A Rare Photograph of USCT’s, and a Case of Conflicting Identification


From:  Harrison 

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: 

Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 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.

Detail from photograph above, courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

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.)           

Detail from the Alfred Waud panoramic sketch above. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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.

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7 thoughts on “A Rare Photograph of USCT’s, and a Case of Conflicting Identification

  1. Noel, excellent post as usual. Just a few thoughts. Edward Ferrero’s Division of the 9th Corps never reached Brandy Station during its march from Annapolis, Maryland. Additionally, the photo shows soldiers who appear relatively relaxed and settled in a static camp, not on a march. After marching in review of President Lincoln in Washington, Ferrero’s Division crossed into Culpeper County via Kelly’s Ford and spent the evening of May 5th at Paoli’s Mill along Mountain Run. I am skeptical that Brady’s photographers were waiting at the mill to take this photograph. The next day, May 6th, the division marched past Madden’s Tavern–the home of free black Willis Madden who must have been very proud to see black troops–then across Germanna’s Ford.

    For the above reasons and since there aren’t any known photos taken of the troops in the Brandy Station camps during the first week of May, I believe this photo is mislabeled and probably instead was taken in the 9th Corps’s camps at Annapolis during the spring of 1864.

    Todd Berkoff

  2. The photo could have been taken in the vicinity of Manassas Junction too during April 1864, since I am not certain these USCT regiments were at the 9th Corps camp in Annapolis.

    In any case, I am skeptical the photo was taken on May 5th at or near Brandy Station.

    Todd Berkoff

    • Todd, Many thanks for your kind words and for the input. My post, as I noted, is contingent on the accuracy of the photograph’s penciled caption. The division’s Rappahannock crossing-point was close enough to the Brandy “area,” I thought, to give a photographer who may have arrived by train some wiggle-room on geographic precision, but part of my own uncertainty—and, again, the caveat about assuming the caption’s accuracy—was based on the apparent absence from the photo of a man clearly identifiable as a colonel and resembling Ozora Stearns, the 39th’s commander, as he is depicted in identified pictures. And yours is an excellent point about the relaxed/static feel in the image. My overall approach, though, was that the strong possibility of a outdoor photograph of USCT’s who would soon march with the Fourth Division in the Overland Campaign is pretty exciting. Noel

  3. There is a clearer version of the image available on the Library of Congress Selected Civil War Photographs site. According to the caption, it was taken in September 1864.

    • Will, Great eye. Thank you, and you’re absolutely right. The Library of Congress’ digital version is here, with a September date and a Petersburg-area location. Yale’s print, then, certainly seems to bear an erroneous penciled caption. Perhaps its writer momentarily confused “Brandy” station with one of the military railroad stations along the City Point & Army Line outside Petersburg. Noel

  4. On the Alfred Waud sketch of Germanna Plank Road near Spotswood House is clearly written Sedgwick, not Burnside. It is a leap too far to associate this sketch with Burnside’s USCT. The story of how and why Alfred Waud, who crossed at Kelly’s Ford with the 2nd Corp got over to the 6th Corp near Spotswood’s house is written in the book When Lincoln Kissed Me a Story of the Wilderness Campaign by Henry E. wing 1913, copywrite expired.

    • Dr. Rainey, Thank you for reading and for your comment. Absolutely: the troops in Waud’s undated panoramic sketch may indeed be men of the Sixth Corps, as my post notes. Yet I had also thought that an alternative interpretation of Waud’s “Sedgwick” notation, at lower right, might be a reference to the nearest corps that on the Federal side was contributing to the most prominent billow of smoke, at upper right…on May 6, should that ultimately prove to be the date of the sketch. As my post mentions, the Library of Congress’ catalog describes the tan-colored half of the panorama as the overleaf to another Wilderness drawing, which is specifically dated “Friday,” May 6. North of the Orange Turnpike and nearest of the engaged Federals to the viewpoint of the panoramic sketch, elements of the Sixth fought Ewell for several hours on the morning of May 6, as well as Gordon that evening. That same day, to judge from Ferrero’s account, his Ninth Corps troops were a common sight along the Germanna Plank Road, either moving along the road or securing it and its intersecting roads “from the right of the Sixth Corps to the Rapidan.” Wing’s is definitely a helpful book (although the ford that he mentions in connection with Waud is Ely’s, not Kelly’s), and the Library of Congress is indeed vague in dating of much of Waud’s Wilderness work. Yet Waud’s day-specific pictures in the LC collection still give us the best sense currently available of the artist’s movements at Wilderness overall, including sketching soldiers crossing at Ely’s on May 4, Grant and Meade at Ellwood on May 5, and Fifth Corps troops on May 6. Another of Waud’s dated sketches places him “In front of Sedgwick May 6th 1864”—in my estimation on or even east/northeast of the Germanna Plank Road sometime that day. Waud ranged fairly widely across the battlefield. Noel H.

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