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.
Looking east along Route 3 from the Salem Church ridge. The 15th New Jersey monument is visible in the distance. Salem Church itself is beyond the right edge of the image.
Two forces coincided to lead to the loss of the Salem Church Battlefield and the church’s virtual isolation today. First, an interchange on an interstate highway, built in the 1960s. The power of interchanges to transform the landscapes around them–especially in an aspiring urban area–is inexorable, demonstrated only over time.
Veterans at Salem Church, about 1900. On the gable end, one entrance was for men, the other for women. The entrance on the side led directly to the gallery. It was for slaves.
Second, in the 1960s and 1970s, no one, including the National Park Service, foresaw the transformative forces at work. Though the NPS could have acquired any land it deemed significant on the Salem Church battlefield prior to 1974, it did not have the funds to do so. Given that, and given the incredible economic forces that drive land development on roads leading to major interchanges, no additional land was preserved, and anything not preserved was slated for development. Today the NPS owns about two acres around Salem Church.
A windshield view from the early or mid-20th century, looking west at the Salem Church ridge.
The view westward toward Salem Church after the expansion of Route 3 to four lanes in the early 1960s.
The Salem Church battlefield today. The Confederate battle line extended above and below Salem Church. Union attacks passed from right to left.
The interior of Salem Church remains a powerful place.