Black troops in Civil War upend old Southern slave culture in Hampton Roads
By Mark St. John Erickson | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: February 2, 2014
Long before he left his Main Street home on the afternoon of July 11, 1863, David Minton Wright ranked as one of Norfolk's most respected physicians.
Many people remembered his selflessness during the Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1855, when Wright — despite falling ill himself — was one of the few doctors who remained in town to treat its stricken patients. Neighbors and acquaintances knew him as a good Christian who loved his family and friends and treated his slaves kindly.
All that changed, however, when the martial beat of a drum caught Wright's ear at a neighborhood store on his way to his stable.
Moments later, a company of armed black soldiers from the newly arrived 1st Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops appeared on the street, sparking a confrontation that left a white officer dead and the doctor arrested, tried and condemned for murder.
By the time Wright was hanged at the old Norfolk Fairgrounds on Oct. 23, 1863, both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis had become personally involved in a case that newspapers in both the North and South turned into a sensation.
Thousands of whites and blacks turned out to witness the hanging and the funeral the following day, drawn by what many recognized as a signal moment in the tide of change wrought by the war.
"This was a good man who had risked his life for others. But when he saw this company of armed black men marching down the street — he cracked," said Hampton Roads historian John V. Quarstein.
"Seeing slaves as soldiers meant seeing them as people — and that was a revolution in a town that still remembered Nat Turner's Rebellion. They were a symbol of a world that was rapidly changing in ways many Southerners never imagined."
A new defiance
Recruited from refugee slaves in Washington, D.C., the soldiers of the 1stUSCT were not the first armed black men seen on the streets of Norfolk during the war.
As early as Jan. 1, 1863 — when some 5,000 blacks staged the largest Emancipation Proclamation celebration in the South — outraged whites were forced to look on helplessly as demonstrators, protected by a cordon of African-American troops, burned an effigy of Jefferson Davis.
"For them, the world was turning upside down," said Norfolk State University historian Cassandra Newby-Alexander, who describes the incident in "The African-American History of the Civil War in Hampton Roads."
"All you needed was a trigger for someone to explode."
That trigger arrived on July 1, when the 1st USCT disembarked in Portsmouth as one of the first new black regiments organized by the federal government and ordered to Hampton Roads.
Ten days later, Lt. Alanson C. Sanborn led the men of Co. B onto an Elizabeth River ferry and then into downtown Norfolk, where they marched down the streets to the beat of a drum.
More than one white observer flinched at a sight that completely defied 300 years of Southern slave-holding culture.
"Negroes later appeared in the city as soldiers much to the disgust of its residents," wrote Chloe Whittle in a diary preserved at the College of William and Mary.
"(They) considered their very presence an insult."
Exactly what happened as Co. B passed Foster & Moore's Store about 4 p.m. has been lost in a thicket of varying accounts, writes Ervin L. Jordan Jr., now a University of Virginia research librarian, who explored the shooting and trial in his 1979 master's thesis.
According to a letter Wright's niece sent to Jefferson Davis, the doctor made a remark as the black column passed, spurring Sanborn to draw his sword and spark a confrontation.
Wright then drew a pistol from behind his back and shot the Union officer in self-defense, she wrote.
Several eye-witness accounts confirm that Wright uttered an "exclamation of disgust," whereupon Sanborn ordered his men to halt, sent for the provost marshal and then approached the physician as if to hold him until he could be arrested.
Two shots rang out during the ensuing scuffle, after which the mortally wounded Sanborn stumbled into the store — "blood gushing out of his mouth and nostrils" — as Wright reached down to help his victim.
"Wright was furious. It was as if he'd lost his mind," Newby-Alexander said.
"And his feelings were shared by a lot of Southern men who'd suddenly lost their positions and their sway. Their society was collapsing."
Wright conceded as much during his trial, which was held inside the Norfolk Customhouse by a military tribunal.
Denied a hearing in civilian court — which the city's leaders had previously refused to convene because they considered themselves "a conquered people" — the doctor argued that Union commanders had ordered "that colored company" over from Portsmouth in an attempt to "provoke and harass white citizens."
He also invoked the specter of Nat Turner's Rebellion, claiming "that Negroes became ungovernable savages when excited."
"Is it to be supposed that a citizen of Norfolk, himself an owner of slaves, not knowing but what even one of my own slaves was in that company, would submit to be arrested by Negroes (and) marched off to the guardhouse?" Wright asked the Union officers.
"No sir, I could not submit to that."
Unmoved by Wright's pleas of self-defense, the panel found him guilty and sentenced him to be hanged — setting off quick responses in both Richmond and Washington, D.C.
But whereas Davis, the Confederate president, could only wring his hands and confess that he had neither the means nor a credible military option for rescuing the man who had become a cause célèbre, Lincoln ordered Maj. Gen. John A. Foster — commander of the Department of Virginia headquartered at Fort Monroe — to send a transcript of the trial and stay the execution.
Meeting personally with Wright's counsel — who included Williamsburg-born and William and Mary-educated Lemuel J. Bowden as well as Hampton Unionist Joseph E. Segar — Lincoln had shown sympathy in some previous capital cases, Jordan notes.
But he also had to weigh the North's critical new interest in recruiting black troops and its obligation to protect both them and their white officers from open attack.
In the end, Lincoln turned to John P. Gray, superintendent of the New York State Asylum at Utica, and asked him to examine Wright for signs of insanity.
The doctor wept often during two long interviews, in which he described an "unconquerable and desperate" impulse to shoot the white officer after seeing the black troops.
But Gray found him sane.
"If this had been before the Civil War, Wright would have been seen as resisting a white man who was fomenting a slave revolt," Newby-Alexander said.
"As far as he was concerned, the black soldiers were beneath his notice. But Sanborn was a traitor to his race."
Slated to hang on Oct. 16, 1863, Wright received a week's reprieve to arrange his affairs and see one of his daughters marry.
Nearly 600 supporters petitioned the White House during this time, pleading for a pardon or commutation. Wright's wife and youngest daughter called on Foster at Fort Monroe, with the child bouncing on the general's knee while her mother begged for a meeting with Lincoln.
"It would be useless for Mrs. Wright to come here," the president replied by telegram.
"The subject is a very painful one, but the case is settled."
Two days before his execution, Wright exchanged clothes with his oldest daughter, Penelope, veiled his face like a woman and nearly walked out of his prison after a series of fires had been set around town as a diversion.
"Desperate means were pardoned by desperate circumstances," he told his captor.
Rumors of a rescue attempt swirled in the streets on the morning of Oct. 23, when mounted Union scouts escorted Wright to a scaffold erected in the middle of the race track at the Norfolk Fairgrounds.
Thousands of people watched as he mounted the gallows, which were surrounded by a square of Federal troops from six regiments, including the 2nd North Carolina Colored Infantry.
"The deed I committed was done without malice," Wright declared as the hangman approached with a black hood.
Then he gave the signal for the drop that killed him.
Laid into a coffin built with his own hands and tearfully decorated with family photos, the doctor's remains were buried in Elmwood Cemetery after a funeral at Christ Church.
"The streets were so crowded with Negroes, spectators and mourners that Federal troops had to clear a path for the hearse with drawn sabers," Jordan noted in his study.
Some five months later, the legislature in Richmond made Wright an official martyr of the Confederacy.
But by then Lincoln's black legion in Hampton Roads had swelled to include at least 10 regiments and thousands of African-American soldiers.
"Hangings like this were not common. But this really was a milestone case," Newby-Alexander said.
"And it upended the long-held assumption that whites could execute anyone who threatened the old order of slavery."