Sunday, February 16, 2020

Capturing Black Confederate Teamsters

On October 27, 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant continued his strategy to capture Peterburg by making an attempt to sever the Boydton Plank Road, and if possible, the Southside Railroad beyond; Petersburg’s last two supply lines. 

Concerting the actions of the II, V, and IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac on that day resulted in the II Corps briefly cutting the Boydton Plank Road. However, unsupported, they withdrew that evening. Part of Grant’s Sixth Offensive, the battle has been referred to by several names: The Battle of Boydton Plank Road, First Hatcher’s Run, and Burgess Mill.

Private Cornelius B. Baker, a thirty year old soldier in the 1st Maine Cavalry, wrote a letter home to his mother three days after the battle giving a view of his present condition and the results of the fight. Baker began by telling his mother that, “My health is as good as can be expected.” After a short paragraph about the capture of a man named George—perhaps a comrade or kin—Baker got to the heart of the letter, which explained his regiment’s casualties and gains.

“We had a severe battle near this place last Tuesday. Our regiment lost heavily. I think there were about 90 killed, wounded, and missing. Among those that were killed was Lieut. Collins. He was a fine, promising young man, and is deeply lamented by all that knew him. Our men captured quite a number of prisoners, ten army wagons loaded with provisions, and the drivers (all colored men). One of them is with me. . . . He says that God alone knows the suffering there is among the poor [African American] class.”

Baker continued that a number of his comrades’ enlistments expired and thus returned home. He planned to do the same in the spring, if he survived. Baker ended his letter by asking to give his love to friends and family back home. It seems that fortune smiled on Pvt. Baker, as his discharge became final on March 5, 1865, a little more than a month before Appomattox.

Pvt. Baker’s letter is part of the Wiley Sword Collection, held at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.

Sketch of “A Mule Driver” by Edwin Forbes, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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