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. One powerful black soldier prayed, “Oh, Lord Jesus, you knows we’s ready an’ willin’ to die for de flag; dat’s what we’se hyah foh; but, O, Lord, if we falls, comfort de lubbed ones at home.”

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

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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.
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Slave to Soldier…and Back to Slave

From Mink:

Previous posts highlighted a couple of the Fredericksburg area’s soldiers who served in the 23rd United States Colored States Troops (USCT). Their military and pension files provide us with information about these former slaves that we may never have discovered otherwise. In their own words, and those of others who knew them, we learn a little about their lives as slaves, their route to freedom, and their fight to maintain freedom.

Andrew Weaver, a slave of J. Horace Lacy in Stafford County, escaped in the summer of 1862, enlisted in the 23rd USCT in 1864 and served through the war. Abraham Tuckson, a slave of Dr. John Taylor in Spotsylvania County, also escaped slavery in the summer of 1862, enlisted in the same regiment, but fell killed at the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864. A third former local slave, Peter Churchwell, suffered a different fate at that same battle. A slave of Reuben Lindsay Gordon of Orange County, Peter escaped to freedom, enlisted in the 23rd USCT, but was captured at the Crater. In his pension file, he relates how his former owner found him in Confederate hands, claimed him and sold him back into slavery.

“I am about 74 years of age; my post-office address is 1808, 24 St. N.W. this city. Shoemaker. I was born + raised in Albermarle Co. Va. near Gordonsville. My father was William + my mother was Dicey Churchwell – dead. I was a slave of Reuben Gordon. I was married when a slave to Maria Grey, she died before the war. No children living by this marriage. I also married Julia Weaver, a year or so after the war, in this city, got a license, + I was married by Rev. Sandy Alexander Pastor Little Baptist Church Geotown D.C. She died about ten years ago in this city. No children by her. I have never married since – I have no children now living by any wife. I got acquainted with Julia Weaver at Fredericksburg Va. before the war. She was at that time the wife of Tom Weaver, + she had a son Andrew Weaver whom I knew when a boy, and he enlisted in same company + regiment and at the same time and place. During the war, Julia Weavers husband died, and she came to Wash D.C. and after my return from the army, I again met and married her. I came to Washington D.C. in August 1862 and I was a coachman for Mrs. Barber, in Geotown D.C. + I worked for her about 2 years. She was the widow of Jno. Barber – dead. I then enlisted in July 1864, at Capt. Sheets Office in Co. H 23d Reg. USCT. I gave the officer at that time the name Peter Churchwell which is my right name and I always answered roll call by that name + was so called by my comrades and I was discharged from the service by that name. They then saw how high I was – I am now 5 ft. 3 in. high (OK AWR) I was next examined by the Doctors. I got a uniform + was sent to Camp Casey Va. + was there about 30 days. My Capt. Fessenden, Burrell Mitchell Robert Green and Andrew Weaver are the only comrades that I can now remember. After we left Camp Casey Va we took boat for City Point Va, then up James River + marched towards Petersburg Va. + was at Bermuda Hundred when we had a fight + we next  had the fight at Petersburg Va. July 64 and in the charge on Continue reading

Slaves of Fall Hill: Abraham and Hester Tuckson

From Mink:

One of the gems recently uncovered in the pension files of the 23rd United States Colored Troops (USCT) pertains to a family that lived on a plantation known to many in the local area. In the years prior to the Civil War, Hester and Abraham Tuckson were slaves owned by Dr. John R. Taylor of “Fall Hill,” located in Spotsylvania County along the bend of the Rappahannock River northwest of Fredericksburg. Abraham was one of  many slaves from the Fredericksburg region who escaped to freedom during the war and enlisted in the Union Army. He was killed on July 30, 1864 at the Battle of the Crater outside Petersburg, Va. Hester remained at Fall Hill through the end of the war and began drawing a widow’s pension in 1873. Due to confusion over her first name, Hester’s claim was reexamined in 1902. At that time, depositions were provided by Hester, Dr. Taylor’s son, Robert Innes Taylor, Dr. Taylor’s brother-in-law, Frank Forbes, and Reverend George L. Dixon.  The following information, gleaned from these depositions, provides both insights and clues for further investigation into the lives of these two former Spotsylvania slaves.

According to Hester, she and Abraham Tuckson were married at Fall Hill in December 1857. More than likely the marriage occurred around Christmas. The union was a slave marriage, which lacked any legal standing or protection, but the couple managed to remain together and raise a family before Abraham’s departure during the war. Hester and Abraham had four children together: a daughter Emma born May 1856 and prior to their marriage, another daughter Nancy born September 1858, and a third child who died.  Their fourth child, Leonia was born in August 1862.

Early in the war, Abraham escaped from Fall Hill, leaving behind his wife and children. Exactly when he left the plantation is a little uncertain, as Hester’s claim does not correspond with that of either R. Innes Taylor or Frank Forbes. In her deposition, Hester states that Abraham ran away in 1862, while engaged in hauling commissary stores for the Confederate authorities. Documents in the files of Confederate Citizens and Business Firms, located at the National Archives, do show that during the period August 1861 through March 1862 Dr. Taylor hired out wagons and drivers to the Confederate Army encamped across the river in Stafford County. So, it is possible that Abraham made his way into Union lines at that time, although it would certainly have been difficult to pass through the Confederate held territory of northern Virginia. Dr. Taylor claimed compensation for losses of a mule and damage to wagons, but did not mention the loss of a driver. Innes Taylor and Frank Forbes, on the other hand, claim that Abraham made his escape when the Union army arrived opposite Fredericksburg in the spring of 1862. This seems much more likely as the time for Abrham’s departure.

Of the documents found in Hester’s pension file, the most intriguing is the deposition of Robert Innes Taylor, who was sixteen years old in 1862. What appears here is a direct transcription of Innes’s deposition:

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Fighting for Their Freedom

From Mink:

From time to time, we like to inform the readers of this blog about some of the research we are conducting and the new and interesting things that we are discovering. Over the December holidays, I seized the opportunity of a lengthy vacation to reacquaint myself with the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  I spent two days there digging into the pension files of members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) who hailed from the Fredericksburg region.

The graves of John Mahoney and John Bell at Arlington National Cemetery. Mahoney, a freeman born in Fredericksburg, rose to the rank of 1st Sergeant in the 23rd USCT. Bell, the former slave of Linia Arrington of Stafford County, served as Principal Musician for the regiment and became a Pullman porter in Philadelphia after the war.

As we continue to expand our research and interpretation beyond the traditional subjects, one area continues to prove a mystery and conundrum – the slave experience in the Fredericksburg region. We have accounts from those that came into contact with slaves, but with the exception of a precious few, we lack almost any narratives from the slaves themselves.  Estimates on the number of slaves that escaped northward through the Fredericksburg area in the summer of 1862 have ranged as high as 10,000. Passage into the Union lines meant a new life, but we know little to nothing about who they were, what they experienced or what became of them. That’s where these Civil War pension files prove exciting.

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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.