Wednesday, March 13, 2019

USCT Prisoners from the Battle of the Crater Listed as Runaways


Browsing through some editions of the Richmond Daily Dispatch while searching for information on Union prisoners captured during the Petersburg Campaign, I happened across the article above. It ran in the Saturday, August 27, 1864 issue.

As you can see, it offers a list of over 80 African American soldiers captured at the Battle of the Crater (July 30, 1864) who had served in Ferrero's (4th) Division of the IX Corps during the battle. As it explains, apparently these men were first sent to Danville and then transferred to Castle Thunder prison (pictured below) in Richmond.


During the fight, the USCTs sustained 1,327 casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) out of 3,798 engaged, an almost 35% casualty rate. On July 31, 1864, those black soldiers and their white officers, as well as white Union soldiers who were captured in the fighting were marched through Petersburg's streets by order of Gen. A. P. Hill and held on Merchant's Island in the Appomattox River. They were then transferred by rail to Danville.

The men listed above came from the following brigades and regiments who fought at the Crater:
First Brigade -
27th USCI, 30th USCI, 39th USCI, 43rd USCI

Second Brigade -
19th USCI, 28th USCI, 23rd USCI, 29th USCI, 31st USCI

It is clear that the Confederates did not recognize black men as legitimate soldiers due to the fact that many, when captured during the fighting, were not given the of opportunity to surrender, but were killed outright attempting to surrender. Of those who were captured, some were used to bury the Confederate dead, some were detailed to work on Confederate fortifications at Petersburg, and as this article indicates, others were eventually advertised for their owners to come get them. Yet another indicator of Confederates' views of black soldiers is that the men were not listed with last names, as they all would obviously have had when they enlisted in the Union army.

Twenty lines down in the list of men is: "Peter, slave of R. L. Gordon of Orange, Va." This soldier is Peter Churchwell of Company H, 23rd USCI. Peter escaped from his owner Reuben Lindsay Gordon of Orange County, Virginia in 1862 and made his way to Washington City, where he worked for a couple of years as a coachman for a Mrs. Barber in Georgetown. Churchwell's service records (below) record him as enlisting as a substitute in Washington D.C. on July 13, 1864. He was captured 17 days later! What kind of military training could he have had in 17 days?

In Churchwell's pension records he explained what happened to him. "We next had the fight at Petersburg, Va., July 64 and in the charge on the Rebel works I was captured & put towards burying the dead soldiers on the battle field for 4 days, the prisoners, my self included were then taken under guard to Danville prison . . . I was kept there until Major Reuben Gordon, my old Master, heard I was in prison, and he came there and claimed me as his slave sold me to a Mr. Shedrick Lee, a slave dealer at Richmond, Va., and he sold me to Luke Powell as slave dealer who took me to Wilmington, N.C. I was there 8 days working in a shoe shop of Geo. French's store, then sold to Patrick Murphy who took me on his farm near Raleigh, N.C. and worked making boot shoes for him, he sold them. I worked for him for 6 months on his place. I ran away from him & came to Wilmington, N.C."


To corroborate this information, I located Reuben L. Gordon in the 1860 census. He is showing as a 40 year old farmer living with his wife Elizur and their seven children. Gordon owned $6696 in real estate and $11,300 in personal property.  Gordon owned 22 slaves who lived in five slave houses and ranged in age from 65 to 2 years old. One enslaved man, who is listed as 30 years old, is likely Peter Churchwell.

For more information on the USCT experience at the Battle of the Crater, I recommend the following sources:
"The Battle of the Crater" by Emmanuel Dabney in Blue & Gray, Vol. 30, no. 5 (2014).

A Campaign of Giants - The Battle for Petersburg, Vol. 1: From the Crossing of the James to the Crater by A. Wilson Greene, UNC Press, 2018.

Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg by Earl J. Hess, University of South Carolina Press, 2010.

Image of Castle Thunder courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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