Sunday, August 2, 2015

Memorializing USCT Valor at Petersburg National Battlefield

There is not an overabundance of memorials at Petersburg National Battlefield. Unlike at Gettysburg, Antietam, Chickamauga, or Vicksburg, where monuments almost overawe visitors, at Petersburg they merely dot the landscape. One that is quite inconspicuous honors the United States Colored Troops from the XVIII Corps (Army of the James), who fought bravely and with marked success.

While the USCT fighting at the Battle of the Crater is probably better remembered in history, they fought with much more success in the initial fighting of the Petersburg Campaign on July 15, 1864. In this engagement USCTs under the ultimate command of William F. "Baldy" Smith charged and captured a significant part of the eastern section of the Confederate Dimmock Line, including Batteries Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, and Eleven. A sergeant-major in the 1st USCI recalled the action at Battery Seven: "The boys made a bold charge although they were exposed to cross-fire of three forts, and were harassed by infantry and cavalry. They scaled the fort, and the enemy, becoming panic-stricken, ran like deer, leaving three pieces of cannon."

Following the earthworks that connected the various battery posts the black soldiers made their way south down the line. Making another charge, Colonel Joseph Kiddoo of the 22nd USCI wrote that "My men wavered at first under the hot fire of the enemy but soon, on seeing their colors on the opposite side of the ravine, pushed rapidly up and passed the rifle-pits and fort." Thus Battery Eight was bagged.

Battery Nine was apparently given up as a lost cause by the Confederates and the USCTs concentrated on Battery Ten. The 4th USCI charged it and fairly won an artillery piece, caissons, and horses. Battery Eleven, too, was given up by the Confederates when it previously support battery fell.

Unfortunately for the Union cause, the ground gained on June 15, was to be a hollow victory. Smith, worried about his unmitigated success, and thus fearing a Confederate counterattack called off the press. The black soldiers though had won some hard earned respect from their fellow white soldiers. One officer of the 6th USCI stated "It was rather interesting to see the old veterans of the Army of the Potomac stare when they saw the works we had captured. The old soldiers would hardly believe that colored troops had done it, but had to do so." Another officer estimated that the USCTs had lost between 160 and 200 killed or wounded in the day's fighting.

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