The Mysterious, Second Combat-Action for USCT’s in Spotsylvania County

From: Harrison

Although the engagement at the John Alrich farm, on May 15, 1864, was the first combat action involving United States Colored Troops (USCT’s) in Spotsylvania County, it was not the only such combat in the county. A second engagement, now almost unknown aside from a brief mention in Noah Andre Trudeau’s Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, featured them again, four days later. What follows describes historical detective work undertaken in 2012 to discover the location of their May 19th skirmish.

On May 17, 1864, the six USCT regiments (and a detachment from the 29th Connecticut Infantry) composing the two infantry brigades of Brig. Gen. Edward S. Ferrero’s division moved east from bivouacs in the vicinity of the Alrich and Isaac Silver farms, both on the Orange Plank Road, to the area of Salem Church.

Salem Church, principal landmark for the main camp of the USCT regiments on May 17-22, 1864, the period of their second combat in Spotsylvania County. National Park Service photo.

In serialized reminiscences published in 1899, Freeman S. Bowley, a young lieutenant in the 30th USCT, wrote of visiting another USCT regiment near Salem Church on the evening of either May 17 or 18, 1864:

Grouped under the great pine trees, the scene lighted up by fires of pine knots, the men, all wearing their accouterments, gathered.  Every black face was sober and reverent.  The leader “lined off” the words of the hymn, and all sang…. Then came prayers and exhortations.

The cannon were roaring at Spottsylvania, and the dropping sound of musketry was heard all the time. 

An encounter with the enemy was indeed in the immediate offing for the USCT’s.

In a note to the adjutant-general of the Ninth Army Corps, Ferrero supplied this overview of an engagement on May 19 that drew his infantry west, back towards the Isaac Silver farm:

[A]t 5.30 p.m. my outpost, on the road leading from Alsop’s to Silver’s, on the plank road, was driven in and attacked by a strong force, consisting, as far as I was able to judge, of cavalry and artillery, and seemed to be determined to penetrate my lines. The Second Ohio Cavalry was ordered to engage the enemy until I could bring infantry supports. At the same time heard heavy firing of musketry and artillery on our left and rear. I immediately formed my division in line. Had a slight skirmish with the enemy, but night setting in, the firing ceased. Advancing a short distance I found that the enemy had retreated. We captured 5 prisoners belonging to Ewell’s corps. Our losses were very small.

(Actually, not all of Ferrero’s division deployed; at least one of his two artillery batteries had remained in camp at Salem Church after orders to harness-up were countermanded on the night of May 19.)

Lieutenant Bowley’s postwar narrative provides further details, its self-effacing tone lending credence to Ferrero’s characterization of the May 19 skirmish as “slight” but also to Bowley’s assertion that it involved directly black Union infantry—inexperienced though they were—as well as white Union cavalry. (There were no reported casualties among the USCT’s for the action that day.)

The only picture of the USCT skirmishers’ experiences on May 19 to accompany Bowley’s narrative was this vignette—on page 69 of A Boy Lieutenant, the 1906 book version of his 1899 newspaper reminiscences—of one of them joking.

[L]ate one afternoon, the cavalry carbines began to crack… The enemy had developed in force, and there was a call for the infantry.

Our regiment went off on the double-quick. I was doing my first detail as Officer of the Guard. Gathering up my sentinels, I followed the regiment on the run. When we overtook the rest, Co. B, the left flank company, was deploying as skirmishers. Maj. Leake, who was directing the movement, promptly ordered my guard to deploy with the others, and they were soon strung out five or six paces apart.

“Now just imagine you are hunting for coons, and keep your eyes open. Skirmishers, forward, guide left—March!” shouted the major.

“Pears like ‘twas de coons doin’ de huntin’ dis time, yah! yah!” laughed a black soldier, as the line moved forward with alacrity.

We passed through the woods to an open field.  Across the field some 300 yards off were Confederate cavalry skirmishers.  A few bullets came whizzing our way.

Here was my chance. I would fire my first shot for the old flag and the Union. Taking a rifle, I aimed, with great deliberation, at a horseman, who appeared to be an officer, and fired. The rifle was an old Enfield. It kicked spitefully, and gave me the impression that my shoulder had been almost dislocated. And the officer? He did not notice it at all, but rode down his line perfectly unconcerned.

Our firing was stopped, as it was not desired to show our force. The enemy fell back into the woods out of sight. We remained in line all night, but when daylight came there was no enemy in our front.

(Part of Bowley’s narrative above was quoted in a recent, published study of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. That misinterprets Bowley’s account of the events of May 19 as a description of the fighting at Alrich’s on May 15, in which he actually did not participate.)

The cavalry advancing against Ferrero’s cavalry and infantry were from the brigade of Gen. Thomas Rosser, the same unit that had fought them at Alrich’s on the 15th.  Ferrero, it seems, was accurate in claiming that the enemy’s forces on the 19th included artillery as well as horsemen. George Neese, a gunner in Thomson’s Battery of horse artillery, later wrote of accompanying Rosser on “a reconnaissance” on the 19th and, in an evening engagement at an unspecified location, firing two shots “to cool the ardor of the Yankee infantry and to acquaint them with the fact that we had something around there a little heavier than a common musket.”

Neese did not mention that the targeted Federals were USCT’s, but the diary entry of 30th USCT Lieut. George H. Walcott, paraphrased in a little-known memorial volume published after his death, notes that on May 19 his company of the 30th left Salem Church “at seven o’clock P.M., upon the double-quick, through woods and swamps, and were soon under the shells of Ewell’s batteries.” (Of the known or likely eyewitness accounts of Ferrero’s May 19 skirmish that I’ve read, all but one claim that elements of Lieut. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps were involved to some degree or another, although Rosser’s brigade was actually a component of the separate Cavalry Corps.)

USCT’s, place and date unknown. Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

USCT’s, place and date unknown; possibly near Petersburg. Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

(This photo, part of the Library’s Randolph Linsly Simpson African-American Collection, is identified by the Collection as “View of tent in field; four Civil War soldiers with stacked rifles and posted sentry.” The image appears here in accordance with the Beinecke Library’s policy on noncommercial use of public domain materials. Additional information accompanies its online version.)

Where was the area of the May 19 skirmish-site that involved the USCT’s? Attempting to locate it did not at first seem likely to yield a decent return on an extended effort. I assumed that the “Alsop” farm that represented such an important landmark for Ferrero was either the Alsop house that was a key feature at the scene of the armies’ main fighting on May 19, on and around the Harris farm, or a different Alsop house that had been prominent during earlier operations on and near the Spindle farm, in another area of the sprawling Spotsylvania Court House battlefield. The various road-corridors linking those Alsop properties with the Silver farm on the plank road seemed too long to suggest a site for Ferrero’s May 19 skirmish with any specificity.

Then I stumbled across a Union map (detail below) that dates from the eve of the Overland Campaign and plots a different Alsop farmstead.  The map depicts this Alsop property, obviously prominent in the Federals’ military geography, as situated on the east side of Gordon Road…and indeed connected by a side road to a point on the Orange Plank Road between the Silver house and the Miller house, the Silvers’ neighbor on the east.

Library of Congress.

The map’s citation and full, online version are here.

This Alsop farm, it turns out, is identified more particularly on a lesser-known Confederate map, prepared in 1862 under the supervision of topographical engineer John Grant (detail below).  Grant’s delineation is sketchy—omitting, for example, the segment of the Unfinished Railroad that paralleled the plank road south of the Silver farm area—but it’s far more detailed than the Union map and denotes what I believe is Ferrero’s first-named landmark specifically as the farmstead of “Gentleman Sam Alsop” on the east side of Gordon Road.

Library of Congress.

The map’s citation and full, online version are here.

John Grant’s map also shows that, while a side road indeed connected Sam Alsop’s property and Gordon Road to the area of Silver’s, the side road intersected the plank road between Silver’s and the Perry house, not between Silver’s and the Miller house, and possessed a 90+ degree bend very similar to that on the road (Rt. 674, Chancellor Road) that today extends for two miles through the same vicinity to connect modern Plank Road (Rt. 610) with the modern Gordon Road (Rt. 627).

Having found what seemed like a good match for Ferrero’s road “from Alsop’s to Silver’s,” I next consulted the postwar Federal map for Chancellorsville (detail below), prepared under the direction of Nathaniel Michler. Although only the plank road and the northernmost stretch of the side road appear, the map’s high degree of precision makes it useful.

Library of Congress.

The map’s citation and full, online version are here.

In 1867, according to Michler and his field surveyors, the northernmost stretch of the side road, as it crossed the Unfinished Railroad and approached the plank road from the south, followed nearly the same, slightly curving route that is now followed by the stretch of Rt. 674 north of the railroad grade.  (Given this correlation of right-of-ways for what is obviously a long-serving county road, and the absence from Michler’s map of any other side roads approaching the Plank Road in the Silver-Perry-Miller area from the south, I’m guessing that its failure to extend the side road all the way to the bottom edge of the map represents an oversight by the New York engraver.)

Bearing in mind Bowley’s mention of “an open field,” I then noted that the Michler map shows an irregularly shaped clearing, which I’ve marked “A,” that’s (1) bisected by the Unfinished Railroad, (2) bordered by what I presume is the side road to Alsop’s, and (3) separated visually from the plank road by a belt of woods.

A tattered Confederate map, “Part of Spotsylvania County,” that postdates the Chancellorsville campaign and incorporates contributions from topographer Benjamin Lewis Blackford was my final graphic document (detail below).  Although this does not identify the Alsop house on Gordon Road—in an area of the map marred by a sizeable tear—the delineation clearly shows the side road, with its characteristic 90-degree turn.  The Blackford map plots it as intersecting the Plank Road slightly further to the west of Silver’s, towards Perry’s, than does the Michler map, and also shows two nearby fields, which I’ve marked “B” and “C” that adjoin the Unfinished Railroad but are not bordered by the side road to Alsop’s, and are not shown on the Michler map.  (Also, the Blackford map appears to differ from the John Grant map by plotting the side road as intersecting Gordon Road near the south edge of the Alsop-farm clearing, rather than at the north edge.)

University of North Carolina, Wilson Library, Manuscripts Department.

The citation and full, online version of this public-domain map are here.

Setting aside for a moment the matter of locations for the USCT deployments, I’m assuming that the principal fighting of the May 19 skirmish as described by Ferrero, between the Second Ohio Cavalry and the Confederates, occurred at points along or near the side road, roughly midway between its intersections with Gordon Road and the plank road and where the Blackford map indicates some sizeable clearings.  Although the Ohioans’ campaign-report, authored by Lieut. Col. George A. Purington, should be read with caution, as it confuses “east” with “west” and mischaracterizes the other Federals involved as “heavy artillery…guarding our trains,” it does state that the Ohioans engaged the enemy that day some three miles from Chancellorsville (the intersection of the plank road and modern Rt. 674 is 2.7 miles distant from Chancellorsville) and lost only one man despite “considerable firing” exchanged with unspecified elements of “General Ewell’s corps.”

Next, in considering the supporting role that Ferrero’s infantry played in the action of May 19, I used the Michler and Blackford maps to come up with three candidate-locations for the USCT’s skirmish-field.

These suggested locations are contingent upon the accuracy of Bowley’s and Ferrero’s accounts, including their description of the USCT’s task that evening as backstopping Federal cavalry; Purington’s distance figure of about three miles from Chancellorsville; and my assumption that the USCT’s, having arrived via the plank road to support the Ohio cavalry already engaged on or near the side road, deployed along the plank road in the vicinity of the Silver house, rather than perpendicular to the plank road—with Bowley and the other skirmishers arrayed in front of Ferrero’s infantry regiments as a screen that extended through the woods and clearings fringing the plank road on the south.

Lieut. Walcott’s paraphrased diary-entry for May 19 mentions his company of the 30th USCT receiving orders, at the end of their march past woods and swamps, “to hold the road…at all hazards.” Also, Ferrero did not report any need to first recapture the plank road/side road intersection, as he had done in recounting the action at the intersection in front of Alrich’s five days before.  On May 19 the plank road itself seems to have offered the most logical location in the area to form his division “in line,” in my reading of the evidence currently available.

Looking northeast along and across a stretch of the plank road (modern Rt. 610) that I currently believe hosted part of the principal deployment of Ferrero’s infantry on May 19, 1864. The hill in right background marks the plank road’s intersection with the side road from Alsop’s (modern Rt. 647, entering from the right-hand edge of the photo), as shown on the Michler map. The narrow swath of reddish, sedgy field visible through the gaps in the cedar hedgerow in left middleground, and between the hedgerow and the subdivision rooftops in left background, marks the general location of the wartime Silver House. Noel G. Harrison photo.

The three candidate sites are my estimated, general locations of the three fields noted above; in the 1860’s, each evidently possessed a belt of trees that would have screened from view Ferrero’s main deployment along the plank road, behind the USCT skirmishers, as per Bowley’s recollection.

For orientation to the modern landscape, and since the places under discussion are today situated on private property and not open to the public (with the exceptions, of course, of Salem Church and various paved roads), I’m providing a mapping below of my first choice (“A”) among my proposed, potential USCT skirmish-locations: the estimated, general site of the forest clearing plotted by Michler.

Blackford’s map and its fields seem less reliable, given the uncertainty indicated by an apparent scratch-through of a belt of trees bordering the Unfinished Railroad in his field (“C” above) to the left of the road to Alsop’s. Yet Blackford’s plotting of that road’s intersection with the Plank Road, not Michler’s, seems corroborated by John Grant’s sketchy Confederate map, so I’m therefore also mapping as possibilities the related plottings of Blackford’s fields, with the one to the east of the road to Alsop’s as my second choice (“B” below) for the skirmish location, and the one on the west side (“C” below; my apologies for the double letter)—with the apparent scratch-through—as my last choice:

We should bear in mind, of course, that Michler’s map, for all its alluring precision, is of the three maps the furthest removed in time from Ferrero’s engagement, and would reflect the landscape changes wrought by new buildings, the clearing or forestation of fields, and other developments of the early postwar period.

Here’s a street-level view of the appearance today of my candidate “A” for the USCT’s skirmish site as described by Freeman Bowley:

The two houses at center and their yards occupy the northern half of my candidate-site “A” for Bowley’s skirmish field. Looking southeast across the side road to Alsop’s, as plotted on the 1867 Michler map (now Rt. 674) with the treeline in background denoting the grade of the Unfinished Railroad (finished and put into operation in the 1870’s). The open ground on the near side of Rt. 674 in this photo was forested at the time of the Michler map. Noel G. Harrison photo.

Noel G. Harrison

Special thanks to Don Pfanz for photographic assistance; and acknowledgements to Gordon C. Rhea’s To the North Anna River, Grant and Lee May 13-25, 1864 for the wonderful battle-verb “backstopping” and for pointing out the George Neese quote regarding action at an unspecified location on May 19, 1864; and to Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog for noting that the Bowley reminiscences, which I had first stumbled across in their later, book form from 1906, had an earlier, more detailed incarnation as a newspaper series in 1899.

Primary sources, in order of first appearance quoted above:  Free[man] S. Bowley, “A Boy Lieutenant in a Black Regiment,” National Tribune, May 11, 1899; Brig. Gen. Edw[ard] Ferrero to Lieut. Col. Lewis Richmond, May 26, 1864, in Official Records 36, pt. 1, p. 987; George M. Neese, Three Years in the Confederate Horse Artillery, p. 272; C. M. Tyler, Memorials of Lieut. George H. Walcott, Late of the 30th U.S. Colored Troops, p. 68; Lieut. Col. George A. Purington to Capt. Charles H. Miller, July 24, 1864, in Official Records 36, pt. 1, p. 894; James H. Rickard, “Services with Colored Troops in Burnside’s Corps,” in Personal Narratives…Read Before the Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society 8, p. 22.

Although I retain racialized dialect in eyewitness accounts that I quote, I am mindful of its potential to reflect to one degree or another the racialized conventions of periods later than the specific era and event being recalled.

A further note on locations: for locations as well as tactical detail, the current scarcity of source material leaves a number of possibilities beyond those suggested above. Ferrero, for example, may have dispatched only part of his troops, with the 30th USCT included of course in the detachment, to support the 2nd Ohio’s fight on the side road, and deployed the remainder of his infantry in line at Salem Church “immediately”—in the wording of Ferrero’s report—upon learning of the Confederate cavalry thrust. Among the primary sources I’ve seen for his other USCT regiments, only one indicates combat on May 19, 1864: the reminiscences of an officer of the 19th USCT mentioning “the night at Spottsylvania, when the enemy’s cavalry made a dash into our regiment, and for a time it looked as though we might lose some of our supplies” (an interesting echo of Lt. Col. Purington’s statement, above, suggesting the presence of a wagon train in the combat area).

Alternatively, Ferrero may have moved west in force on the plank road towards the Second Ohio, but stopped short of the side road and deployed his infantry perpendicularly to the plank road at, say, the open, commanding ridge that it climbed not far west of Salem Church. The ridge extended southeast from Zoan Church on the Orange Turnpike and featured the charred ruin of Tabernacle Church, at the head of Gordon Road, as well as a line of earthworks built by the Confederates during the Chancellorsville campaign. A scenario of deploying on Zoan ridge does incorporate slightly better than a Silver-area deployment on the plank road Ferrero’s mention of hearing off to his “left and rear” the firing of what was presumably the armies’ main confrontation at Harris Farm. (Yet, geographically speaking, the Harris Farm combat area would still have been situated to Ferrero’s left and front if he deployed along the Zoan ridge. Such a deployment would also imply that the Confederates, in order to come within range of Bowley, Walcott, and the other USCT’s, had pushed the Second Ohio up the side road and then east along the plank road for two miles, despite the minimal casualties mentioned by Ferrero and Purington; Purington’s three-miles-from-Chancellorsville description; and the lack of mention in Ferrero’s report of the roads, earthworks, and other features prominent on the Zoan ridge.)

Lastly, and as I suggested in a response to an email from my friend, historian John Cummings, who has read of Brig. Gen. Rosser possibly moving considerably further north along Gordon Road than its intersection with the side road, the Confederate cavalry perhaps operated in separate detachments, and thus locations, simultaneously on the evening of May 19.

10 thoughts on “The Mysterious, Second Combat-Action for USCT’s in Spotsylvania County

  1. Nothing like digging deep, my friend. A masterful demonstration of pulling in all the source material. This shall certainly fill my mind whenever passing through that area in the future. It always felt to me like something was important about that location around the abandoned railroad bed.

    John Cummings

  2. Just outstanding I have been though that area, fining places that theUSCTs may have been. I have been driven to fine more, I felt the need to learn more and tell their stories.

  3. Superb job of detective work. Makes me want to get out my maps and walk some Spotsylvania County battlefields.

    • Wow, Gordon. Honored to see your name here. Thank you. Sudden good memory of a visit that you and I paid to Higgerson and/or Chewning sites back in the day. Would always enjoy another. Noel

  4. Noel,
    Yet again, your superb research has opened up another intriguing line of inquiry. This dangerous activity in the army’s rear was also a topic when we included the May 1864 massacre of Federal pickets at U.S. Ford in our study Historic Resources Along the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers. As Grant’s army moved south, it collapsed its line of communications behind it, as it opened new lines elsewhere. As these events illustrate, the process was not a clean one and certainly quite dangerous. Well done.

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