From Bondage to Battlefield
By Sarah Steele Wilson, Newsroom Editor
Feb 4, 2013, 13:36
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Park Service Interpreter Emmanuel Dabney welcomes a large group of bundled-up visitors to a three hour tour recognizing the contributions of African American soldiers to the Civil War in Petersburg.
Park Service Interpreter Emmanuel Dabney didn’t have to look far from his desk to find a good way to begin black history month. He decided to host a tour highlighting the contributions of the USCT, or United States Colored Troops, as they were called at the time, to the Siege of Petersburg.
“What a great way to kick it off in this area, which is rich with African American history,” Dabney said.
Although the action around Petersburg involved the most extensive use of USCTs of any Civil War engagement, the story of those men is one many people don’t know, Dabney said.
“A lot of people don’t know or think that we have a USCT story, and hopefully, after they left today, they see that we have a very deep colored troop story here,” he said after the three hour tour on Saturday.
Participants in the sold out tour included two van loads of soldiers from Fort Lee and a man descended from one of the white officers who commanded a USCT unit druing the siege, followed Dabney from Appomattox Manor at City Point to the site of teh Battle of the Crater, following the same route taken by advancing Union forces on June 15, 1864.
In Hopewell, Dabney told the group that 106 slaves escaped from the plantation owned by Dr. Richard Eppes during the Civil War. At least two of them joined the Union Army.
One was 13-year-old Richard Slaughter, who lied about his age to enlist and returned to Appomattox Manor during the siege in the uniform of the Union. David Henderson also fled the plantation and enlisted under an assumed name.
“He enlisted as David Allen, because he was, as he later said in the pension record, afraid that Dr. Eppes would come looking for him,” Dabney explained.
Both men lived in Hampton Roads after the war, and Henderson is buried there.
“He’s buried in Hampton Roads National Cemetery down there,” Dabney said. “That’s a big change from being buried in an unmarked grave in the slave cemetery on Richard Eppes’s property.”
The arrival of the Union Army in Hopewell represented an opportunity for many formerly enslaved men to change their lives, and many escapees arrived ready to enlist.
“Just to illustrate how transformative the war had become, in one day [the 37th USCT] will have a new company,” Dabney said. “Eighty men enlist in one day in the USCT 37th regiment.”
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Guests review maps of troop and artillery positions near the Crater site.
Charles Douglass, one of three sons of Fredrick Douglass who fought in the war, passed through City Point, and wrote a letter home to his father, in which he mentions meeting slaves attempting to escape behind Union lines and Fort Pillow, two words that became a rallying cry during the action that unfolded at the next tour stop.
Adjacent to the battlefield’s visitor center, Union forces struggled to capture Confederate positions at Batteries Five and Six, two in a series of 55 positions running in a semicircle around Petersburg.
“These batteries, constructed primarily by free black and enslaved men, now, on June 15, later in the day, will be attacked and captured, in part, by the efforts of escaped slaves and free black men from the North,” Dabney explained.
On June 15, the 1st USCT broke through the Confederate lines at Battery Six, where they were observed by the Confederates defending Battery Five.
“That is going to change things, because these men over at Battery Five see black, armed men, now in the rear of the Confederate position,” Dabney said. “They don’t have time, really, to take out their rage about the sight of the USCTs, as they decide that they’re going to surrender to the white troops in the 13th New Hampshire Infantry.”
Dabney shared a piece written by Henry Turner, the Chaplain for the 1st USCT, describing the role of his regiment in the fighting.
“Onward they went, through dust and every impediment, while they and the rebels were both crying out, ‘Fort Pillow.’ This seems to be the battle cry on both sides. But onward they went, waxing stronger, mightier, each time Fort Pillow was mentioned,” Turner wrote.
At Fort Pillow, in Tennessee, Confederate forces killed black troops, even after they had surrendered, rather than taking them prisoner, as was the customary practice with white troops. Such actions were supported by the Confederate Congress, which also decreed that white officers commanding black units were to be executed.
“Once this incident happened at Fort Pillow, the news traveled like wildfire,” Dabney said.
The USCT units responded in kind, taking no prisoners at Battery Six.
The events of June 15 left some men of African descent feeling optimistic about their future in the nation.
“The fifteenth day of June, 1864, is a day long to be remembered by the entire colored race on this continent,” Chaplain William Hunter, of the 4th USCT, wrote. “It is the day when prejudice died in the entire Army of the U.S. of America. It is the day when it was admitted that colored men were equal to the severest ordeal. It is the day in which was secured to us the rights of equality in the Army and service of the government of the United States.”
Dabney read those words standing in front of monument recognizing the contributions of the USCT. A monument that was not erected until 1992.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson A large group of modern AIT students from Fort Lee were on the tour to learn about the military history of the area. Their Lt. said she hoped in would instill military pride.
“I don’t think most people, white, black or otherwise, remember June 15, 1864, and I think Chaplain Hunter would have been disappointed from 1865 forward,” Dabney said. “Things were not equal. Not under the law and not in the Army of the U.S. of America.”
Despite the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, equality was far from assured.
“Slavery is easy to break, but racism in not,” Dabney said.
The tour culminated with a visit to the site of the Battle of the Crater, an inventive Union idea that ended in disaster.
Soldiers from Pennsylvania, who had been coal miners before the war, tunneled under Confederate lines to lay explosive charges. THe goal was to throw the Confederate lines into disarray, allowing the Union to flood through the breach and take the city. Union leaders initially intended to use USCTs to lead the assault, but changed course at the last minute, sending more experienced white troops forward first.
“The Confederates suffered considerable casualties during the explosion,” Dabney said. “Two hundred and seventy eight men, blown up. Heads, arms, legs going in every direction. A hundred thousand cubic feet of earth, go up into the sky.”
Both sides opened up with artillery and the first wave of Union troops reached the Confederate lines.
“By this time, colored troops had seen sufficient to convince them of the mighty struggle which would soon follow, and many began to make preparation accordingly” the chaplain for the 28th USCT wrote, describing the men asking him to send word to their families. “The last words to me were, ‘Brother White, goodbye. Take care of yourself, for today, somebody must die, and if it be me, I hope our people will get the benefit of it.’”
As the black soldiers began to move forward, with the 30th USCT in front, they encountered the unsettling sight of the wounded streaming towards Union lines. Among them were about 50 captured Confederates, who had been wounded and were terrified at the sight of the USCT units, waiting to advance. The wounded Confederates were sure they were to be killed.
Instead, one of the black non-commissioned officers approached, and offered a man who had been shot through the chest a drink from his canteen.
“Another Confederate came up to the man, reached into his pocket, forced into his hand some tobacco,” Dabney described. “He said, ‘if I had a million bucks, by God, I would give you all of it, for that man is my younger brother, and I thought you’uns would kill us all.’”
The reconciliation did not last long. Both the USCTS and the Confederates resumed their cries of “no quarter” and “Fort Pillow.” As the Union Assault began to fall apart, Confederates began to beat and execute captured USCTs.
Some Confederate officers, notably General WIlliam Mahone and Col. John Haskell, attempted to restore order and prevent such executions from taking place.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Dabney displays a photograph of Maj. Gen. William Smith, who orgnized the initial attack on June 15, 1864. It turned into the longest siege in American military history.
Although many of the white Union officers who commanded the USCTs were afraid to be seen with their men, some, including 29th USCT Commander John Bross, were not. He wore his insignia proudly.
“As the color bearers of the 29th started to slow down...he stood on top of the earthworks, grabbed the flag up and said, ‘rally my brave boys, rally,’ and then he was killed,” Dabney said. “Down went one of the officers who was not ashamed to be with his men.”
His body was never identified.
By the time the battle concluded, the Union had lost 3,200 men, including 1300 USCTs.
Of the 25 people of African descent of received the medal of honor during the Civil War, 19 of them received the recognition for actions taken during the Siege of Petersburg. One of those was awarded to former slave Decatur Dorsey for his bravery at the Battle of the Crater. He risked his life to rally his regiment during the fighting.
John Bartholomew, had come from Richmond to participate in the tour. He was interested in learning more about the men his ancestor, Col. Orion Bartholomew, commanded in the 109th USCT regiment, which was raised in Indiana.
“We’ve heard stories, but we don’t know if they’re true, that he was at the Crater,” said John Batholomew’s wife, Paige Bartholomew.
She said she had also heard that Orion Bartholomew was teaching his men to read.
The couple, who have a son at Fort Lee, were enjoying what they were hearing.
“It’s very interesting,” John Batholomew said.
“He’s doing a great job,” Paige Bartholomew said, complimenting Dabney’s guide work.
Also enjoying the tour was Lt. Vanessa Vargas, who organized a themed day for a group of AIT soldiers from Fort Lee. She had taken them to the Siege Museum and to see “Linoln” earlier in the day.
“It’s for them to relate to how soldiers were treated back then, how they’re being treated now, and military pride,” she said. “...I want to give back to soldiers. I want them to know exactly what they’re coming into, with the uniform that they’re wearing, and instill that pride from within.”
David Harris and his wife traveled from Western Virginia, making the trip for the express purpose of going on the tour.
“It was very interesting he said,” noting he was glad he came.
In addition to black history month, Dabney also wanted to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which passed in January, and the 150th Anniversary of the establishment of the creation of the Bureau of Colored Troops, which will take place in May.