On June 15, 1864, at Petersburg, Va., African American troops captured Confederate forts and defeated stereotypes
Major General William Farrar Smith was a difficult fellow.
“A short, quite portly man, with a light-brown imperial and shaggy mustache, a round military head, and the look of a German officer,” Smith, thought Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, was “obstinate” and “likely to condemn whatever is not suggested by himself.” In spite of these flaws, Grant brought Smith east from Tennessee and placed him in command of the 18th Corps of the Army of the James. On the morning of June 15, 1864, the lieutenant general assigned Smith primary responsibility for capturing Petersburg, Va., targeted by Grant as the key to reducing Richmond.
Smith’s corps contained three infantry divisions, two of them comprised of white soldiers and one of United States Colored Troops. Brigadier General Edward W. Hinks led these two brigades of African Americans, which on that late spring day would experience their baptism of fire. In fact, Hinks’ division would begin the combat early that morning by overwhelming a small Confederate outpost at the Baylor Farm, east of Petersburg. This unexpected roadblock, however, prompted Smith to advance against the main Confederate line with an abundance of caution.
Smith spent most of the day reconnoitering and then positioning his force along a front of more than two miles stretching from near the Appomattox River on his right to Jordan Point Road on his left. He settled on a battle plan targeting a strong point on the Rebel line called Battery 5, opposite the center of his formation. Once this attack commenced, the rest of Smith’s corps would join the assault, Hinks’ USCTs on the left of the Federal line of battle.
The action began around 7 p.m., and quickly succeeded in capturing Battery 5. The division on Smith’s right made limited progress in expanding the breach toward the Appomattox River, leaving it up to the African Americans to demonstrate their combat credentials to the south of Smith’s initial breakthrough. Their performance that evening would mark profound chapter in the evolving reputation of black soldiers during the Civil War.
Hinks implemented Smith’s order to prepare a heavy skirmish line about 5 p.m. Colonel Joseph B. Kiddoo of the 22nd USCT had advanced one of his companies in skirmish formation earlier in the afternoon, and when Smith’s orders filtered down to Colonel Samuel Duncan’s 2nd Brigade of USCT units, Kiddoo received instructions to commit three additional companies, placing all four under the command of Major John B. Cook. Duncan also directed three companies of the 4th USCT under Major Augustus S. Boernstein to join Cook’s men in the advanced line. Duncan told these seven companies to “push their skirmishers well to the front and to charge the works as soon as the charge should begin to their right.”
A lively exchange of fire ensued, during which the blacks compelled the Confederate sharpshooters in front of the works from Battery 6 southward to fall back toward their main line. When Major Cook spotted Brig. Gen. William H.T. Brooks’ 1st Division assault toward Batteries 5 and 6, he ordered his skirmish line to advance as well. Colonel John H. Holman contributed to the attack by committing a portion of the 1st USCT under Lt. Col. Elias Wright on Duncan’s right. These soldiers aimed for Battery 6, and along with Hunt’s New Yorkers they overwhelmed the defenders there. Holman personally assumed control of two additional companies of the 1st USCT near Jordan Point Road on the far south end of Hinks’ combat front. His attempt to reinforce these troops foundered, however, when two companies of the 5th USCT failed to move forward.
Cook’s and Boernstein’s troops focused on Battery 7. The Confederates responded with blistering volleys and the Federals “seemed to fall like blades of grass before a machine.” A New England soldier claimed to have counted 40 or 50 bodies shortly after the attack, “some on their backs, some on their faces, some on their sides, in all manner of ways, just as they had fallen, with knapsack still unslung from their shoulders.” Undaunted, the determined blacks advanced on the double-quick, inspired by adrenaline-induced cheering. Most of the attackers reached the defilade in front of Battery 7, where Cook ordered the survivors to move to the right and left of the redan and aim for its unprotected rear.
These raw troops, who had experienced their first serious combat only that morning at the Baylor Farm, promptly obeyed and stormed into Battery 7 from the west, led by Captain Jacob F. Force and Lieutenant William B. Milliken of the 22nd USCT. Two 12-pounder howitzers and one iron gun were among the trophies seized when Battery 7 fell and its garrison “skedaddled.”
Battery 8 loomed southwest of Battery 7 on a knoll separated from the Jordan house plateau by deep ravines to the north and east. It would provide the African Americans’ next target. In keeping with Smith’s general plan of attack, once Duncan’s skirmishers had gone forward and gained success, the rest of his brigade received orders to join in the offensive. Colonel Kiddoo led the remainder of the 22nd USCT toward Battery 7, but soon realized that his skirmish line had already reduced it, turning his attention instead to Battery 8.
As he shifted his regiment to the south, Kiddoo encountered Lt. Col. Wright and his men from the 1st USCT, fresh from their victory at Battery 6. Wright’s men occupied an abandoned artillery lunette between Batteries 7 and 8 and the two officers consulted on a plan of action. Kiddoo proposed an immediate assault against Battery 8, but Wright demurred, thinking the position too strongly held to storm with the troops at hand. When Kiddoo expressed his determination to advance regardless of the enemy firepower, Wright agreed to support him.
The 22nd USCT commander left a small portion of his men at the lunette to assist Wright with suppressing the artillery fire spewing from Battery 8, and then led the remainder of his regiment into the swampy lowland northeast of the Confederate strongpoint. “We charged across what appeared to be an almost impassable ravine,” remembered an officer, “all the time subject to a hot fire of grape and canister until we got so far under the guns as to be sheltered, when the enemy took to their rifle pits as infantrymen. Our brave fellows went steadily through the swamp and up the side of a hill, at an angle of almost fifty degrees, rendered nearly impassable by fallen timber.”
The Confederate artillerists dropped their lanyards, snatched small arms, and mounted the fort’s parapet, from which their musketry could reach the black troops huddled in the defilade now shielding them from artillery fire, pouring “a storm of leaden hail into the head of the column.” Kiddoo admitted that “my men wavered at first,” but they soon rallied when they noticed their comrades of the 1st USCT charging toward Battery 8 from the east. This two-pronged assault worked. The defenders abandoned another artillery piece and scampered to the south, for the protection of Battery 9, while the Federals swiveled their captured 12-pounder to the right and fired at the retreating Confederates. The 22nd USCT paid a heavy price for the capture of Battery 8, losing 11 men killed and 43 wounded.
Brigadier General Henry Wise’s Confederates had now been expelled from Batteries 3 through 8, surrendering or fleeing once the Federals reached their fortifications. The Rebels from Battery 8 were the first to rally after relinquishing their position. Catching their collective breath, the displaced Southerners halted, aligned at right angles to the Dimmock Line, and advanced northward toward the troops of the 1st and 22nd USCT in and around Battery 8. Kiddoo responded by forming his own line of battle and repelled this brief Confederate counteroffensive, but a lack of ammunition prevented him from following the retiring Confederates into Battery 9. That job now belonged to the 4th USCT, 5th USCT, and 6th USCT of Duncan’s brigade.
General Smith had by this time ridden south from Battery 5 to observe the progress of his black division. Appearing in Hinks’ sector “on horseback with one pantaloon leg in his boot, and wearing a straw hat,” Smith instructed Lt. Col. Rogers of the 4th USCT to attack Battery 8, not realizing that Kiddoo and Wright were even then in the process of taking that stronghold. When Rogers discovered that Battery 8 had fallen, he reoriented his regiment to face south and headed for Battery 9, at the junction of the Jordan Point and Prince George Court House roads. At the same time, Duncan found it impossible to arrange his second line, consisting of the 5th USCT and 6th USCT, to follow the skirmishers who conquered Battery 7, so he shifted those two regiments south and deployed them opposite Batteries 9, 10, and 11. Duncan ordered the 6th USCT, in the front of his formation, to probe forward and test the level of resistance before committing to a full-blown assault.
The 6th USCT marched about half a mile, faced right, and prepared to advance toward Battery 9, immediately in its front. Battery E, 3rd New York Artillery, moved up to provide covering fire. The terrain between their position and the Confederates gave them pause. “Stumps, piles of wood, fallen timber, bushes, and pools” loomed ahead. “As we went forward we came to black burnt logs as high as our breasts, sometimes climbing over them and sometimes going under,” remembered Captain John McMurray of the 6th USCT. “As we neared the battery, or fort, we could see that it looked grim and formidable in the dusk of the evening.” With each step the Federals expected a rain of fire to descend from the Confederate citadel, but inexplicably “all before us was silent as death.”
The men of the 6th USCT reached the moat fronting Battery 9 and began climbing the fort’s steep front slope. “A man would run his bayonet into the side of the parapet, and another would use it as a step-ladder to climb up,” explained McMurray. “It was getting quite dark, and I felt sure that as fast as a ‘colored troop’ would put his head above the level of that parapet it would be shot off, or he would be knocked back into the ditch; and I fully expected the 6th U.S. Colored Troops, officers and all, to find their death in that ditch.”
McMurray was happily mistaken: Colonel Rogers and the 4th USCT, approaching from the northeast, had already compelled the surprised Confederates to abandon Battery 9 and seek shelter in the next redan to the south. The evidence suggests that the defenders fled without putting up a fight, as no prisoners were taken and another artillery piece fell into Union hands. “Not a shot was fired,” admitted McMurray.
Rogers moved south against Battery 10 in the fading light, prompting the Confederates to abandon it along with another piece of ordnance. They evacuated Battery 11 near the Dunn House as well. Darkness at last arrested the Federal momentum and Duncan reorganized his victorious troops around Battery 10, taking precautions against a possible counterattack. It had been a landmark day for Hinks’ division. Duncan’s brigade alone counted six guns among the prizes taken from Batteries 7 through 11. Duncan reported total casualties of 378 on June 15, embracing the morning action at the Baylor Farm and the evening assaults against the Dimmock Line. Holman’s 1st USCT added as many as 156 losses to the equation. A member of Hinks’ staff estimated that the division lost 800 men in the evening attacks alone. The blacks undeniably had paid a high price that day, but the first large-scale combat action for these untried African Americans had in a sense transformed them.
William H. Hunter, the black chaplain of the 4th USCT, considered June 15, 1864, “the day when prejudice died in the entire Army of the U.S. of America. It is the day when it was admitted that colored men were equal to the severest ordeal.” A white soldier reported that his comrades looked on the works captured by the African Americans with amazement, and “are loud and unreserved in their praise.” Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana told his boss, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, that “the hardest fighting was done by the black troops.”
In contrast to such laudatory comments, some white Union soldiers in the Army of the Potomac—who had not personally witnessed the fighting on June 15—reflexively discounted the accomplishment of their black comrades. “The works were carried by storm by colored troops” recorded Major Lemuel Abbott of the 10th Vermont, “but they couldn’t have taken them if the forts had been fully garrisoned by veterans instead of citizens.” Sergeant George Breck, a gunner with Battery L, 1st New York Light Artillery, was willing to give “due credit to the black soldier for his fighting qualities, but this rendering to Caesar the things that don’t honestly belong to Caesar, and extolling Pompey above the white soldier, for courage and dash, valor, bravery and endurance, may delight some of the devoted worshippers of the ebony idol, but we fail to ‘see it’ ourself.”
Built By Slaves
In one of the ironies of the Civil War, on June 15, 1864, Brig. Gen. Edward Hicks USCT troops attacked and conquered several forts of the Dimmock Line that had been built largely by slave labor. The 10-mile long series of 55 numbered forts and gun emplacements that protected Petersburg was named after Captain Charles Dimmock, below, of the Confederate Corps of Engineers. Dimmock began his work on the line in earnest in late summer 1862, and while some Confederate troops worked under Dimmock, most of the physically exhausting manual labor was performed by hundreds of slaves impressed from area plantations.
Their owners, however, protested the loss of valuable labor and the resulting economic hardships, and the Petersburg General Assembly passed a law that established quotas for how many slaves could be impressed at one time and limited their impressments to 60 days. But progress was slow, and Dimmock requested 200 more slave laborers in December 1862, promising they would toil only from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, and then they would be sent home to their plantations.
Work continued on the line of fortifications until mid-summer 1863, when Dimmock wrote the works were “not entirely completed, but sufficiently so for all defensive purposes.” Some Confederate officers complained the works were not as strong as they could be, but they did allow a scant force of a little more than 2,000 Rebel troops to impede the early June 1864 Union advances on Petersburg and prevent an outright capture of the city. Even after a portion of the Dimmock Line was overrun, some of the forts remained important parts of the Confederate line of defenses for most of the Siege of Petersburg. –D.B.S.
Breck expressed no objection to “our darkly-hued ‘comrades in arms,’ …rushing into the hottest places of attack…but don’t seek to make him the superior of the American soldier of American or European descent.”
Revenge for the widely publicized accusations of the murder of black troops at Fort Pillow undoubtedly animated some of Hinks’ African American soldiers as they came face-to-face with their first Confederate opponents. Still, scuttlebutt in the Union camps, such as the account repeated by Major Albert F. Brooker of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, exaggerated the level of atrocities committed against Confederate prisoners. “It’s said that a Brigade of Nigars charged the Johnies as they went in the rebs said give the black sons of bitches no quarter and give them h—& c,” reported Major Brooker. “I am told that it’s just what the nigars did to them, they took no prisoners but 2 and bayoneted every one that was in the Rifle Pitts.”
Such tall tales made the rounds, but evidence does suggest that some surrendered Southerners were killed by their captors and never made it to the rear. William Foster, a hospital steward assigned to the 126th Ohio, asked a black sergeant why his unit had taken so many prisoners during the fighting. The sergeant replied that “our officers were with us and General Grant and Smith were on the field…and we had to do a nice thing.” “You need not ask them of Fort Pillow,” added Foster. “They swear by its sad memory.” An officer in the 22nd USCT explained why the Rebels ran when attacked by the blacks. “The real fact is, the rebels will not stand against our colored soldiers when there is any chance of their being taken prisoners, for they are conscious of what they justly deserve. Our men went into those works after they were taken, yelling ‘Fort Pillow!’ The enemy well knows what this means.”
A Pennsylvania soldier wrote home that he had seen several bayoneted Confederate corpses and assumed that “our colored soldiers remembered their murdered brethren.” Lieutenant Hermon Clarke of the 117th New York provided one of the few eyewitness accounts documenting the execution of Confederate captives. In describing the capture of Battery 6, Clarke wrote his father that the blacks contributed to the victory and had done well. “Some of them came where we were and attempted to kill our prisoners,” Clarke explained. “I didn’t see but one killed….A great bushy Nigger came up to him, knocked him down, and ran his bayonet through his heart. Our boys turned on the Niggers and kept them back.”
The story of a hospitalized black soldier whose wounds on June 15 required the amputation of his left leg illuminated a noble motivation that trumped the baser instincts of those who were out for blood. A white officer passing through the hospital spotted the black man and said in a jocular tone, “Well, my boy, I see that you have lost a leg for glory.” The amputee looked at his kindly visitor and replied, “No, sir; I have not lost it for glory, but for the elevation of my race.”
A. Wilson Greene is the former president of the Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier and the author of The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign. This article is adapted from his new 2018 book, A Campaign of Giants—The Battle for Petersburg: Volume One: From the Crossing of the James to the Crater, published by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher, www.uncpress.org.