Monday, December 7, 2020

Zooming in on the 27th USCI Winter Encampment near Petersburg

 Not too long ago I came across the above photograph on the Library of Congress website while searching for USCT images. It is described as the winter encampment of the 27th United States Colored Infantry, near Petersburg. Raised in Ohio, 27th USCI fought in the IX Corps, until consolidated into the all-African American XXV Corps during the winter of 1864-65.

Zooming in on parts of the photograph give us some better detail, but being that the photograph was exposed far away from the subjects it shows, many of the people are blurry. Regardless, it is a fascinating rare look into a USCT winter encampment.

In the left center of image are five black soldiers. One sits on what may be a small cart of some kind. Whatever it is, its wheels appear to be too small for an artillery carriage. The soldier on the back left wears a light blue great coat, and at first he escaped my attention. To his left is a soldier resting on a wheel of the cart. He looks to have chevrons on his fatigue blouse, so he is likely a sergeant or corporal. The man sitting on the axel of the wheels may also be a non-commissioned officer. The winter cabin these five soldiers stand in front of has a double-barrel chimney. Soldiers used old discarded barrels as an easy means to extend their chimney smoke above their quarters.

Another group of soldier appear on the left side of the photograph. Some of these men appear to be white, and thus are likely the regimental officers. A few non-commissioned officers and enlisted men may be among them as well. There are a variety of structures in use behind the men. A couple of tents that may or may not have log bases are directly behind them. A vertical log winter quarter is visible through the trees. While most cabins utilized a horizontal log construction method with interlinking logs at the corners, some soldiers around Petersburg chose to build their cold-weather homes by digging a footer trench and then making vertical stockade walls daubed with clay. The most famous example of this type of construction in the area was Gen. U.S. Grant's headquarters at City Point.

Soldiers often commented that the winter of 1864-65 was an especially cold one at Petersburg. Frequent days below freezing and lots of sleet and ice covered the ground. This photograph appears to corroborate those accounts. A detail (above) shows what looks to be icicles on the earthwork ditch in the foreground of the photograph.

Throughout the photograph, but particularly in the right foreground, tree stumps are clearly visible. Those areas still timbered around Petersburg were almost totally denuded during the winter of 1864-65. The trees were used to build the soldiers' winter quarter cabins, burn for fuel and cooking their food, and to construct their earthworks and defensive obstacles. Wood got to be so scarce during that winter that some accounts tell us soldiers cut stumps a second time closer to the ground for firewood. I would not be surprised if the standing trees that are shown in this photograph did not eventfully succumb to the soldiers' axes before evacuating the camp.    

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