“No Danger of Surrender”
An Historical Archaeological Perspective of the Civil War Battle of Wilson’s Wharf, Charles City County, Virginia
WMCAR Project No. 00-23
American Battlefield Protection Program
Heritage Preservation Services
National Park Service
1849 C Street NW NC330
Washington, D.C. 20240
William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research
The College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, Virginia 23187-8795
Jameson M. Harwood
Dennis B. Blanton
July 3, 2001
2: Historical Background
The pre—Civil War historical information was summarized from a more intensive study conducted by Charles M. Downing (1996). The Civil War historical information was drawn from official war records and correspondence, newspaper accounts, historic maps, and secondary sources relating to the 1864 campaign of the Army of James, the May 24 Battle of Wilson’s Wharf, and the subsequent occupation of Fort Pocahontas.
The property encompassing the battle of Wilson’s Wharf was first purchased in July 1635 by David Jones and was described as a 300-acre tract “a little below the poynt, butting South Southwest upon the maine river, being bounded between 2 Creeks, the second & third Creeks below Matticoe Creek” (Nugent 1992:I:25). The property exchanged hands many times until it was purchased in the late 1730s by Richard and Ann Hunt Kennons (Figure 3). In 1738, at the age of 26, Richard Kennons was elected to the House of Burgesses, where he served until 1755. In 1742, the Virginia Assembly chose Kennons as the site of one of two tobacco inspection warehouses in Charles City County (Hening 1969:V:144). By the Revolutionary War, the tract referred to as Kennons was owned by Henry Edloe.
In early January 1781, British troops commanded by Benedict Arnold began moving up the James River. The British Col. John Simcoe led about 100 of the Queen’s Rangers in an assault on the American stronghold of Fort Powhatan at Point Hood. Simcoe’s men met no resistance as the Americans had withdrawn at their approach. Arnold and about 1,000 troops then ascended to Kennons Landing and disembarked at Westover Plantation. Troops under his command pillaged and vandalized the properties at Westover and Berkeley Plantation.
The wharf and warehouse at Kennons survived the war as indicated when the Assembly again designated the property as the site of a tobacco inspection warehouse (Hening 1969:XI:210). The property later changed hands several times until it was sold to Josiah C. Wilson in November 1835. Kennons Landing, or Wilson’s Wharf as it would become known, appears to have been the only officially designated stop on the steamboat line in the immediate area. Edmund Ruffin described the wharf in his 1857 visit to former president Tyler at nearby Sherwood Forest (William and Mary Quarterly Historical Magazine 1906:194).
The Civil War — 1862
The Peninsula Campaign
The Union Peninsula campaign of 1862 was the largest single campaign of the Civil War. Nearly a quarter of a million men were assembled on the Virginia Peninsula as the principal army of the Federal government fought the principal army of the Confederacy for control of Richmond (Spears 1992). From late March to late June 1862 McClellan’s operations at Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Seven Pines pushed the Confederates west toward the Southern capital. With the wounding of Gen. Joseph Johnson at Seven Pines, Robert E. Lee was given command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee quickly took to the offensive and in the Seven Days’ Battle drove the Federal army back down the Peninsula. When the campaign was finally over, one of every four men engaged was dead, wounded or missing.
From the abundance of the late 1862 inventory, it appears the Wilson property was left relatively unscathed after McClellan’s 1862 Peninsula Campaign (Charles City County Will Book 6:161). Other plantations in the area were not so lucky as Union troops destroyed property and killed livestock. For the Wilson family, the year 1864 would bring the worst of the war directly to their doorstep.
The Civil War — 1864—1865
By its third autumn the Union war effort was facing a major reorientation. Fresh from a series of victories in the Western Theater, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck as general-in-chief of the armies of the United States. Grant became responsible for coordinating Federal activities in all theaters in order to bring the war to a successful conclusion for the Union. To accomplish victory, Grant was now required to formulate a plan of attack for the Federal forces in the Eastern Theater, as well as for those with which he was more familiar in the West. Grant initially rejected the customary overland advance toward Richmond in favor of an entirely different course of action (Robertson 1987). He proposed a thrust from Suffolk, in southeastern Virginia, to Raleigh, North Carolina, by a force of approximately 60,000 men. Throughout the advance, the invading army would destroy important railroad facilities along the way and, coupled with the threat posed by the arrival of the army at Raleigh, would force the Confederates to evacuate Richmond and most of Virginia.
However, after conferring with Lincoln, Grant set aside his North Carolina plan in favor of a more conventional line of advance. In the spring campaign of 1864, there would be two major Federal offensives (Robertson 1987). The first would consist of a drive by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s armies from Chattanooga, Tennessee, toward Atlanta, Georgia. The second advance would consist of an overland push by Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac toward the Confederate capital of Richmond. Supplementing the two primary offensives were to be three smaller operations: an advance by an army under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama; an advance by Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia; and an advance by the Department of Virginia and North Carolina (later referred to as the Army of the James) from Hampton Roads up the south side of the James River toward Richmond. Grant considered the James River column a high priority as it was to serve as the left wing of the grand Federal offensive in which the Army of the Potomac represented the center and Sherman’s forces the right wing (Robertson 1987).
Benjamin Butler and
the Army of the James
In October, 1863, after a long deliberation, President Lincoln took a chance and renamed Benjamin Butler as commander of the entity known as the Department of Virginia and North Carolina (Figure 4). A prominent criminal lawyer and Democratic politician in Massachusetts before the war, Butler initially commanded the Department at Fort Monroe in August 1861 but was installed as the commander of New Orleans when the Crescent City was captured the following year. Continuously the subject of rumors and illicit affairs, Butler was finally relieved of his post in the Department of the Gulf after an altercation with the foreign consuls in New Orleans. Butler remained without a command until his return to the Hampton Roads area in 1863.
Benjamin Butler was not the logical choice for most military men, who considered it folly to entrust a citizen-soldier with field command. However, Lincoln may have reasoned that Butler’s new appointment was not significant enough to ensure the general a triumph of epic proportions, nor would his army campaign in the mainstream of the Virginia theater. Meade’s army would continue to be the focus of Northern attention by virtue of its size, its long-term opposition to Lee, and its role as defender of Washington, D.C. (Longacre 1997).
Undaunted, Butler realized the important role his army would play in the spring campaign of 1864 given his department’s position astride the southern approach to Richmond (Figure 5). The quick-minded general had been studying the advantages offered by an advance up the James River basin since his installation as commander. Butler recognized that the Richmond defensive fortifications were less formidable to the south and that the surrounding high ground would be suitable for maneuvering. In addition, the Bermuda Hundred peninsula would serve as an excellent base for operations. Located approximately 15 mi. south of Richmond at the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers, the Bermuda Hundred peninsula was characterized by deep ravines at its foot and a readily defensible narrow neck.
To facilitate Butler’s advance on Richmond, two defensive positions on the lower James would have to be secured to protect the army’s lines of communications. The first was Wilson’s Wharf, a bluff on the south bank of the James that commanded the channel for some distance above and below. The second position was Fort Powhatan, the site of an unoccupied Confederate fortification on a bluff a few miles upriver from Wilson’s Wharf.
Among the units assigned to Butler’s newly formed Army of the James were Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore’s X Army Corps and Maj. Gen. William F. Smith’s XVIII Army Corps, both of which would carry out the attack on Richmond. Most of April 1864 was spent concentrating various regiments scattered throughout Butler’s command. The infantry and artillery components of the Army of the James numbered approximately 36,000 men. Completing the army were approximately 3,000 cavalrymen massed at Portsmouth under Brig. Gen. August V. Kautz, and 1,800 black cavalrymen who would parallel the invasion fleet (Robertson 1987). When and if the cavalry detachments joined the main body, Butler would command a field army of 40,800 men.
While the Army of the James gathered near Yorktown, Butler was making preparations with Acting Rear Adm. Samuel Philips Lee of the United States Navy. Elements of S. P. Lee’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron would occupy portions of the James River so as to protect the army’s debarkation from Confederate fleet action. Also, naval gunfire would support the troop landings until the army was established ashore and safely entrenched.
The Federal Departure — May 1864
Despite the enormous complexities of such a joint army/navy operation, at 4:00 a.m. on May 5, 1864, the fleet transporting and guarding Butler’s Army of the James cast off for its destination upriver. A half dozen of Admiral Lee’s vessels led the operation consisting of his flagship, Malvern, followed by the gunboats Dawn, Osceola, Commodore James, Commodore Morris, and Shawseen. Next to follow were the numerous transports carrying, in order, Brig. Gen. Edward W. Hinks’s Third Division, United States Colored Troops (USCT); the 15,000 soldiers of the XVIII Corps; and the portions of the X Corps that had arrived in time for departure. Attending the troop ships were barges of siege equipment, followed by dozens of cargo and hospital ships. Admiral Lee’s ironclads–Roanoke, Onondaga, Tecumseh, Canonicus, Sagus, and Atlanta (a recently captured ship of the Virginia class)–defended the rear accompanied by a score of double-ender gunboats and armed tugs (Longacre 1997).
Early on the afternoon of May 5, Butler’s riverborne soldiers at last arrived at Wilson’s Wharf and Fort Powhatan, the first objectives of the campaign. The initial landing party consisted of the First Brigade of Hinks’s division under the command of Brig. Gen. Edward Wild. The 1st and 22nd regiments USCT captured Wilson’s Wharf without opposition and set to work felling trees and constructing a large earthen fortification. Meanwhile, the 10th and 37th regiments USCT landed at Fort Powhatan, also without resistance. Butler realized retaining possession of Wilson’s Wharf and Fort Powhatan was key to maintaining an open supply route to City Point. Butler therefore entrusted the defense of these strategic garrisons to the USCT as he believed they would fight more desperately than any white troops in order to prevent capture. He reasoned that as captured black soldiers would be returned into slavery (under Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s proclamation) and the white officers possibly murdered, there would be no danger of surrender (Butler 1892).
By 4:00 p.m. Hinks’s Second Brigade, under the command of Col. Samuel Duncan, reached City Point, a once active river port located 1.5 mi. down river from Bermuda Hundred. Duncan’s 4th, 5th, and 6th regiments of USCT disembarked and quickly dispatched the handful of Confederate signalmen and guards stationed at the old wharf. While Hinks’s men were occupying City Point, the rest of the fleet continued to Bermuda Hundred. Except for a lone steamer and a few horsemen in the distance, the Confederates had not put up any resistance to the initial Union advance. However, Butler’s Army of the James would see action soon enough.
Edward Wild and
the United States Colored Troops
At the beginning of the Civil War, few Union policy makers foresaw a military role for African-American men, free or slave. Northern abolitionists may have identified slavery as the cornerstone of the Confederacy, but Northern politicians minimized the connection between secession and chattel bondage. In the eyes of Northern leaders, and most Northern whites for that matter, the conflict would be a war to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves.
However, as the Union army confronted its enemy in the field, the importance of slavery to the Southern war effort soon became evident. The Confederate armies depended heavily on the labor of slaves to not only construct fortifications, transport supplies, and perform camp services, but also raise and manufacture the goods needed to feed and fund the army. Slave labor helped maintain the Confederate war machine by performing services which freed Southern white men for battlefield service.
General Butler was one of the first to conclude that winning the war required an assault upon the system of slavery in the South. In May 1861, three slaves commandeered a canoe and paddled to the safety of Union occupied Fort Monroe, Virginia. When a Confederate officer sought the return of the men based on the U.S. Fugitive Slave Law, Butler pointed out that since the state of Virginia had seceded from the Union, its citizens could no longer benefit from Federal laws. Furthermore, Butler argued that as the Confederates had employed the slaves on a military project, and since slaves were considered “property,” the bondsmen were subject to confiscation as contraband of war according to international law. Butler not only refused to surrender the “property,” but also offered to pay the three men to build a bakery for the Union troops. In one bold action, Butler had not only established a policy for freeing runaway slaves, but also set a precedent for incorporating African-Americans into the Union war effort.
Butler’s policy became law through the passage of the First Confiscation Act which authorized Federal officials to seize Confederate property, including slaves, that was being used in the war effort (Glatthaar 1990). By July 1862, Congress went a step further and passed the Second Confiscation Act which bestowed freedom to all slaves upon crossing Federal lines. Of special note within the legislation was Section II which
Authorized the President to receive into service of the United States, for the purpose of constructing entrenchments or performing camp duty, or other labor, or any military or naval service for which they were found to be competent, persons of African descent, and provided that such persons should be enrolled and organized, under such regulations not inconsistent with the Constitutions and laws as the President might prescribe (Gladstone 1993).
Even with congressional approval, President Lincoln was still not ready to enroll blacks as soldiers in the Union Army throughout the remainder of 1862.
As Union armies penetrated deeper into the South, the demands of large-scale war were pushing the Lincoln administration steadily toward authorizing black military service. Precedent supported the admission of African-Americans into the armed forces as black soldiers had fought valiantly in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Finally, on September 24, 1862, Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Emancipation, which took effect January 1, 1863. The seventh paragraph of General Order No. 1 authorized former slaves to enter “the armed service of the United States, to garrison Forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service” (Gladstone 1993).
Once authorized, the recruitment of African-Americans into military service proceeded at an almost breathless pace. By mid-1863, the administrative load forced the War Department to create a single entity called the Bureau of Colored Troops. The bureau was to systematize the process of raising black units and securing officers. Black commands changed from state designations to the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and the various units became United States Colored Infantry, Artillery, or Cavalry. Of all the black regiments, only the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry, 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, and the 29th Connecticut Infantry retained their state identifications as “U.S. Volunteers” after acceptance into Federal service (Glatthaar 1990).
Due to the controversial nature of African-American military service, the Lincoln administration determined that whites should officer the new black regiments. By offering commissions to whites, the War Department hoped to appease objections in and out of the army. Racial stereotypes played an important role in the decision to bar blacks from becoming officers. Since most white Northerners believed that black men lacked the innate ability to fight well given their supposed inferior character, the Federal government decided these new USCT regiments would require committed and talented white officers to train and lead them.
Certainly one of the most committed and most talented white officers to lead the USCT was the contentious Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild (Figure 6). Initially chosen because of his uncompromising belief in the value of black soldiers, Wild was a Harvard-educated physician whose distrust of his superiors was only surpassed by his hatred of the Confederacy. Wild already had paid a high price for his patriotism. While serving as captain in the 1st Massachusetts, he fought in the Battle of Seven Pines where his right hand was permanently damaged by a Confederate bullet. After recovering, Wild became colonel of the 35th Massachusetts only to severely injure his left arm up to the shoulder (Trudeau 1998).
By October 1863, Wild’s recruiting efforts had mustered into U.S. service the 2nd Regiment Infantry (African Descent), North Carolina Volunteers (or Second North Carolina Colored Infantry [not to be confused with white unionists similarly named 2nd Regiment Infantry, North Carolina Volunteers]). Also under his command were the 1st USCT from the District of Columbia, and the 5th USCT from Delaware, Ohio. Wild and his troops spent the remaining days of 1863 raiding and generally terrorizing guerrillas and citizens in North Carolina.
By May 1864, Wild became part of General Benjamin Butler’s invasion force which sailed upriver bound for Bermuda Hundred. The assignment to protect the supply line of the Army of the James went to Brig. Gen. Edward Hinks’s black division. This was a two brigade division, with the First under the command of Wild and the Second under Col. Samuel Duncan. Wild’s Brigade consisted of the 1st (District of Columbia), 10th (Virginia), 22nd (Camp William Penn), and 37th USCT (from North Carolina) while Duncan’s comprised the 4th, 5th, and 6th USCT (Figures 7 and 8).
Action at Wilson’s Wharf
Throughout May 1864, Butler and his army made demonstrations toward Petersburg, engaging Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederates at major battles such as Port Walthall Junction, Chester Station, and Drewrys Bluff. However, for the USCT stationed at Wilson’s Wharf and Fort Powhatan the majority of the month was spent fortifying, guarding, and patrolling. As in North Carolina, Wild continued to take the war to the local populace by raiding the surrounding countryside from his base at Wilson’s Wharf. Throughout the occupation of the fort the so-called “foraging parties” pillaged local plantations causing many landholders to flee the area (Arter 1864). Wild’s reign of terror reached a head when a foraging party captured a local planter named William Clopton, who earlier had severely beaten several female slaves. In a May 10 letter to the Christian Recorder, Sgt. George Hatton (1864) described how the Union troops exacted revenge on the notorious slave owner:
On the arrival of Mr. C. in camp, the commanding officer determined to let the women have their revenge, and ordered Mr. C. to be tied to a tree in front of head-quarters, and William Harris, a soldier in our regiment (1st USCT) and a member of Co. E, who was acquainted with the gentleman, and who used to belong to him, was called upon to undress him and introduce him to the ladies that I mentioned before. Mr. Harris played his part conspicuously, bringing the blood from his loins at every stroke, and not forgetting to remind the gentleman of the days gone by. After giving him some fifteen or twenty well-directed strokes, the ladies, one after another, came up and gave him a like number, to remind him that they were no longer his, but safely housed in Abraham’s bosom, and under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner, and guarded by their own patriotic, though once down-trodden race. Oh, that I had the tongue to express my feeling while standing upon the banks of the James River, on the soil of Virginia, the mother state of slavery, as a witness of such a sudden reverse! (Hatton in Redkey 1992:93—94)
The real and imagined fears brought about by the thought of black Union soldiers operating freely in the heart of Virginia caused a general outrage amongst Virginians. Letters to the Richmond Examiner (May 1864) accused Wild’s soldiers not only of robbing, burning, and plundering, but also of bayoneting and nailing no less than three white citizens to trees and making some ladies “victims of their hellish appetites…”. By May 23, the Confederate army could no longer tolerate the presence of the black soldiers at Wilson’s Wharf, and Gen. Braxton Bragg sent a force commanded by Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee to “break up the nest and stop their uncivilized proceedings in the neighborhood” (Fitzhugh Lee’s Postwar Report [FLPR] 1866).
Fitzhugh Lee, the nephew of famed Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, was a West Point graduate who had served with the 2nd United States Cavalry in Texas (Figure 9). In 1859, while fighting Comanches, Lee was severely injured when an arrow passed under his arm and through both lungs (Nichols 1989). After a long leave in the summer of 1860, Lee was ordered to West Point to serve as instructor of cavalry tactics (Nichols 1989). After the secession of Virginia from the Union on April 17, 1861, Lee left West Point and tendered his resignation. In late July, 1861, Lee was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia Volunteers and assigned to the First Virginia Cavalry. By 1864, Lee had quickly advanced to the rank of major general.
At the time of the attack on Wilson’s Wharf, Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate force comprised 800 men from Brig. Gen. William Wickham’s Brigade (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Virginia Cavalry Regiments); 750 men from Brig. Gen. Lunsford Lomax’s Brigade (5th, 6th, and 15th Virginia Cavalry Regiments); 420 men from Brig. Gen. James Gordon’s Brigade (1st, 2nd, and 5th North Carolina Cavalry Regiments); and approximately 500 men from Col. John Dunovant’s 5th South Carolina Cavalry Regiment. One artillery piece accompanied the expedition under the command of Lt. Marcellus Moorman (Besch n.d.:3; Rhea 2000:363) (Table 1).
Lee’s force of approximately 2,500 men left Atlee’s Station (northeast of Richmond) and after an all-night ride arrived at Wilson’s Wharf around 11 a.m. on May 24. Lomax did not accompany the expedition and instead remained behind to command the troops left in camp. Dunovant commanded his regiment and Lomax’s Brigade during the engagement. Colonel Clinton M. Andrews of the 2nd North Carolina Cavalry commanded Gordon’s Brigade as the general had died on May 18 from an arm wound received in fighting outside Richmond on May 12.
At the time of Lee’s arrival, Wild had 900 infantry in 10 companies of the 1st Regiment USCT and four companies of the 10th Regiment USCT. The 10th Regiment USCT had recently replaced the 22nd Regiment USCT which transferred to Fort Powhatan during the middle of May. Wild was supported by two 10-pounder Parrott field rifles from Battery M, 3rd New York Light Artillery (which replaced Battery B, 2nd USCT Light Artillery), 2nd Lt. Julius M. Swain’s signal detachment, and the gunboat USS Dawn commanded by Navy Acting Lt. J. W. Simmons.
The action began around noon with a mounted Confederate cavalry charge on Union pickets posted some distance in front of the fort (Figure 10). Companies C and F of the 1st Regiment USCT checked the Confederates, but some Union soldiers were cut off and captured (Nasca et al. 1998). After the attack on the Union pickets, Lee had his cavalrymen dismount and a line of skirmishers advance on the Federal works. Although the earthworks were only partially finished, Lee found the fortifications strongly manned. Lieutenant Edward Simonton, Company I, 1st Regiment, USCT described the earthworks at the time of the engagement:
Along one-third of the line ran a ditch 8 feet wide and 5—6 feet deep … along the remaining part was no ditch at all; abatis constructed simply of felled trees and trimmed branches and limbs placed outside the ditch. Our intrenchments were only about one-third completed when General Lee’s force came upon us 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 (Besch n.d.:5).
Henry Turner, African-American Chaplain of the 1st USCT, described his tense excitement in witnessing the repulse of the initial Confederate advance:
Things moved quietly until the 24th … when my attention was called to the front of the works by a mighty rushing to arms, and shouts that the rebels were coming. I immediately joined the proclaiming host and bellowed out (I reckon in fearful tones) “The rebels! The Rebels! The Rebels are coming!” At this period the long roll began to tell that doleful tale that she never tells unless the enemy is about to invade our quarters. Then commenced another rush to arms, fearful in its aspect. Notwithstanding many were at dinner, down fell the plates, knives, forks and cups, and a few moments only were required to find every man, sick or well, drawn into the line of battle to dispute the advance of twice, if not thrice, their number of rebels. Captains Borden and Rich of the 1st U.S. Col’d Troops, with their gallant companies, were at some distance in front, skirmishing with the advance guard of the rebels. And here permit me to say, that this skirmish was the grandest sight I ever beheld (Turner in Redkey 1992:96—99).
Turner notes that by the time the pickets were driven into the fort, a flag of truce could be seen waving in the distance. Lee had dispatched Maj. R. J. Mason and John Gill with a message stating “he had force enough to take the place, demand its surrender and in that case the garrison should be turned over to the authorities at Richmond as prisoners of war, but if this proposition was rejected he would not be answerable for consequences when he took the place” (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies [ORUCA] 1891:269). General Wild declined the offer by simply replying, “We will try it,” a phrase he used before attempting a difficult problem (ORUCA 1891:269).
As Gill returned Wild’s response, news of the battle was attracting the attention of naval ships stationed nearby. The transport Thomas Powell landed some 150 unarmed soldiers at the garrison, including six men from the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery. The gunners replaced several of the New York artillerymen who had dropped with heat exhaustion and Pvt. John Taylor who had been wounded in the face (Besch n.d.:5; ORUCA 1891:271). Another transport, the Young America, was stationed between Wilson’s Wharf and Fort Powhatan and subsequently ordered into action when the attack commenced. However, the transport was disabled at the time of the engagement due to boiler problems and had to be towed to the engagement by the army tug Johnson (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies [ORUCN] 1900:88).
Back on land, Wild’s decline to surrender caused Lee to deploy his troops for battle. Wickham and Gordon’s Brigade were to assault Wild’s strongest position while Dunovant’s 5th South Carolina Cavalry with Lomax’s Brigade were to create a diversion against the weakest portion and fire on vessels on the James River (FLPR 1866) (Figure 11). Wild reported how the Confederates “massed troops on our extreme right, concealed by wooded ravines, and made a determined charge, at the same time keeping up a steady attack all along our front and left flank” (ORUCA 1891:270). The Confederate soldiers located on Wild’s extreme right (east side of the fort) consisted of Gordon’s Brigade, with the 5th North Carolina Cavalry closest to the James River, and Wickham’s Brigade of Virginia Cavalry. Colonel Dunovant commanded his own regiment and Lomax’s Brigade against Wild’s left wing (FLPR 1866). Lee directed Dunovant to “make a demonstration upon the upper and opposite side, with a view to drawing the garrison in his front whilst Wickham got in” (FLPR 1866). Therefore, while Dunovant attracted the attention of the defenders from the west and north side of the fortification, Wickham would move his dismounted troops along a circuitous route through the wooded ravines of Kennons’s Creek.
Dunovant’s men raised havoc on the Union signal station and passing transports when a Confederate detachment succeeded in gaining possession of a small piece of woods to the west of the fortification. Signal Officer, 2d Lt. Julius Swain, reported how the sharpshooters, numbering approximately 100, gained possession of the heavy-timbered point on the river not more than 70 yards from the signal station. Swain recalled how the enemy “opened fire upon us so fiercely that we were forced to abandon our post and seek protection behind the earthworks” (ORUCA 1891:272). After a half hour delay, Swain opened a signal station aboard a transport near the wharf and directed the fire of the gunboat against Wickham’s charge of the Union right.
One transport in particular, the Mayflower, also absorbed the brunt of the Dunovant’s attack. The scene of the heroic actions of Acting Ensign William Chase, who took charge of the vessel when the captain and pilot were severely wounded, were described by Lieutenant Simmons of the USS Dawn:
On the Mayflower passing the woods above me, where the enemy’s sharpshooters had got possession, they poured a murderous volley of musketry on the Mayflower, badly wounding the captain and pilot of the boat, leaving her completely at their mercy. Mr. Chase at once jumped to the wheel and brought the boat safely through the terrific fire poured at him (ORUCN 1900:91).
Chase then proceeded to land the vessel at the wharf, at which point General Wild commandeered it for the use of transporting the wounded.
After the attack on the Mayflower, the gunboat USS Dawn opened fire on Dunovant’s sharpshooters and succeeded in driving the soldiers out of their wooded position (ORUCN 1900:90). As the firing ceased on the Union left, the Dawn moved down the river in time to encounter the Confederate charge on the Union right. The gunboat fired on the Confederates without mercy expending 118 rounds of ammunition consisting of:
100-pounder rifle: 46 rounds percussion shell
20-pounder rifle: 34 rounds percussion shell, 1 round 10-second shell
Rifled 12-pounder howitzer: 11 rounds percussion shell, 21 rounds 5-second shell, 3 rounds canister, 2 rounds grape (ORUCN 1900:91)
Even with the destructive amount of ordnance expended at the battle, two Union officers lamented their deficiency of artillery. The commander of the Dawn, Lieutenant Simmons, reported that if he “had two 32-pounders in addition to my present battery, I could do much more service, having now no smoothbore guns to throw grape and canister” (ORUCN 1891:271).
Confederates described the terrifying sight of the 100-pounder ordnance (Figure 12). The shells looked like “turkey gobblers flying over” recollected a man in the 2nd Virginia Cavalry (Gill 1905). Private Paul Means of the 5th North Carolina Cavalry remembered the ordnance as “great black masses, as big as nail kegs, hurtling in the air and making the earth tremble under us and the atmosphere jar and quake around us when they burst” (Means 1901). He also noted the devastating effect of one of the large shells on a comrade: “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” (Means 1901).
Private Henry St. George Tucker Brooke, Co. B, 2nd Virginia Cavalry participated in Wickham’s charge and described the action just prior to the assault:
(We) marched through the woods to the river (Kennons Creek) below 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 a impenetrable thicket on each side. When the charging column reached the ravine it came to an abrupt halt (Besch n.d.:7).
After the halt in the ravine, a signal gun fired and Wickham’s men charged into the cleared ground around the fort. As the Confederates rushed forward, Private Means reported, “The Negroes, with uncovered heads, rose above the entrenchments and leveled their guns upon us. Then came a cloud of smoke … bullets whizzed through our ranks, and the men in our lines tumbled over each other, some forward, some backward” (Means 1901). Wickham’s men made a determined charge and approached a parapet, but they were driven back under severe crossfire (ORUCA 1891:270). Means recalled the failed attempt: “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” (Means 1901) (Figure 13).
Despite the initial optimism of the Confederate charge, the Union fortifications, reinforced by the remaining four companies of the 10th USCT, proved too strong for Lee’s forces. Lee withdrew shortly after dusk and his defeated troops retired to Charles City Courthouse. Wild initially reported his losses from the engagement as 2 killed, 19 wounded, and 1 missing. However, on June 11, 1864, the Harper’s Weekly reported 7 Union dead and 40 wounded. Confederate losses were higher, ranging from 175 to 200, with a reasonable estimate of 180 total Confederate casualties (Besch n.d.:39).
Chaplain Henry Turner bragged about the African-American soldiers’ role in the engagement:
The 1st Regiment of the United States Colored Troops, with a very small exception, did all the fighting. … 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 and his staff, and every white soldier that was on the field (Turner in Redkey 1992:97—98).
Turner then continued by dismissing the Confederate effort:
Allow me to say that the rebels were handsomely whipped. They fled before our men, carrying a large number of their dead, and leaving a great many on the field for us to bury. They declared our regiment were sharpshooters (Turner in Redkey 1992:98).
North Carolina Private Means appeared to agree with Turner’s evaluation of the expedition when he described the attack as “the most useless sacrifice of time and men and horses made during the war” (Means 1901).
Occupation of Fort Pocahontas
After the action on May 24, the fortifications at Wilson’s Wharf were completed and renamed Fort Pocahontas. By mid-June, Ohio troops of the 143rd and 163rd Regiments replaced the USCT who were eventually assigned to the operations at Petersburg and City Point. The Ohio troops remained until the end of August when their 100 days of service ended. On June 23, Capt. A. R. Arter of the 143rd U.S. Regiment wrote a letter describing the conditions at the fort. Arter characterized the “breastworks” at Wilson’s Wharf as “the best arranged … I have ever seen” (Arter 1864). A few weeks earlier, Union engineers had prepared a plan of the works that indicated the location of General Wild’s headquarters within the fortification (Weitzel 1864) (Figure 14).
According to Arter, the fort was defended by about 1,000 soldiers armed with Sharp’s repeating rifles and “one full artillery company composed of some 12 or 15 heavy cannon” (Arter 1864). Arter probably was referring to arms and artillery added after the battle to strengthen the fort’s defenses as the Union troops who participated in the battle, the 1st and 10th USCT, were outfitted with .58 caliber Springfields or Enfields. Also, at the time of the battle, the fort’s artillery defenses consisted of only two 10-pounder field rifles.
In September 1864, the 89th New York and two regiments of USCT that had replaced the Ohio troops were reassigned and replaced with companies of volunteers from New York and New Jersey (ORUCA 1891:88). These soldiers, primarily members of the 38th New Jersey and 16th New York Heavy Artillery Companies E and H, comprised the core of the forces stationed at Fort Pocahontas from October 1864 through the end of the war.