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Friday, May 16, 2014

A Chance Encounter and the Proof of Courage - 23rd USCT's at Spotsylvania Will Be Remembered, May 17

Photograph by Robert Szabo, 2013.

     Spotsylvania County has the distinction of being the location of the first armed encounter of United States Colored Troops against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This badge of honor took place on May 15, 1864, at the intersection of Catharpin and Old Plank Roads, two miles southeast of the ruins of the Chancellor House on modern Route 3, and Ely’s Ford Road. The 23rd was a new regiment, freshly recruited and trained in the Washington, D.C. area from former slaves, a good number of whom had borne the weight of chattel labor to owners in Fredericksburg and the surrounding region. The incident was a chance encounter, but one that seemed to be rooted in destiny for these men. Up until this skirmish, black troops had not been entrusted to combat service in the eastern theater of the war. Union command in the Army of the Potomac had greeted the inclusion of black soldiers with great hesitation, fearing that they would turn and run under the stress of combat situations, or simply throw down their weapons and go back to their masters. Thus, on this fateful day, these men proved their mettle, setting an example that would illustrate their worth as fighting men through to the end of the war. On this day, the regiment had been relegated to guarding army baggage trains parked by the Chancellor ruins, well behind the lines of fighting during the battle of Spotsylvania.
     Probing the rear of the Union Army on this morning, was a high spirited Confederate cavalry brigade commanded by General Thomas L. Rosser. The Confederates were traveling along Catharpin Road, feeling their way toward a crossing of the Ni River, near the Piney Branch Church, when they encountered the 2nd Ohio Cavalry. The Ohio troops were caught by surprise, having just enjoyed some leisure time and a quick meal. A number of the Union troops had disassembled and oiled their carbines, allowing the parts to dry in the sun. No one had anticipated an encounter with enemy forces this far behind the fighting. Unable to muster an appreciable force to stem the flow of the enemy advance, the 2nd Ohio quickly mounted and began a mad dash northeastward, along Catharpin Road, toward the Alrich Farm, two miles away. Amazingly, word of this potential disaster reached the 4th Division of the Federal 9th Corps, of which the 23rd USCTs were a member. Being the closest troops available to respond, the 23rd raced at the double quick, toward the fast approaching rebel brigade.  Their two mile dash brought them full face into combat. Wheeling the regiment to the right, they entered the intersection and adjacent fields in perfect form, brought their rifled muskets up and fired into Rosser’s stunned advance. This caused the Confederate force to wither and fall back toward a tree line within which they hoped to make a stand, but a now reenergized 2nd Ohio pursued them and sent them in full retreat, back down Catharpin Road, towards Todd’s Tavern.
     The 23rd went on to serve valiantly for the remainder of the war, taking heavy casualties during the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg on July 30, 1864.

     In anticipation of the opportunities available during the Civil War Sesquicentennial to tell the story of the 23rd, your blog host began a conversation in the fall of 2010, with friend and fellow historian Steward Henderson, about assembling a representative unit as re-enactors to portray the regiment. Now, nearly four years after the initial discussion, the plan has come to full reality. Tomorrow, Saturday, May 17, 2014 we will properly remember the 23rd and the day that brought them to glory. From 9 A.M. till 1 P.M., the 23rd and members of other USCT units will present a living history encampment at Chancellorsville's Tour Stop 10, Fairview. At 1:00 P.M., a 45 minute presentation "The Rise of the USCT" will be given by NPS Chief Historian, John Hennessy. At 2 P.M., the 23rd will lead a procession down the Old Plank Road, in the footsteps of the original regiment, arriving at the intersection with Catharpin Road, the site of the skirmish. On the ground where they fought, there will be a commemorative program and a nearby dedication of a new Virginia Highway Historical marker describing the action. All are welcomed to come out and join in the procession. 
Photograph by Lou Carter Jr., 2011.

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