Almost every day (literally) we learn something new about the historic landscapes around Fredericksurg. Sometimes it’s new information; sometimes it’s new understanding–putting together pieces of knowledge that allows us to see a site or event in a different light. Over the years, I have had the chance to do some extensive research. Some of it–and indeed that which we are most often asked about–dealt with an engagement at the Alrich Farm on May 15, 1864, during the battle of Spotsylvania Court House. This small engagement has huge symbolic importance: it was the first directed combat between Union African American soldiers, known then as United States Colored Troops (USCT’s), and Confederates in Virginia north of the James River. Over the last week we have been pulling together all that we know about this event: it’s time to be as definitive as we can.
The engagement occurred after Southern cavalrymen in the brigade of Brig. Gen. Thomas Rosser had driven the Second Ohio Cavalry northeast along Catharpin Road towards its intersection with the Orange Plank Road, a point occupied by the house and extensive farm-clearing of John and Jane Alrich. The Alrich farm had already hosted combat action the previous year, when its occupation by elements of the Union 12th Corps on May 1, 1863 prompted an artillery duel and infantry skirmishing that drove the Alrichs to seek refuge in their semi-flooded cellar, and denoted the high-water mark of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s eastward advance along the plank road.
On May 15, 1864, Rosser’s men sought information on a Union army corps as it shifted southeastward towards Spotsylvania Court House. Apprised by the retreating Ohioans of Rosser’s approach, the 23rd United States Colored Infantry hastened southeast from Chancellorsville, where those and other African American regiments of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s division had bivouacked. Moving in column along the plank road, the reinforced 23rd first made contact through its deployed skirmishers with Rosser’s men. The Confederate troopers had stopped short of the Catharpin-plank road intersection to occupy the southwestern side of the Alrich clearing, holding an edge-of-treeline position that likely straddled Catharpin Road.
The climax of the action came when the column of the 23rd reached the intersection and faced right. In an account recently uncovered by historian Gordon C. Rhea, one of the Ohio cavalrymen wrote, “It did us good to see the long line of glittering bayonets approach, although those who bore them were Blacks, and as they came nearer they were greeted by loud cheers.” The 23rd charged southwest toward the treeline. Rosser’s men withdrew, pursued by the now-reformed Ohio cavalrymen. The engagement had taken the lives of several Confederates and wounded several Federals. A small action indeed, otherwise not important, save for the first shots in anger fired by USCTs–some of them former slaves.
Noel G. Harrison
[Ed. note: For a little context on the growing movement to understand and interpret sites like this, check out Noel's most recent post at Fredericksburg Remembered.]
Today the site of the engagement at Alrich Farm largely intact, though as you can see from this aerial view, subdivisions are nearby.