Civil War black troops repulse Confederate assault in milestone Charles City battle
Union Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild was already a marked man when he landed on the banks of the James River near Sherwood Forest plantation in Charles City on May 5, 1864.
So was his "African Brigade," whose relentless pursuit of Confederate partisans in Hampton Roads and northeastern North Carolina in late 1863 had enraged the South with a trail of destruction that included burned houses, shaken female hostages, the liberation of nearly 1,000 slaves and the hanging of a suspected guerrilla.
The fiery abolitionist was unrepentant, however, when the Union's new Army of the James steamed from Yorktown aboard 120 ships to threaten the strategic Confederate rail line southeast of Richmond.
And when he presided over the whipping of a Charles City planter by his former slaves, Wild's brutal application of Old Testament justice filled the Southern capital just 20 miles away with such ire that 2,600 cavalrymen under Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee were sent to strike back. Five hours after demanding Wild's surrender — and rejecting responsibility for the consequences if he didn't — the badly bloodied Confederates were withdrawing from a debacle in which nearly 200 men had been killed, wounded or captured by a force less than half their size.
So resounding was the defeat that a North Carolina trooper lamented: "We retreated under that awful fire from the most useless and unwise attack, and the most singular failure we were ever engaged in."
"This is the first time a black unit — on its own — defeated a Confederate attack, and they did it despite being outnumbered more than two to one," says historian John V. Quarstein, sizing up the May 24, 1864, Battle of Wilson's Wharf.
"The Union troops had determined leadership. They had the advantage of fighting behind defensive works. They had the support of a gunboat.
"The Confederates should never have attacked."
Tall, gaunt and reddish-haired, Wilder was already a formidable figure when he joined the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry at the start of the war.
But after his right hand was crippled at the Battle of Seven Pines — and his left arm mauled, then amputated after the Battle of South Mountain — the Harvard-trained physician from Massachusetts began to take on the look of a Biblical prophet.
Assigned to recruiting duty after recovering from his wounds, the veteran of the Turkish Ottoman army and the Crimean War helped enlist white officers and black men for the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, whose story was the subject of the 1989 Academy Award-winning film "Glory."
He then went south, drawing thousands of refugee slaves from North Carolina and Virginia into four units that were mustered into Federal service in Hampton Roads as the 35th, 36th, 37th and 38th United States Colored Troops infantry regiments.
Still, the harsh punitive character of the counter-insurgency campaign his African Brigade waged through old Princess Anne and Norfolk counties, then into northeastern North Carolina in late 1863 not only raised questions among other Union officers but also prompted the Confederates to threaten him and his men with hanging.
Especially galling was the report that Wild had executed a suspected partisan himself by kicking over the barrel on which the condemned man was standing.
"Wild was a true believer when it came to fighting slavery," said Newport News historian Edward G. Longacre, whose articles and books on the Civil War include studies of Wild, the 4th USCT and Fitzhugh Lee.
"And as far as the South was concerned, he was a war criminal."
Few white residents of Charles City doubted the charge after Wild's men landed and began fortifying a Union signal and supply station at Wilson's Wharf.
Overrunning Sherwood Forest, they took so much property that one writer reported, "I hear they have left not $5 worth."
Five days later, a local planter was shot and killed, with Confederate sources alleging he had been punished for failing to salute the black soldiers.
Then Wild had a newly recruited former slave tie his master to a post and strip him to the waist, after which three black women exacted revenge through a bloody whipping.
"I wish that his back had been as deeply scarred as those of the women," Wild reported, "but I abstained and left it to them."
Soon afterward, a still more brutal and inflammatory account appeared in the Richmond Examiner.
"Robbing, burning and plundering have not been enough, but black scoundrels have literally caught (no less than three) white men, tied them to trees and whipped them on their bare backs, bayoneting and nailing them to trees," Editor John M. Daniel wrote.
"It is said black demons made some ladies, alone and unprotected, victims of their hellish appetites."
Reprimanded by his division commander — who angrily described the whipping as "barbarism" — Wild paved the way for a later court martial by replying he'd "do the same again."
He'd also forced the Confederates into action.
Ten days after the flogging, a small detachment of gray-clad cavalrymen probed a nearby fort but were driven off by its black defenders.
Two days after that Confederate President Jefferson Davis' military adviser ordered Lee to "break up the nest (at Wilson's Wharf) and stop their uncivilized proceedings in the neighborhood."
So urgent was the directive that the troopers rode through the night from north of Richmond, leaving larger and more pressing Union threats to advance on the distant outpost. Because of their haste and their worn-out horses, moreover, they made the 40-mile trip with only one field gun.
By the time Lee arrived on the morning of the 24th, Wild and his troops had labored for nearly three weeks to fortify their position, erecting an arc-shaped rampart of earth between two creeks that ran in from the river.
Though still incomplete, it protected its defenders with an 8-foot-wide ditch, a dense thicket of felled, sharpened and entangled trees and two hornlike bastions mounted with cannon, wrote Lt. Edward Simonton of the 1st USCT Infantry.
Alarmed by the earlier probe of Fort Powhatan, the Navy had repositioned its gunboats on the James, too, leaving the USS Dawn directly off Wilson's Wharf.
Then there were the 1,100 men inside the earthworks, including the 1st USCT, which had trained and conducted counter-insurgency operations in Hampton Roads for 10 months. Standing alongside them were several companies of the 10th, which had been formed from refugee slaves at Craney Island in November 1863 before joining the African Brigade expeditions.
"These are pretty well-trained infantrymen — and they're much better armed than the Confederate cavalrymen," said J. Michael Moore, curator of Lee Hall Mansion in Newport News.
"Lee's men are fighting with carbines, shotguns and pistols. But the men they're facing are firing back with long-range rifled muskets."
A West Point graduate and nephew of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the cavalry leader shrugged off his disadvantages and pressed his attack.
At noon his mounted troopers charged the outlying Union pickets, who put up stiff resistance as they fell back. Then the horsemen dismounted and assaulted both the front and left of the Union position, where they ran into blistering infantry and artillery fire as well as a hail of shells from the gunboat.
About 1:30 p.m. Lee sent an aide under a flag of truce to demand surrender.
But as Simonton later noted, no one expected to be treated as prisoners of war after the grim Confederate slaughter of surrendered black troops at Fort Pillow in Tennessee just six weeks before.
"I declined," Wild wrote in his later report. But according to a Southern source, he also asked for better terms, leading to an angry ultimatum from Lee — who threatened to "put the garrison to the sword" — and a dramatic retort.
"Present my compliments to General Fitz Lee," Wild said, "and tell him to go to hell."
Gripping his pistol in his crippled right hand, Wild rallied his men as the Southerners stormed his right flank, only to be mowed down by a murderous cross fire from his infantry, canister and grape from his two cannon and still more shells from the USS Dawn.
"(They) came with a yell," Simonton wrote. "But our boys gave a louder yell … and poured so much lead among them, that they broke and ran like sheep."
At least once more Lee's men mounted a serious assault, pushing within 30 feet of the Union line before being forced back for good.
"The brave and determined foe rallied under the frantic efforts of their officers," Simonton reported. "(But) again their ranks were scattered and torn by our deadly fire."
By 6 p.m. the fight had ended. When Wild sent his men into the woods early the next morning, Lee's troopers were gone.
Behind them fewer than 30 Union men lay dead or wounded, including several outlying pickets who'd been shot at close range after being captured.
"This was a turning point for black troops. They'd defeated a larger, much more experienced force of Confederates — and they'd beaten them badly," Longacre said.
"It showed they'd be formidable opponents for the rest of the war."