Posted by: The staff | June 15, 2010

In Our Midst: First Combat of the USCTs in Northern Virginia


From Harrison:

The Alrich House, at the junction of Old Plank Road (Rte 610) and Catharpin Road, Spotsylvania County

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 the Army of Northern Virginia.   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.

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Responses

  1. This site certainly needs to have its own stop on the Virginia Civil War Trails Tour. As the location of the first exchange of fire between the USCTs and the ANV, it is of vital importance to have it marked and interpreted for future generations.

  2. Noel – another facinating piece of little known history – tahnks. I don’t always comment on these posts, but I thoroughly enjoy them and really appreciate all the efforts you all put into this. Please keep it coming!

  3. I almost hate to just say “I concur” but I do with both John and Mr. Blancard.

    The 23rd USCT and 30th USCT go on down to my battlefield (Petersburg) and see some heavy combat in a well known battle with explosives. This field must be kept out of the subdivision world.

  4. Noel, thanks for telling the story of these forgotten soldiers of the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. On May 15, 1864, the mission of the 23rd & 30th USCTs would briefly changed from combat service support to combat. Your description of the symbolic importance of this event on Virginia soil is on the mark. A marker in Spotsylvania County on or near the site and appropriate recognition is long overdue!

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone. And stay tuned; I understand that one of my colleagues will be blogging soon about some of the individual soldiers in Ferrero’s division. Noel

  6. Noel: This is an eye opening discovery for me. United States Colored Troops is and has been a forgotten group among many Civil War Historians. There appears to be more information on Colored Troops during the Revolutionary War than the Civil War. I appreciate your work. It has inspired me to speak out about the lack of recognition in Spotsylvania County about the exploits of the United States Colored Troops.

    Dick Toye

  7. MAMBER BATTERY B 2ND REGT US COLORED LIGHT ARTILLERY 18TH CORPS I HAVE ANCESTORS THAAT SERVED IN THAT WAR 3 -24 -25 TH MY GT GT GRAND FATHER PETER QOUMONY, BRO ABRAHAM AND EDWARD FORD I HAVECOPIES OF THEIR SERVICE RECORDS, JUST NO ARMY PICTURES. THEY ALL 3 TRAINED AT CAMP WILLIAM PENN, LA MOTT PA
    WOULD LOVE TO GET MY HANDS ON SOME PICTURES IF POSSIBLE.. THANK YOU,

    SGT FRED 910 612 7050

    DARLENE COLON IS ON MY FAMILY TREE

  8. LOOKING FOR PICTURES OF THE 3 RD 24 TH 25 TH INFANTRY FROM LA MOTT PA CAMP WILLIAM PENN
    MY ANCESTORS ARE PETER QUOMONY, HIS BRO ABRAHAM THEIR BROTHERLINLAW EDWARD FORD DARLENE COLON IS ON MY FAMILY TREE. THANK
    YOU KINDLY SGT FRED CIVIL WAR REENACTOR IN NC

  9. ALSO HERE IN WILMINGTO NC ON JUNE 2ND @ 9 AM I/ WE WILL BE HOLDING A DEDICATION FOR THE OUVER 500 USCTS BURIED HERE. THIS TOOK ALONG TIME BUT I GOT IT DONE, TANK GOD.SO COME ON DOWN I 95 S AND I 40 EAST TO THIS GRAT CITY. I WILL BE LOOKING FOR YOU THIS WILLL BE THE FIRST EVER HISTORICAL MARKER BEING HONORED FOR THESE MEN. THANKS SGT FRED

  10. This was fantastic reading. I enjoyed learning about the historic battle with the USCT’s at my ancestors’ home place! Keep up the great research!
    -Glenna Alrich Huskey

    • We’re grateful for the support and kind words, Glenna. Thank you. Your Alrich corner at Plank and Catharpin is one of my favorite spots in the county. Noel

    • I am interested to hear about your Alrich ancestors. Are you descended from Pieter and Jacob Alricks, nephew and uncle, among the first settlers in what is now the state of Delaware? If so, you might be interested in a book I have written about them, An Unbeatable Dutchman.” Please let me know what you know about your ancestors, as they may be my husband’s as well.

      • I’m replying to my own message, because since I sent it two weeks ago I have researched my husband’s family and found that my husband is the great-grand-nephew of John Roberts Alrich of Spotsylvania Co. My husband’s grandfather, William Thomas Alrich of Wilmington, DE, was his brother. Thanks for the story and pictures of the Alrich house — your blog is very impressive.

        Kay Hutchinson


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