle pits, served as a prominent mark for Confederate sharpshooters, but he was able to direct fire from the gunboat Dawn by signaling from the bank to Private Mott on the vessel.
At Fort Powhatan, Col. Kiddoo and Navy Lt. Cdr. Stephen P. Quackenbush received Wild’s signal at 12:30 PM, but they cautiously “supposed the attack on Wilson’s Wharf was a feint to draw forces from this place while an attack should be made in force here.” They sent Ensign William F. Chase from the USS Pequot on the transport Mayflower to learn from Wild himself if the attack was in force, and if Dawn needed aid. Confederate sharpshooters wounded the captain and pilot of the Mayflower, so Ensign Chase took charge of her, hailed the Dawn, and landed and learned that Wild had repeatedly signaled Fort Powhatan that he needed help at once. Lt. Cdr. Quackenbush delayed sending assistance until 3 PM, when an Army tug was ordered to tow the captured Confederate tug USS Young America, with its disabled engine, to support Wild.
About 1:30 PM, Lee sent forward a surrender demand under a flag of truce. The surrender note, copied by Lt. Hiram W. Allen on Wild’s staff, read: “May 24th, 1864; By command of Major-General Fitz Lee, I am sent to demand the surrender of the Federal Troops at Wilson’s Wharf. He [General Lee] thinks he has troops enough to carry the position. Should they surrender, they will be turned over to authorities at Richmond, and treated as prisoners of war. Should they refuse, Gen. Lee will not be responsible for the consequences. Very respectfully, Your obedient servant, R. J. Mason, Major & A.I.G. (Adjutant & Inspector General); (addressed) To Brig. Gen. Wild, Com’d Federal Troops.”
Lt. Simonton noted that no promises were made concerning the (white) officers, and he stated that (Lee’s) “language was interpreted by us to mean their success and our failure meant another Fort Pillow massacre.” A correspondent wrote: “The colored soldiers don’t expect quarter, and are not likely to give it.”
Lt. Allen watched as: “Gen. Wild tore a piece from a used envelope and wrote in pencil: “We will try it;” Wild reported simply: “I declined.”
According to a Southern source, Wild detained Major Mason in the fort for some time (while signaling the gunboat and waiting for reinforcements from Fort Powhatan) and then dismissed him with a reply that he must give better terms. Upon receiving this report, “Gen. Fitz Lee became very angry and sent Major Mason back with a reply that unless the Fort was surrendered in ten minutes, he would put the garrison to the sword.” Wild said: “Present my compliments to General Fitz Lee and tell him to go to hell.”
Goaded by Wild’s reply, Lee sent Wickham with his own men and Gordon’s Brigade to assault Wild’s strongest position, while Dunovant with Lomax’s Brigade and his own 5th SC Cavalry created a diversion against the weakest portion and fired on vessels on the James River. Lee reported: “Keeping up constant skirmishing, Wickham’s detachment moved by a circuitous, wooded, and concealed route to the Eastern side (along Kennon Creek), with orders to assault it Dunovant was directed to make a demonstration upon the upper and opposite side, with a view to drawing the garrison in his front whilst Wickham got in. The orders were admirably carried out.”
Wickham’s men were well-armed with carbine, pistol, and 125 cartridges. Corporal Charles T. Price, Co. C, 2nd Virginia Cavalry, wrote: “We carried our sabres when we dismounted [to attack, because] the Yankees ran on a high pole a black flag. We had orders to kill every man in the fort if we had taken them.”
(A black flag usually meant “no quarter”‹but this one, taken as such by Confederates, probably was a signal to Fort Powhatan upriver to send reinforcements. Furthermore, Wild had issued detailed instructions four days earlier that prohibited executions of enemy soldiers, including even guerrillas, without a trial; and Wild’s troops did take wounded and unwounded Confederates prisoner after the Action ended. Since Wild and his troops expected no quarter anyway, a “no quarter” flag on a high pole would have been redundant.)
Private Henry St. George Tucker Brooke, Co. B, 2nd VA Cavalry participated in the assault on the fort. He recalled: (Wickham’s Brigade) “marched through the woods to the river [“Swan neck” Creek on 1864 map, now Kennon Creek] below the [eastern side of the] Fort. The undergrowth was thick and the land swampy. We drew up in line of battle. [We] charged across a field and suddenly came to a deep ravine 50 yards across. The enemy had poured a destructive fire into the column as it charged across the field. The trees on each side had been cut [and] formed an impenetrable thicket on each side. When the charging column reached the ravine it came to an abrupt halt. When the column came to the ravine and halted, I found standing next to me on my right Color Sergeant [Peachy Gilmer] Breckinridge, a brother of Major [Cary] Breckinridge and also of Capt. [James] Breckinridge, all of my regiment. Next to me on my left, and close enough to touch elbows, stood young [Sgt.] “Trip” Nelson of Company K. As we stood there firing at the enemy who was behind breastworks, I felt a sharp sting on my ankle. I knew a bullet had done it. I remarked to Breckinridge that I was struck again. [P. Gilmer] Breckinridge said, “I hope you are not seriously hurt,” and then [he] fell dead. I heard the bullet strike him.”
Peachy Gilmer Breckinridge was a former major of State Troops. He enlisted as a private in brother James’ Co. C; was promoted to Color Sergeant, then to Lieutenant the day before, and finally Acting Captain of Co. B, 2nd VA Cavalry, in which role he was killed. His brother James, who was wounded in the arm, wrote to their sister Lucy: ” We dismounted and made the [initial] assault [on the front of the fort] and were repulsed. Gilmer was grazed by a ball on the wrist. We then changed our position [to the eastern side of the fort] and charged again through some obstructions of fallen trees and sharpened limbs [abatis]. Gilmer pushed on under heavy fire. He got within 50 yards of the parapet, when he was seen to fall, struck somewhere in the body every man near him being killed or wounded he did not speak after he fell.” (A postwar account embellished: “A few 2nd VA Cavalrymen succeeded in crossing the moat [ditch] and led by Captain Gilmer Breckinridge mounted the parapet. Here they were met by a deadly musketry fire and driven back, Captain Breckinridge losing his life.” No other account substantiates any Confederate “mounting the parapet.”)
Wild later reported that in “the abatis, the scene of the assault we found a captain [unidentified] and a major A memorandum book in the pocket of the dead major [Cary Breckinridge, Sixth (sic, Second) Virginia Cavalry] ” (Possibly Gilmer Breckinridge had written his name as “G. Breckinridge” and the “G.” was smudged and/or mistaken for “C.” Ironically, Cary, later promoted to colonel, was one of only two Breckinridge brothers to survive the war.)
Pvt. Brooke continued: “Almost immediately afterwards “Trip” Nelson was shot [in the thigh] and fell mortally wounded. A bullet went through my hat. Another through my boot leg the whole column [skirmish line?] retreated precipitately across the field. I don’t know whether any command was given, or whether the men realizing the nonsense of standing there and being killed without doing any killing in return took the matter into their own hand.”
Lt. Simmons and his crew of about 60 Navymen (30 per cent of them “Negro” or “Mulatto”) on the 157-foot gunboat Dawn actively supported Wild’s troops from the river, firing 118 rounds of 100-pdr rifle, 20-pdr rifle, and 12-pdr howitzer ammunition. The gunners on the Dawn drove off sharpshooters (probably from the 5th SC Cavalry) on the river bank west of Wild’s position who had “showered [the Dawn] with musketry.” Then Lt. Simmons moved his vessel downstream to shell Confederates (5th NC Cavalry) on Wild’s right “just as they were making a charge, which drove them back.”
Private Paul B. Means, 5th North Carolina, wrote: “The Fifth had about 225 officers and men under Maj. McNeill We were in a line around the fort, the 5th on the extreme left [of Gordon’s Brigade], nearest the river. We lay there, eating strawberries in the fence corners, and quietly talking. Shells [from the Union gunboat Dawn]: 100-, 20-, and 12-pdrs were bursting over us and other parts of the line About 2:30 or 3 PM the signal gun fired and the 5th arose with a mighty yell for that terrible charge We mounted the high rail fence in front and went straight and fast as obstructions would permit for that fort‹yelling and firing [Means carried a captured Spencer 7-shot repeating rifle] as we went and receiving fierce front and cross-fires into our ranks from rifles and artillery in the fort and gunboats…”
“We were within 30 feet of the fort when we saw the utter hopelessness of the attack. The line halted a moment; the order to retreat was given, and we retired under fire from the most useless and unwise attack and the most signal failure we were ever engaged in ”
“Out of ten or twelve men from Company F, [two] were killed outright, McDonald and I were wounded. I was shot through the left shoulder within 30 feet of the fort, firing at the moment, I am sure, at the very man [a “white man,” either a USCT officer, or a soldier landed from the Thomas Powell] who shot me. Worth McDonald was wounded by one of those 100-pdrs. It passed at least ten feet from him and paralyzed his right arm by concussion of air. There was no visible injury, but it fell useless and quickly turned black; he never recovered its use.”
Corporal Price, Company C, wrote: “Our loss [in the 2nd Virginia Cavalry] was heavy Out of ten men detached from our company, two men held horses, the rest was in the fight, and I was the only one not killed or wounded.”
Wild reported: “They [Wickham’s and Gordon’s brigades] made a determined charge, at the same time keeping up a steady attack all along our front and [left] flank. This charge approached our parapet, but failed under our severe cross-fires. They fled back into the ravine, and after another hour gradually drew off out of sight.”
Lt. Simonton wrote: “As the “Johnnies” showed themselves, they received a destructive fire from our line. Still the enemy charged with a yell, firing as they advanced; [they] seemed confident of their ability to drive [us] into the river. Then our sable warriors showed their fighting qualities. They stood their ground firmly, firing volley after volley into the ranks of the advancing foe. Artillery threw grape and canister into their ranks. The brave and determined foe rallied under the frantic efforts of their officers; again their ranks were scattered and torn by our deadly fire.”
As Pvt. Thompson Brown, Co. E, 2nd VA Cavalry “went out [retreated], he found a wounded comrade, who begged to be carried to the rear. [Brown] and another trooper picked the poor fellow up and between them they were struggling on, but before reaching safety, the wounded man was killed by a second shot.”
Finally, Lt. Cdr. Quackenbush reacted to the situation at Wilson’s Wharf, and T.G. Sullivan recorded in the Log of Young America: “May 24 at 3 p.m. got orders to proseed (sic) to Wilson’s Wharf to Shell the woods with the Dawn.” Having “blew down all steam and water” earlier that day, an Army tug had to tow the Navy armed tug into action. The Young America was armed with one 30-pdr Parrott rifle, one 32-pdr smoothbore gun, and one 12-pdr rifle. Quackenbush retained the far more powerful, new gunboat Pequot at Fort Powhatan.
At 4 PM the steamer George Washington brought back four companies of the 10th Regiment, USCT from Fort Powhatan, making a total of eight companies present from that regiment. This reinforcement brought Wild’s total armed force to about 1350-1500 men, including about 200 white officers, artillerymen, and men landed from the Thomas Powell.
At 6 PM, Ensign Chase commandeered the Mayflower to carry off wounded. General Hinks sent the 37th Infantry Regiment, USCT which arrived after the last Confederate attack was repulsed. The USS Pequot also arrived after the fighting ended.
Wild “sent out three sallying parties who found [the Confederates] still drawn up in skirmishing array beyond the woods and brought in six rebels wounded and four prisoners.” Nine more were also captured, bringing the total to 19 prisoners, according to a correspondent.
Six black Union soldiers were killed or mortally wounded. Sergeant Moses Stevenson, Co. G, “killed, shot through the head;” Privates William Butler, Co. E, “fracture of skull by cannon ball, died 27 May;” Samuel Langley, Co. F, “shot in head, died 1 August;” and Dempsey Mabey, Co. F, “shot through the breast;” were all from the 1st Regiment, USCT. Privates William Rupture and Isaac West, Co. D,10th Regiment, USCT were both shot in the abdomen and died after evacuation.
Captain Walter H. Wild, Brig. Gen. Wild’s younger brother and his adjutant and inspector general, was wounded in the forehead but recovered and returned to duty; 1st Lt. Elam C. Beeman, Co. A, 1st Regiment, was shot in the wrist, but he also returned to duty. Seventeen other soldiers from the 1st Regiment; a New York artilleryman; and the civilian captain and pilot (or mate) of the steamer Mayflower also were wounded, making a total of 26 Federal military casualties whose names are known, plus two civilians on the Mayflower, or 28 Federal casualties altogether. The 11 June 1864 Harper’s Weekly, however, reported 7 Federal dead (perhaps missing Pvt. Wilson, who was captured and enslaved, was presumed dead) and 40 wounded, possibly including some who were slightly wounded and not evacuated.
Chaplain Turner wrote with very evident pride: “I must tell you, the 1st Regiment of United States Colored Troops, with a very small exception, did all the fighting [and suffered 23 of the 26 military casualties] That terrific battle lasted several hours; but the coolness and cheerfulness of the men, the precision with which they shot, and the vast number of rebels they unmercifully slaughtered, won for them the highest regard of both the General [Wild] and his staff, and every white soldier that was on the field Our loss, considering the terribleness of this conflict, was incredibly small.”
About Confederate losses, Chaplain Turner wrote: “Allow me to say the rebels were handsomely whipped. They fled before our men, carrying a great number of their dead, and leaving a great many on the field for us to bury. They [Confederate prisoners] declared our regiment were sharpshooters.”
On 26 May, Maj. Gen. Butler telegraphed Secretary of War Stanton: “Further official reports show the repulse at Wilson’s Wharf was even more complete The enemy retreated during the night [of 24-25 May], leaving 25 of their dead in our hands, and showed a loss of killed and wounded of more than 200.”
On the Confederate side, Fitzhugh Lee, implying that the casualty figures for Wickham’s brigade and Dunovant’s regiment were for their entire “detachments,” understated his total losses as 10 killed, 48 wounded, and 4 missing; 62 total. Lee did not report any casualties either for Gordon’s Brigade, which assaulted the works on the east, or for Lomax’s Brigade, which fought on the front and west side. They constituted about half of Fitzhugh Lee’s force. In fact, 25 bodies were left behind in the abatis on the east side of the fort, and Chaplain Turner, 1st Regiment, USCT wrote: “The rebels fled before our men, carrying a large number of their dead.” A correspondent stated that “nineteen prisoners were taken.” Based on all of the accounts and records, an estimate of 175-200 total Confederate casualties seems reasonable.
Among the killed or mortally wounded were: Lt. Rudolphus Cecil, Co. K, 1st VA Cavalry, “an officer possessing a daring bravery which I [Fitzhugh Lee] have rarely seen equaled;” and Pvt. Walter Kilbey, Co. D, 4th Virginia Cavalry, who was “shot through both hips, died 26 May, the last of seven sons killed.” Pvt. James Garland Carr, Co. K, 2nd VA Cavalry, was “captured at Fort Kennon, May 24, 1864, and never heard from again after leaving Fortress Monroe.”
In his “Report of Operations from May 4th to September 19th, 1864,” Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee exaggerated Federal strength at 2,500 men in three regiments (4th, 10th, and 22nd Regiments) reported by prisoners” [who were from the 1st Regiment!] “one battery (white)” (correct, but only a section of 2 guns was present), and two gunboats [only Dawn was nearby] when I first arrived. They were reinforced before I could attack by transports (reported as five) bearing white troops [only two Union vessels unloaded black and white troops]. Their Colored Regiments were exceedingly large, the three numbering some 2,500 men strongly intrenched in a Fort. A wide ditch ran across the entire front & a strong abatis being insurmountable obstacles.”
The Richmond Examiner, which had clamored for action, went further: ” the enemy, supposedly negro troops and a large number of marines from the fleet so strongly intrenched and fortified [that Lee] deemed it impracticable [to attack] losing only some 18 killed and wounded in the whole affair.” Two days later, the newspaper elaborated: “Lee ventured a partial attack ditch 10 or 12 feet deep,15-18 feet wide, an abatis made more intricate and impenetrable by intertwining wire An officer [told us] it would have taken our men two hours to get inside their works had there not been men inside [to defend them] six gunboats playing upon our men all the time…We had some sixty men killed and wounded.”
Lt. Simonton stated: “The account in the Richmond Examiner was a gross exaggeration of the actual facts which amused us not a little at the time. No mention was made that Gen. Lee was defeated and driven back by Union forces consisting nearly all of colored troops.”
(Fitzhugh Lee’s “partial attack” consisted of a charge on the advanced picket, a skirmish with two companies of the picket support, a frontal dismounted attack on the fort, two or more determined assaults on the east side with orders to “kill every man in the fort,” and feint attacks on the front and west side over a period of 5-6 hours.)
After his overwhelming victory over white Union cavalry and black Union infantry at Fort Pillow, during which he employed all his dismounted cavalry in a simultaneous attack, Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest concluded his after-action report: “It is hoped these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.” After Wild’s troops faced the same odds as at Fort Pillow: 2.5 (or 2.6):1 in favor of the Confederates at the beginning of the Action, Maj. Gen. Butler ended his telegram to Secretary of War Stanton: “From the accounts of every officer the negro troops behaved most splendidly.” What made the difference at Wilson’s Wharf?
A correspondent wrote: “Gen. Wilde [sic] directed the fight in person. [He] is an ENTHUSIAST on the subject of colored troops He has the most implicit confidence in his troops, and so have they in him [Some Union officers] despise negro troops and say they cannot be trusted A Regular army officer, who entertains many of the prejudices, admitted that with good officers the negroes would make good soldiers. An old adage, and true of any men of any color.”
Responding to Butler’s orders, Brig. Gen. Hinks “leap-frogged” the 1st Regiment to Fort Powhatan to replace the 22nd Regiment, which went to City Point to replace the 37th Regiment, which had returned there on 25 May and now was sent back to Wilson’s Wharf to join the 10th Regiment. On 27 May, Hinks sent a company of U.S. Colored Cavalry to Wilson’s Wharf and directed Wild to “break up a signal station at Harrison’s Landing.”
On 27 May, and again on 7 June, Hinks requested rolls of Confederate prisoners captured at Wilson’s Wharf. On 28 May, Hinks sent a dispatch to Butler: “General: It is reported that on Sunday (22 May), two men of the 22nd U.S. Colored Infantry, who were captured by the enemy in the attack on Fort Powhatan, were shot to death in Petersburg at a place called the “Gallows,” designated for execution of criminals. Five other prisoners have been captured (since 5 May), of whose fate nothing is known I respectfully request that Private Heaton, 24th Virginia Regiment, and all the prisoners captured from Fitzhugh Lee at Wilson’s Wharf be held for execution for the murder of the soldiers of the 22nd Regiment, and any of the other soldiers of this division who have met a like fate, if the above report is proved to be true.” (Either it wasn’t, or it couldn’t be confirmed.) On 30 May, Captain James H. Wickes, Provost Marshal, wrote Gen. Wild: “You will please require all arms captured from the enemy at Wilson’s Wharf, to be collected, including rifled muskets, shotguns, carbines, & revolvers, and forwarded to these Headquarters at the earliest opportunity.”
On 1 June, Brig. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, Butler’s Chief Engineer, signed “Sketch[es]” of the fortifications at “Wilson’s Wharf or Landing” and “Fort Powhattan” [sic] that were prepared by Capt. John W. Donn, Coast Survey. The outline of the breastworks on the sketch map of Wilson’s Wharf matches the remains visible today. However, the sketch probably was the plan for completing the fort with abatis all around, rather than the actual fortifications that existed prior to 1 June. More than a month after the Action on 24 May, the fortifications were completed and named Fort Pocahontas. The map also shows “Wilde’s Hd. qr’s” in the L-shaped Wilson house and two or three outbuildings. Gen. Weitzel later commanded the 25th Army Corps, composed of U.S. Colored Troops, some of whom were among the first to enter Richmond in April 1865.
On 2 June, Col. Holman was ordered to report with his 1st Regiment, USCT at City Point from Fort Powhatan.
Fitzhugh Lee later reported “a very different state of things existed than was represented by civilians upon whose accounts the Expedition had been sent (but) I resolved to make an attempt for capture of the place, now that the march had been made.” The information about troop strength and state of the fortifications at Wilson’s Wharf provided “by civilians” may have been fairly accurate, especially considering that half of the 10th Regiment, USCT was sent to Fort Powhatan early on the 24th and did not return until 4 PM, late in the Action. But since it didn’t fit his exaggerations and fabrications, he found it convenient to add “bad civilian intelligence” to his list of excuses for failure.)
During 11-12 June, Fitzhugh Lee’s and Wade Hampton’s divisions fought the bloodiest cavalry battle of the Civil War around Trevilian Station, west of Louisa, resulting in a total of over 2,000 casualties to both sides, including many Confederate cavalrymen who had fought at Wilson’s Wharf. The 5th SC Cavalry, then part of Butler’s Brigade, Hampton’s Division, lost its battle flag that probably was present at Wilson’s Wharf during the Action on 24 May, to Sheridan’s cavalry. Wade Hampton reported the losses for his division; Fitzhugh Lee did not report his losses.
By 11 June, artillery at Wilson’s Wharf was increased to four 10-pdr Parrott guns of Capt. John H. Howell’s Battery M, 3rd NY Light Artillery; reinforced by Companies E and H (probably four guns each), 16th NY Heavy Artillery under Capt. Henry C. Thompson. (Capt. Alger M. Wheeler’s 33rd Independent Light Artillery Battery (4 guns?) arrived later, replacing Howell’s Battery M.) A company of U.S. Colored Cavalry (probably I, 1st Regiment) was there, too.
On 15 June, Hinks’ division demonstrated for the first time in Virginia that U.S. Colored Troops could assault fortified positions against artillery and sharpshooters, as well as defend them, which they earlier proved at Fort Powhatan and Wilson’s Wharf. Under Lt. Col. Elias Wright, the 1st Regiment captured one of the six guns captured by Hinks’ division in seizing the entire Jordan salient of the Petersburg defenses. But senior officers in Butler’s Army of the James failed to exploit the advantage, and 11,000 Union troops were lost during three days of heavy fighting.
Meanwhile, to replace Grant’s heavy losses, short-term regiments were called up to replace more experienced regiments tied up guarding lines of communication, etc., allowing the latter to be sent forward to fight. Among the three-month (“100 days”) regiments were the 143rd and 163rd Infantry Regiments, Ohio National Guard, consisting of white volunteer troops organized at Camp Chase, Ohio early in May. On 12 June, Col. William H. Vodray’s 143rd Ohio Regiment had only 415 men in six companies; Col. Hiram Miller’s163rd Ohio had 29 officers and 679 enlisted men armed with Enfield muskets, total 708.
Brig. Gen. John Wesley Turner wrote: “The 100-days men I do not think are yet [reliable]. They scarcely had a musket three weeks and many do not even know how to load.” However, 250 men of the 163rd Ohio took part in a “severe skirmish” during a “reconnaissance on the Petersburg and Richmond railroad” on 14 June and “comported themselves like veterans.” By mid-June, the 37th Infantry Regiment, USCT had returned to Wilson’s Wharf and recruited 14 men there.
On 16 June, Hinks ordered the 143rd and 163rd Ohio Regiments “to proceed to Wilson’s Wharf to hold that point and relieve General Wild, who will report at City Point [with the 10th and 37th Regiments, USCT on 18 June] in the same steamers” that carry the Ohio troops. Both Ohio regiments remained at Wilson’s Wharf until 29 and 31August, respectively; the 163rd Ohio (and probably the 143rd Ohio as well) participated in “building a large portion of the works [fortifications] known as Fort Pocahontas.”
By 19 June, Reveille was being sounded there by the Headquarters bugler and (regimental) bands at 3 AM; by 3:10 AM “every member of every company [was] expected to be under arms and [the troops] formed in company streets.” Taps was at 9 PM. Every man was provided with 40 rounds of serviceable ammunition.
After leaving Wilson’s Wharf and fighting at Petersburg in mid-June, the 1st Infantry Regiment, USCT went on and added to its combat record at Chaffin’s Farm or New Market Heights, Fair Oaks, the assault on Fort Fisher, NC, and other actions and skirmishes. The regiment lost 4 officers and 67 enlisted men killed or mortally wounded, and one officer and 113 men to disease, a total of 185 officers and men during the war.
The 10th Regiment, USCT (which contained a high percentage of hired substitutes) was stationed at Fort Powhatan until 6 July, when Col. Holman, then acting commander of the 3rd Division, 18th Corps, was ordered to send the regiment “at daylight tomorrow morning” to City Point, where it guarded the huge Federal logistics base until 2 April 1865.
By 23 June, angry relations between Generals Hinks and Wild had reached the boiling point: Hinks ordered Wild arrested and confined to limits of the 1st Brigade for refusing orders to replace his brigade quartermaster, Lt. Birdsall, and had him court-martialed for “stripping a citizen” (Mr. Clopton, and having his slaves whip him) and intimating he would do it again, and for defiant and disrespectful language to Hinks. Wild’s court-martial continued from 29 June through 1 July. On 24 July, Butler set aside the findings of the court, released Wild from arrest, and ordered him to report to Fortress Monroe with his personal staff. In December, Wild was restored to command of the 3rd Division of Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel’s 25th Corps.
On 24 June, the largest battle of the Civil War fought in Charles City County occurred north of Charles City at St. Mary’s (Samaria) Church-Nance’s Shop. Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton’s six brigades of Confederate cavalry attacked Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg’s two brigades of Federal cavalry who were screening 900 supply wagons enroute from White House to City Point, to join Grant’s army which had earlier crossed the James to begin the siege of Petersburg. They drove Gregg’s men from two positions before finally routing and driving them to within two miles of the court house. Federal losses were about 339, mostly captured; the Confederates lost over 100 men.
Meanwhile, a letter written on 23 June by Captain A. R. Arter, Co. C, 143rd Ohio Infantry, to “Dear friend” from “Wilson’s Landing, Virginia; and diaries kept by Commissary Sergeant George L. Brooks, 163rd Ohio Infantry, and Private Thomas Buchanan Linn, 143rd Ohio, reveal details about the Action on 24 May and subsequent activities at or near Wilson’s Wharf-Fort Pocahontas during mid June-August 1864.
Captain Arter wrote (on 23 June): ” our Picket lines extends about 1 _ miles outside of the fortifications and is strongly man[n]ed a dispatch came into camp that there was a heavy Force of Rebs making their way toward our works. Consequently every man was at his post and we would not have given them a very kind reception as we have one of the best arranged breastworks I have seen. and about one thousand men armed with sharps [Sharps breech-loading] Rifles, and one [sic, three] full artillery company[ies] composed of some 12 or 15 cannons and Two Large gun Boats laying at the landing ”
“This point is the most prominent on the James River & is said to be the highest. It is about Fifty feet above the river. Mr. Wilson, the man that owned this farm, had put out this spring some 300 acres of corn, there has never been a plow or how [hoe] put in it. it is growing up in weeds. it is said he owned some 2,000 acres‹and well stocked with Negroes…” (There were 60 slaves there in 1860.The father, Josiah C. Wilson, died in 1862. Wild’s “List of Prisoners” dated 8 May includes 34 year-old “Josiah Wilson‹confine him 6 weeks; Mrs. [Molly] Wilson‹wife of [32 year-old Dr. John C.] Wilson‹runaway;” and 12 year-old George W. Wilson, son of Josiah. Dr. Wilson may have urged the attack, but all of them appear in the 1870 Census. Wild had them confined to prevent information about the size of his force and the defenses from reaching Confederates.)
Captain Arter continued: “A man Reb right across the River [at Brandon Plantation] owns 17,000 acres and any amount of Negroes. & since our troops got possession here they have [been] taking all his negroes & everything else. This whole country is owned by heavy land holders owning from one [thousand] to Twenty thousand acres‹a poor man can’t own any land, all the men [owners] leave their homes and our men destroy [them] ”
“A lot of the boys went out yesterday [22 June] and broke into [vacant] President Tylers house [“Sherwood Forest”‹the gouges of their bayonets on a door frame are still visible] and took and destroyed lots of stuff. They say he [ex-President and Confederate Congressman John Tyler died in 1862] has the nicest kind of a mansion‹the house furnished in the best of style. They [Ohio soldiers] bro[ugh]t in some very nice furniture, such as sofas, lo[o]king glasses [mirrors], [wash or candle?] stands, carpeting, etc. of the very costliest kind and destroyed the pyana [piano] & large looking glasses [leaving one very large mirror, which is still there] & such other stuff they could not bring in ”
” a foraging party went out yesterday on a steamer and came back with a full load 80 sheep, 20 or 30 head of cattle, lots of mules & Horses & among the rest 80 negroes a good many of them young women [and] one old nig 105 years old [they] were all took from one family; they also took all the furniture they had they said [the white family owners] went on at a great rail at the idea of losing their all. And well they might. Just think [how] we would feel if we had everything took. Our men show the rebs in this section no mercy the negroes we [send] to Fortress Monroe. There they have a lot of land which they make them work [farm]. There is about 25,000 there ”
(Besides the theft and vandalism of items having obviously no military value (except chairs and perhaps china used as “comfort items” at headquarters in the Wilson house and tents in camp at Wilson’s Wharf), the confiscated food and animals could be used to feed or transport Grant’s and Butler’s large armies. The “liberated” slaves were gainfully employed to produce food for Union forces, and soldiers were recruited from among them. Areas along the James River were essentially a “no-man’s land” where Confederate foraging and conscription parties still operated. Cruel as they were to the inhabitants, Federal operations denied these resources to the Confederacy, especially Lee’s army.)
Arter indicated that some Ohio officers were taking young negroes home to raise as foster children, and he wrote his female “friend” for advice: “Some of our captains are selecting young darkies to take home. they want me to take one. I see young darkies‹all kind of colors from nearly white to as Black as Black. I thought I better council [counsel, consult] with you before I risk to bring one. Now if you think you would like to raise one let me know and also what kind you would like to have, for I can get any kind [age, gender, color] for you.”
Sgt. Brooks’ diary elaborates on the defenses at Wilson’s Wharf: “Our fortifications [in late June] are very strong Our commanding officers are preparing for, and expecting [another] attack pretty soon. We feel strong enough to hold the works against reasonable size force‹yet it may be possible for us to fail we would make a good fight of it‹if the Rebs get the place it will be dearly bought, for our advantages are great.”
By late June, Brig. Gen. Gilman (“Old Gil”) Marston, a 53 year-old lawyer, had replaced Brig. Gen. Wild. Marston commanded the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 10th Army Corps, which consisted of four Ohio National Guard volunteer infantry regiments and attached units. Marston retained the 148th Ohio at his temporary headquarters at City Point. At Fort Pocahontas were the 143rd and 163rd Ohio regiments, three New York artillery companies, one or two U.S. Colored Cavalry companies, and engineer and pioneer detachments.
On 27 June, Brooks wrote: “Arose at 5 _ o’clock and took a short walk out of the fortifications. Was out yesterday & saw the Skull and some Bones of Rebels bleaching in the sun. They were killed during the attack by Fitzhugh Lee & were buried‹but being slightly covered, the rains in some cases washed the dirt away and left them to view.” That same day Pvt. Linn noted that 34 soldiers of the 143rd Ohio were in a barn used as a hospital, but the next day 60 men of the regiment were sent sick [probably with typhoid fever and/or dysentery] to Ft. Monroe. On 1 July, Private Linn reported to the doctor and “took a dose of castor oil. It worked me.”
Also on 1 July, “two Rebel prisoners [were] brought in by Colored Cavalry troop, also some wounded men [and] 7 PM preaching by a chaplain [Samuel D. Bates] from 163rd” [Regiment]. (Linn diary)
Orders on 2 July specified that “half a gill of whiskey per man, night & morning, combined with quinine, will be issued ” [and also] 2 hours of “School of the Soldier: Manual of Arms, Loading, and Firing to be conducted daily. After proficiency [is] attained, one hour to be devoted to battalion drill.”
On 4 July: “4 Johnnie Rebels brought in by cavalry pickets. 6 rds [of artillery] were shot in 4th [of] July salute.” On 7 July: “An old barn torn down” and the wood was used to fix hospital tents. On 9 July: “An old Rebel flag found here.” (Linn)
Linn noted on 11 July: “Colored Cavalry got in a fight with some Rebel scouts. Cavalry lost 1 killed & 1 wounded [who died] The one killed had 9 balls shot in him.”
On 12 July: “Preaching by Chaplain William Hastings, 143rd [Ohio]. Had prayer meeting this evening here.” (Linn diary) Brig. Gen. Terry forbade officers from playing “certain games” (gambling) with enlisted men. (163rd Ohio Order Book)
On 20 July, Linn wrote: “60,000 [?] troops past [sic, passed] up the river within the last 36 hours on boats. One boat had a Boys Band which played as they passed.”
On 25 July: “Two deserters (from Richmond) came in.”
On 28 July: “Col. Bensdorf of the 16th New York heavy Artillery [Regiment] has command of this post; he supersedes Col. [Hiram] Miller of the 163rd Ohio.” (Linn)
On 1 August: “One man on daily duty fixing graveyard.”
On 11 August: “The 133rd [Ohio N.G. Regiment] from Fort Powhatan was relieved & passed this place on their Way home. Had dress parade.”
Sunday, 14 August, Linn wrote: “Captain [James] Ririe, Officer of the Day had Inspection of Arms. [We] have orders to have our Knapsacks packed & [be] Ready at one hour’s notice. Looking to be relieved every hour” [to go home]. “I was out with Lieut. [John S.] Crawford and M. Lawrence to see the grave-yard. No. of graves 24, No. of 143rd Reg. 12, N. York [16th Heavy Artillery] 3, Reg. of Colored Cavalry 2 killed.” (Also 7 graves of the 163rd Ohio.)
(Records show that 34 members of the 143rd Regiment, and 30 members of the 163rd Regiment died from disease probably contracted at Wilson’s Wharf-Fort Pocahontas. The 163rd Ohio lost another member by accident. Most died in hospitals elsewhere, but 15 members of the 143rd Ohio and 10 members of the 163rd Ohio were buried at Wilson’s Wharf. The first burial recorded at “Fort Pocahontas” was that of Corporal John M. Atchinson, Co. A, 163rd Ohio, on 18 July. At least 56 Union soldiers, including both white and black soldiers, were initially buried at Wilson’s Wharf through the end of the war; however, their bodies were reinterred at Glendale National Cemetery in 1866.)
On 17 August, Linn wrote: “A scout (party was) sent out this morning. Two Colored Cavalry were shot‹one killed, the other wounded in the right shoulder. One [5th Sgt Elias B. Flexer, Co. K] of the 163rd [Ohio] was accidentally shot & instantly killed, shot through the left breast.”
On 20 August: “Two men on picket were arrested by Lt. [John] Willis for Drunkenness & fighting. Gen. [Gilman] Marston & Col. [Hiram] Miller was out on picket to view the line” [of fortifications].
On 22 August: “Part of the 143rd Reg. was on a scout [?] down the [James] River on the steamer James Gray for Ice.” They got apples, Peaches & pears plenty.” (Linn)
On 23 August: Gen. [Ulysses S.] Grant was here to see the post, but he did not stay long.”
On 24 August: “A large Boat named John Warner Brought 10 Army Wagons & 60 mules with Colored men [civilians] to haul lumber. Boats running all day. More business done today than has been done last two weeks.”
On 25 August: “150 men [soldiers] went out with the wagons to haul lumber out in the country about 7 miles [and] got prime lumber. Men [who] went as guards came back loaded with green corn. They were out to the Tyler house” [Sherwood Forest].
On 26 August: “Had one Negro [civilian?] shot by 16th New York Battery.”
On 27 August, Linn wrote: ” one man drowned last night, a Negro” [civilian?].
On 28 August: “This morning 800 Colored Troops of the 18th Corps came at 12 [Noon] to Relieve us. The 37th” [Infantry Regiment, USCT], which stayed until 28 September.
Pvt. Linn concluded his diary entries at Fort Pocahontas on 29 August: [Transport steamers] came at 12 [Noon]. At 6 PM 14 Co. [companies] got on one boat & 6 [companies‹a total of 10 companies for each regiment, 20 in all] got on the other started on our trip to Washington” (via Fort Monroe enroute to be mustered out at Camp Chase, Ohio during 11-12 September, 1864.)
On 25 August, Butler had ordered the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, Marston’s old regiment, to relieve the Ohio “100 Days” men at Fort Pocahontas; they arrived on the evening of 1 September. On 31 August, Butler assigned Brig. Gen. Marston “command of all U.S. troops on the James river east of City Point and west of Fort Monroe,” and directed him to move his headquarters to Fort Pocahontas.
Lt. Col. Joab N. Paterson’s veteran 2nd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry remained until early October. It conducted raids on 21 September up the Chicahominy River, and another larger and more destructive one to Barret’s Ferry on 27 September. The regiment lost one soldier to disease at Fort Pocahontas. Butler recalled these regiments on 27 September and replaced them with the 184th New York Volunteer Infantry and the newly-raised 38th New Jersey Vol. Infantry of the Provisional Brigade; the latter were reported not effective for active field service.
On 9 October, Butler ordered Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Carr, a New Yorker who had commanded the 3rd and 2nd Divisions, 18th Army Corps, to replace Brig. Gen. Gilman Marston as commander of the Separate Brigade, Army of the James, which garrisoned Fort Pocahontas, Fort Powhatan, and Harrison’s Landing until June 1865.
During 27-28 October battles at Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road, the 1st Regiment, USCT (commanded by Lt. Col. Giles H. Rich) lost 108 officers and men killed and wounded while capturing two 12-pdr iron guns on the 27th, but Captain Henry Ward and 15 enlisted men were captured while trying to haul off the guns, which had been spiked, as trophies. Col. Holman, commanding the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, 18th Corps, was wounded in the “upper third of thigh.” Holman, who was from Chelsea, MA; was brevetted Brigadier General for gallant and meritorious service in 1867.
At the end of November, Carr’s Separate Brigade, which “embraces troops at Harrison’s Landing and Forts Pocahontas and Powhatan” numbered 63 officers and 1,754 enlisted soldiers in infantry, artillery, and cavalry units. By the end of 1864, the brigade had been reduced to 48 officers and 1,422 enlisted soldiers. Companies E and I, 1st U.S. Colored Cavalry, had been re-assigned from Fort Pocahontas to Fort Powhatan and Harrison’s Landing, respectively.
By 31 December 1864, Major William H. Tantum, 38th New Jersey, commanded the garrison at Fort Pocahontas. He had four companies of his 38th Regiment, two companies of the 16th NY Heavy Artillery, the 33rd NY Light Battery, and a “detachment” of the 1st U.S. Colored Cavalry. Company I, 184th New York was attached at Fort Pocahontas from December until June 1865. Company D, 20th New York Cavalry, was posted at Fort Pocahontas in January, 1865. By March-April 1865,Col. Wardwell G. Robinson commanded the Separate Brigade that garrisoned the two forts and Harrison’s Landing until June, 1865.
What was the significance of the Action at Wilson’s Wharf on 24 May 1864?
Besides being the first major clash between U.S. Colored Troops and the Army of Northern Virginia, it was one of the greatest victories won by a “force of nearly all colored troops” during the Civil War, and they fought outnumbered against veteran Confederates. Larger numbers of USCT fought and won (or lost), but alongside white Union troops.
Confederate cavalryman Charles T. Price’s chilling words: “We had orders to kill every man in the fort if we had taken them” indicate that the Action would have been another “Fort Pillow massacre,” if Fitzhugh Lee had won, but on a much larger scale and on his orders.
Militarily, although Wild’s troops spent more time digging and less time outside their fort after 24 May, thus easing some of the pressure on the population of Charles City County, Fitzhugh Lee did not achieve his given mission of eliminating the Federal garrison, but “if possible” gave him an “out” if he failed. Butler’s James River line of communication was not cut, even temporarily, but that was not part of General Bragg’s verbal order to Lee.
The Action served to accelerate completion of, and expand the original fort to include two bastions on the corners that could each accommodate a 4-gun battery rather than the section of two guns present during the Action, to become formidable “Fort Pocahontas.”
Although Northern newspapers covered the Action in brief, fragmented reports, it was greatly overshadowed by the Battle of North Anna River on 23-24 May, during which Grant’s and Lee’s armies suffered a total of over 5,000 casualties. Butler’s Army of the James, which failed dismally in the attempt to seize Richmond and was “cooped up” at Bermuda Hundred, was no longer a “hot news item”‹Wild’s troops were part of that army.
Fitzhugh Lee was humiliated by defeat at the hands of black Union soldiers at a time when he was a candidate to replace “Jeb” Stuart, killed 11 May, as head of the cavalry corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. (Wade Hampton was appointed instead.) Lee slighted the Action in his reports, and the Richmond papers confused, even if they did not fully cover up the extent of his defeat with their clumsy exaggerations and Lee’s and their own outright fabrications.
An indirect effect was that Confederate authorities failed to recognize the military effectiveness of well-led, disciplined, and trained Negro soldiers, most of them former slaves from Virginia and North Carolina, until their cause was hopeless. Shortage of military manpower, especially infantry, was one of the major causes of Confederate defeat. In retrospect, Wild’s 1200-1,300 black soldiers and their white officers in the 1st and 10th Infantry Regiments, USCT who fought at Wilson’s Wharf on 24 May 1864 probably totaled more than all of the black men and white officers who actually fought as members of Confederate Colored combat units during the entire Civil War.
Edwin W. Besch