Note: for the sequel, or counterpoint, to the pre-Overland Campaign dating of this photograph in one prominent collection, see the comment below by our sharp-eyed reader, Will Hickox, pointing out the post-Overland Campaign identification in another.
On Saturday February 25th, please join park Chief Historian John Hennessy for Bridging the Chasm: A Public Conversation about Freedom, the Civil War, and its Complicated Legacy, a keynote program in the John J. Wright Educational and Cultural Center Museum’s programming for Black History Month. See the museum’s website for details and directions.
I’d also like to mark Black History Month by sharing some thoughts on a unique image. Recently, I came across this photograph in the digitized collections of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University:
The image, part of the Library’s Mathew B. Brady and Levin Corbin Handy Photographic Studios Collection, bears the penciled caption “near Brandy Station Va 1864 staff 39th Colored Infantry.” (The photograph appears here in accordance with the Beinecke Library’s policy on noncommercial use of public domain materials. Additional information about the image accompanies its online version.)
Assuming the accuracy of the caption, this is likely the earliest-known photograph of United States Colored Troops (USCT’s) in the field in northern Virginia—part of the forces that Ulysses S. Grant had concentrated there against Robert E. Lee’s in the spring of 1864.
In a perfect historical world, of course, enlisted men would be present in the foreground as well as the background of the photograph. Yet I’m very grateful for this rare picture; to my knowledge, it’s also the only known outdoor Virginia photograph that shows, at any date prior to the onset of the Overland Campaign, personnel of any of the six full USCT infantry regiments (plus a detachment from a Connecticut “colored” infantry regiment) who would march across the Fredericksburg area battlefields with Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division of the Ninth Army Corps.
The 39th USCT organized at Baltimore on March 22-31, 1864 and was soon posted to the area of Manassas Junction. The photograph above may have been taken on the afternoon of May 5, 1864, when the 39th and the rest of the Fourth Division joined what became known as the Overland Campaign by crossing the Rappahannock River and passing through the Brandy Station area towards a bivouac point on or near Mountain Run not far from Culpeper. The regiment’s first tactical deployments, on the flanks and in the rear of the Ninth Corps and the Army of the Potomac, came after it crossed the Rapidan at Germanna Ford early on May 6.
Sometime during the Battle of the Wilderness, Alfred R. Waud made this panoramic sketch of the Culpeper Plank Road (modern Rt. 3) at the Spottswood farm, looking southeast in the direction of Wilderness Tavern:
The Library of Congress is uncertain about the specific date of Waud’s panorama, although its right-hand sheet evidently overlays a separate picture that is definitely dated “Friday” (May 6, 1864). Given the billowing smoke of battle at center and right horizon—indicative of either May 5 or May 6—the troops shown in middleground on the road may be from Ferrero’s Fourth Division, although, depending upon the date and time, they could also be Sixth Corps troops or men of Ninth Corps units other than Ferrero’s.
Ferrero’s USCT’s marched and countermarched along this stretch of road on May 6—first, in the morning, to prepare for what turned out to be an abortive attack under the orders of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick; then to secure various points along the Culpeper Plank Road itself; and finally, on the evening of May 6 and night of May 6-7, to reach positions that protected wagon trains and intersections along the Orange Turnpike between Dowdall’s Tavern and Chancellorsville. (Although it’s well-known that Grant avoided including African-American units in major, planned combat operations during the Overland Campaign, the brief description in Ferrero’s report of the cancelled attack suggests that Grant’s policy was instituted mid-battle at the Wilderness, on the morning or early afternoon of May 6—one of the least known yet significant decisions made at the headquarters atop Grant’s Knoll.)
These initial deployments by Ferrero did not involve any directed fighting. Luckily for his untested infantry, the Confederates participating in the flank attack spearheaded by Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon on the evening of May 6 did not reach the Culpeper Plank Road in force or linger there long. Ferrero’s report mentions only some limited, bloodless shadowing by Confederate pickets along the road in the early morning hours of May 7. The 39th, moreover, was not among his units who a week later would participate in a directed combat action in Spotsylvania County—the first involving USCT’s anyplace in Virginia—at the Alrich Farm.
Yet after the Overland Campaign the 39th was destined to see battle at its fiercest, at the Crater on July 30, 1864. There, historian Bryce Suderow has estimated, the regiment would sustain at least 154 casualties. One of their comrades, Decatur Dorsey, “Planted his colors on the Confederate works in advance of his regiment.” When it was “driven back to the Union works he carried the colors there and bravely rallied the men,” actions for which he received the Medal of Honor.
Noel G. Harrison
During Black History Month and throughout the year, I also encourage you to attend some of the events presented by park historian Steward T. Henderson and the other living historians in the 23rd USCT. Their schedule is here.