Civil War Hampton Roads becomes a leader in recruiting, training and using black troops
Most Union troops moving from Fort Monroe to Yorktown during the Civil War made the trip by boat.
But soon after the first African-American regiment on the Peninsula arrived 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 the extraordinary sight of 1,000 black men with gleaming guns, grim bayonets and rippling Union flags knew it heralded a revolutionary break with a world shaped by 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 earned fame as its first troops to enter Richmond. Ten black men with Hampton Roads links won the Medal of Honor.
Long before they became a military force to be reckoned with, however, the USCT units here provided a powerful symbol.
That's why the 4th's march up the Peninsula ignited such passion.
"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 strike out 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."
A black tide
As early as six months before the 1st USCT arrived, Lincoln saw occupied Hampton Roads as an ideal place for 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 black ones.
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 in November by the 5th from Ohio. The 22nd arrived there in January from Philadelphia.
When Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler returned to Fort Monroe from New Orleans on Nov. 11, he quickly added to this tide by applying what he'd learned in Louisiana with the first black regiment mustered into Federal service.
By the month's end, he'd organized the 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 of refugee slaves to Fort Monroe in search of freedom," historian John V. Quarstein says.
"Butler wasn't an abolitionist at this point. But he was an opportunist — and he saw what could be done with all the manpower in the contraband camps. Nobody did more than Butler to recruit and arm these men so they could fight for the Union."
Forging an army
Despite being a conservative Democrat before the war, Butler's energy and direction gave the region's black regiments an unusually high profile.
In General Orders No. 46, he commanded that "every enlisted colored man shall have the same uniform, clothing, arms, equipments, camp equipage, rations, medical and hospital treatment as are furnished to the U.S. soldiers."
He also instituted a $10 enlistment bounty in addition to $10 monthly pay, then called on Congress to make the rate equal to that of white soldiers.
"(I) can see no reason why a colored soldier should be asked to fight upon less pay than any other," Butler proclaimed.
"The colored man fills an equal space in the ranks while he lives, and an equal grave when he falls."
Spurred by Butler's keenness, white recruiting officers swarmed across Hampton Roads, with the 2nd North Carolina Volunteers alone setting up offices in the camps at Fort Monroe, Hampton and Yorktown as well as Portsmouth and Norfolk.
So hot did their rivalries become that the commander in Yorktown insisted the recruiter for the 2nd — which soon mustered into Federal service as the 36th Colored Infantry — be ordered someplace else.
"My colored regiments require all the recruits which can be obtained here," Brig. Gen. Isaac J. Wistar wrote.
Black enlisted men circulated in the camps, too, including Pvt. Peter Wilson of the 36th, who was detailed to "make a parade and attract recruits" in Hampton in December 1863.
But most of the African-Americans there were so impressed by the glamour of Butler's new black horse soldiers that they signed up for the 1st and 2nd U.S. Colored Cavalry instead, writes James K. Bryant II in "The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War."
I felt like a man
Ultimately, nearly half of the 1,074 men in the 36th came from the local camps.
Similarly impressive numbers were logged by every black unit that formed or filled its complement here, with fewer recruits joining the regiments that came from someplace else.
Of the local men who chose the 36th, more than 105 hailed from Norfolk, nearly 90 from Princess Anne, more than two dozen each from York and Gloucester and just over a dozen each from Hampton, Nansemond, Isle of Wight and Suffolk, according to enlistment records.
Names from Isle of Wight, Nansemond and Norfolk show up frequently in the 10th, with others coming from Elizabeth City County and Portsmouth and a dozen from the Eastern Shore.
By far the most often reported occupation is farmer, reflecting the agrarian nature of the region. But among the 36th there were also numerous watermen, bricklayers, shoemakers, carpenters, woodcutters, drummers and waiters.
Some, like the large number of Elliots who joined the 10th from Isle of Wight — sometimes spelled "Allywhite" — were likely to have been kin, Bryant says.
"We have many cases of fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, brothers and half-brothers making a conscious group decision to enlist," the Bethel High School graduate explains. "They were close-knit."
Those same blood ties, however, kept some men from enlisting.
Others decided against risking their lives for less pay than a Union laborer made — not to mention the impact of their absence on loved ones left behind.
"If they were drafted, their families might not have been able to draw rations," says Eola Dance, chief of visitor services and resource management at Fort Monroe National Monument.
"That was a fear that ran across the board."
Still, many who did enlist cited a deep sense of purpose as well as adventure.
And few who exchanged their old slave clothes for a new blue Union uniform failed to recognize that they were redefining the country as well as themselves.
"This was the biggest thing that ever happened in my life," one veteran said.
"I felt like a man with a uniform on and a gun in my hand."
Trial by fire
Unlike many other Union officers — who often consigned black troops to duty as laborers and guards — Butler fully intended to use his men as soldiers.
The 4th led the way just days after marching to Yorktown, joining a punishing counter-insurgency expedition that helped drive Confederate partisans out of Mathews County.
Still more keen were Massachusetts Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild and the abolitionist officers of "Wild's African Brigade," who pursued Southern troops in Princess Anne so ruthlessly and effectively in November 1863 that they trapped and captured one notoriously elusive foe — leading to a hanging that silenced many others.
"The black soldiers plugged into the local slave grapevine — and it was just amazing," Bryant says.
"They always seemed to know who to talk to and where to go."
When the African Brigade left to raid northeastern North Carolina that December, its handling of suspected partisans and sympathizers hardened still more, sparking an explosive order from Confederate Maj. Gen. E. George Pickett.
"Butler's plan…is to let loose his swarm of blacks upon our ladies and defenseless families, plunder and devastate the country," he wrote.
"Anyone caught in the act (Negroes or white men) of burning houses or maltreating women, must be hung on the spot."
In response, Wild and his men took the wives of two captured guerrillas as hostages. He hanged a suspected partisan at a well-traveled crossroads.
"He lived up to his name — and he let his men pillage, burn and loot in a way that was close to being out of control," Longacre says.
"They adopted the guerrillas' own tactics, fighting fire with fire in an attempt to root them out."
On the march
Despite the uproar caused by the raids, the black troops returned as veterans rather than recruits — and that experience distinguished them later in the war.
"Compare what happened here to out in Texas, where the black units spent their [time] guarding fields of cotton," Quarstein says.
"They knew how to march in hostile territory. They knew how to set a picket line. They knew how to skirmish. They already had a purpose — and now they knew how to fight."
No one saw that more clearly than the slaves who swarmed out whenever a black unit marched into the countryside.
Unlike the many terrified whites, they greeted this unmistakable symbol of change with jubilation.
"When the 6th marched to Williamsburg in early November 1863, they ran into a throng of black people who were overjoyed," Longacre says.
"They praised God for their deliverance. They sang hymns. One woman went into a trance she was so overcome.
"They may have been even more astonished at the sight of black men with uniforms and guns than the whites."