NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Most Union troops moving from Fort Monroe to Yorktown during the Civil War made the trip by steamboat.
But not long after the first African-American regiment on the Peninsula disembarked at Old Point Comfort in October 1863, it took to the road.
Resplendent in their blue uniforms, the long column of soldiers that made up the 4th U.S. Colored Troops Infantry marched to the beat of drums and a full military band, striding through Elizabeth City and York counties by way of the old York-Hampton Highway.
And everyone who saw this extraordinary spectacle of 1,000 black men with guns, bayonets and fluttering Union flags knew it represented a revolutionary break with a world shaped by more than 300 years of slave culture.
Between the 1st USCT’s arrival in Portsmouth on July 1, 1863 and the creation of the Army of the James the following April, more than a dozen African-American units recruited, trained and embarked on their first operations in Hampton Roads, making the region a leader in forging President Abraham Lincoln’s new black legion.
Ultimately, they not only formed the nucleus of the Union’s first all-black army corps but also won fame as the first Federal troops to enter Richmond.
Long before becoming a military force to be reckoned with, however, the USCT in Hampton Roads were widely recognized as a powerful symbol.
That’s why the 4th’s long march up the Peninsula incited such heated passions.
“These were the first black soldiers anyone here had seen, and the local white people — mostly women — yelled and jeered as they passed. They shook their fists and spat and tried to hit them in this great outpouring of fear and defiance,” says Edward G. Longacre, author of “A Regiment of Slaves: The 4th United States Colored Troops Infantry, 1863-1866.”
“Black men with guns were the greatest fear of every slave owner — and not only didn’t these blacks look like slaves any more but they looked like men of war.”
As early as six months before the 1st USCT arrived, Lincoln saw occupied Hampton Roads as a place to use African-American soldiers.
Two weeks after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, he sent a “private and confidential” letter to Maj. Gen. John A. Dix, commander of the Department of Virginia headquartered at Fort Monroe, asking about the potential for freeing up badly needed white soldiers by garrisoning either Monroe or Yorktown — or both — with blacks.
Following the creation of the USCT in May, more than half a dozen units streamed into the region, beginning with the 1st Colored Infantry from Washington, D.C. on July 1 and followed by three regiments from northeastern North Carolina in August.
Both the 4th Colored Infantry from Baltimore and the 6th from Philadelphia came to Yorktown in October, followed a month later by the 5th from Ohio.
When Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler returned to Fort Monroe from New Orleans in November, he quickly applied his pioneering experience there with the first black regiment mustered into Federal service.
Within a few weeks, he’d organized the new 10th USCt, which recruited 1,000 refugee slaves from the teeming contraband camps at the fort, nearby Camp Hamilton in Hampton, Newport News Point and Craney Island.
Two new regiments of black cavalry — the 1st and the 2nd — formed at Camp Hamilton and Fort Monroe on Dec. 22, followed by Battery B of the 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery at Fort Monroe on Jan. 8.
“This all goes back to Butler’s ‘contraband of war” decision in May 1862, which brought thousands and thousands of refugee slaves to Fort Monroe in search of freedom,” historian John V. Quarstein says.
“Butler wasn’t really an abolitionist at this point. But he was an opportunist — and he saw what could be done with all the manpower living in the contraband camps. Nobody did more than Butler to recruit and arm these men so they could join the fight for the Union.”