Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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A little about the 23rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops

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On Monday, I was lucky enough to attend a portion of the “Spotsylvania County: A Community in War and Remembrance” Civil War symposium held at Stevenson Ridge in Spotsylvania.

I hope that the symposium, which was sponsored by the Friends of the Fredericksburg Area Battlefields, will happen again next year, perhaps on a different day of the week or near a weekend less jam-packed with other local events. For these talks were rich with fresh research compellingly presented by some of the Fredericksburg area’s top practitioners of public history.

Suffice it to say that I could write about three blog posts from every one of the presentations made by the seven historians who presented material at this all-day affair on the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield. Most remarkable of all may be the fact that only one of the lectures focused solely on a military aspect of the war.

That talk was given by National Park Service historian Steward Henderson, who spoke about the 23rd Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops, a Union army unit raised after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that included dozens of men from the Fredericksburg area.

The regiment’s service in the war is remarkable by any measure, but most notable for two engagements:

The 23rd was the first black regiment to fight in “directed combat” against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Henderson told his audience.  On May 15, 1864, during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, its men came to the rescue of the 2nd Ohio Cavalry and defeated Thomas Rosser’s Confederate cavalry brigade at Catharpin and Old Plank roads (originally Orange Plank Road.

The 2nd Ohio cheered the USCTs, whose actions proved to these white troops that black soldiers would fight against the Confederate army, Henderson said.
This map of the vicinity is from a blog post by Henderson’s colleague, Noel Harrison, which describes the action in detail:

The Alrich farm in Spotsylvania County, VA, was the site of the first clash between U.S. Colored Troops and soldiers in R.E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. (NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

And, if memoir serves me, the 23rd also suffered the highest number of casualties of any regiment that fought in the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg on July 30, 1864 — the fight depicted so graphically in the early scenes of the Hollywood movie “Cold Mountain.”

The regiment was present on April 8, 1865, when Lee surrendered his army to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse west of Richmond.

In private life, Henderson is president of the 23rd Regiment, USCT, a new and very active re-enactment unit dedicated to preserving the memory of the men who served in this exemplary regiment.