Tuesday, February 8, 2011
23rd USCT Re-forming for Sesquicentennial Commemorations in Spotsylvania
Gathering for the organizational meeting of the 23rd USCT
are left to right: Rev. Hashmel Turner, Col. Horace McCaskill Jr. USA, (Ret),
Steward Henderson, Roger Braxton, and John F. Cummings III
Over the past decade there has been some intense interest focused on the Spotsylvania experience of the 23rd United States Colored Troops, a regiment comprised of former slaves, many from the County and surrounding area. Prior to May 15, 1864, USCT's attached to the Army of the Potomac were routinely assigned to non combat roles, primarily guarding supply wagon trains. Organised at Camp Casey, near the modern day site of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, the 23rd was assigned to the 4th Division of the 9th Corps, led by Brigadier General Edward Ferrero, a well known dance instructor in pre-war civilian life.
On the morning of May 15, Confederate cavalry was probing along the back roads far north of the prior week's concentration of fighting. Their goal was to harass Union hospital sites and supply lines, with the intent of liberating as much as they could with minimal casualties. Riding hard along the Catharpin Road towards the Old Plank Road intersection, the southern horsemen came upon the 2nd Ohio Cavalry Regiment who were resting near Piney Branch Church. Panicked and outnumbered, the Ohio troopers took off pell-mell toward the Alrich farm, a good mile and a third away. From there some of the terror stricken Union horsemen proceeded north to alert the closest possible reinforcements. Near the Chancellor House ruins, the 23rd USCT, sprang to the call and proceeding south, encountered the approaching Confederates in what would be their very first exchange of fire with the Army of Northern Virginia. The southerners fell back, suddenly outnumbered, with the 23rd holding the intersection.
This historic encounter has until recently gone unappreciated as a major landmark on the road to the end of slavery in America. However, plans are now in development to commemorate this contest by placing an interpretive marker near the place the Ohio troops were first surprised. The intersection where the 23rd USCT actually fired upon the Confederate Cavalry has been deemed too dangerous to place a safe pulloff area.
In anticipation of the opportunities during the Sesquicentennial to tell the story of the 23rd, I began to talk with friend Steward Henderson about assembling a representative unit as re-enactors. Thus far there has been substantial interest in making such a portrayal available over the next four years. Additional interest has been expressed by the John J. Wright Educational & Cultural Center Museum who will partner with us in our efforts
National Park Service Historian, Eric Mink, has spent numerous hours delving into the service and pension files of Spotsylvania men who had served in the 23rd USCT. His work has been invaluable toward assembling the story of these men's lives. Some of his findings have been posted on another blog, here and here.
National Park Service Historian, Noel Harrison has also written a blog posting here, detailing the location of the skirmish and the encounter that brought it about.
Brigadier General Ferrero is seated at lower left with members of his staff,
near Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1864. An armed sentry, possibly a
member of the 23rd, stands at his post to the right of the white officers.