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.
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.