Saturday, July 24, 2021

Talk at the Petersburg CWRT: August 5, 2021

I'm looking forward to heading back to the Petersburg Civil War Roundtable (CWRT) on August 5.  At this event, I'll be talking about the Civil War in North Carolina during 1864 as covered in my book The Fight For The Old North State, The Civil War in North Carolina, January–May 1864 (Univ. Press of Kansas, 2019).  The details for the event are here

Saturday, May 15, 2021

An Honest Observation From an Old Veteran

(Edwin Forbes, LOC)

Doing some research this morning, I came across this amusing nuggest from H.O. Crosby of the 5th U.S. Cavalry in some recollections he prepared in 1894. You don't see this kind of thing much in the veterans' stories:

"When comrades are giving their accounts of battles they were engaged in, many of them can, with apparent truth, give their exact positions in all subsequent movements. I never could, and can only explain it that I was so badly scared and so intensely interested in the immediate demands of the occasion, and my time was so occupied that I had no thought to give to the general direction of affairs and correcting the errors of my superiors, even though I was a noncommissioned officer. This, I think, must be part of sincere regret on the part of said officers. Either of this apology to them, and here with tender it, even if rather tardily offered.”

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Fort Pillow On a Small Scale: Ransom's Raid, March 1864

In March 1864, a Confederate foraging expedition along the North Carolina-Virginia border led to combat at Suffolk, Virginia and the murder of captured Black U.S. soldiers. This episode is covered in detailed in Chapter 13 of The Fight For The Old North State.  Here is a condensed account of these events:

In early 1864, George Pickett, commander of Confederate forces in North Carolina, planned a raid into the northeastern corner of the Old North State to bring “out the bacon and provisions so very necessary for us at this present time.” Weeks after a failed attack on New Bern in February, Pickett assigned command of the planned raid to North Carolina native Matt Ransom who would lead a force consisting of Ransom’s own brigade, the recently formed 68th North Carolina, two artillery batteries, and James Dearing’s 8th Confederate Cavalry. To reach these counties, which were located in largely Union-controlled territory, Ransom’s force would have to march east through a strip of country bordered on the north by the Federal position at Suffolk, Virginia and on the south by the Chowan River and the Albemarle Sound. In devising the raid, Pickett’s goal was not only to obtain provisions; he no doubt also hoped to demonstrate that the Confederates could project power into these remote areas following the U.S. expedition conducted by Union general Edward Wild’s African American regiments only two months before.  

Ransom’s units left their camps at Weldon, N.C. on Wednesday, February 24, and, after several days of marching reached South Mills in Camden County. There, the foraging began as detachments moved off in every direction. The men found the region rich in stored provisions, particularly pork, and gathered up as many victuals as their wagons could carry. During the operation, Federal cavalry threatened from outposts at Ballahock Station and Deep Creek just across the border in Virginia. Ransom remained at South Mills for several days, not departing until Friday, March 4. On the return, Colonel James Dearing’s cavalry and five infantry companies escorted the wagons, bulging with nearly 150,000 pounds of bacon, back to Weldon.   

However, as the supplies trundled back, the bulk of Ransom's force turned northeast into Virginia to prevent any Union troops in the area from pursuing his overstuffed, vulnerable wagon train. On Tuesday, March 8, Ransom headed for Suffolk in southeastern Virginia. Two days later, his column, augmented by the 8th North Carolina arriving from Petersburg, collided with members of the 2nd U.S. Colored Cavalry, a recently formed regiment led by Colonel George Cole and comprised mostly of freedmen from southeastern Virginia. The blue-clad horsemen withdrew toward Suffolk, while Confederate infantry pursued at the double-quick and engaged the Federals in town.   

Confederate cavalry captain Theophilus Barham recalled that the “fighting was sharp,” and nearly every member of the small detachment received wounds from bullets or saber cuts. Although he had participated “in many larger engagements,” Barham recalled, “this was the closest fighting I saw during the war.” According to Union reports, the Federals “whipped the enemy in every charge they made.” But Ransom’s infantry and artillery soon arrived to push back the horse soldiers. The clash with Black troops fueled a malignant determination in Ransom’s men. The “southern yell, so peculiar, so stirring, rose above the [cannon’s] roar,” wrote one Confederate attacker, “and on we pressed to engage the inhuman wretches and annihilate, if possible, the dastard foe.” As the Confederates entered the streets, women emerged from their homes waving handkerchiefs, crying, praying, and offering the rebels water from buckets and pitchers. Some implored the soldiers to “kill the negroes.”  

The U.S. cavalrymen made a brief stand at the town’s far end, firing from houses and bringing up a small howitzer. But Ransom’s artillerymen soon unlimbered their guns and opened on the Federals, pushing the horsemen away. The Confederate infantrymen, tired from their rapid advance, could not catch up. “We could see them tumble though, when the Artillery fired,” one explained. Appreciating the size of Ransom’s force, the Union cavalrymen soon withdrew northeast toward Norfolk across swampy ground, halting at a camp near a hamlet known as Bower’s Hill. However, several of the horsemen remained in Suffolk, holing up in a house and continuing to fire at the attackers. The Confederates set the house ablaze. “Soon the fire and smoke had its effect,” recounted one rebel, “suffocation commenced—one of the infernals leaped from the window to escape the horrible death of burning, a minute more and a dozen bayonets pierced his body.” The Confederates shot four more cavalrymen as they tried to escape the inferno. Other captured Union horsemen suffered a similar fate. 

In later years, Confederate veterans often took care when recounting the treatment of black prisoners, avoiding any discussion of battlefield atrocities. However, immediately after the Suffolk fighting, there was no such restraint. By their own admission, Ransom’s men murdered all their captives. However, the exact number of men killed is unclear, probably fewer than a dozen. “We did not take any prisoners,” boasted one participant to a Charlotte newspaper. “Officers and men were perfectly enthusiastic in killing the ‘d—d rascals,’ as I heard many call them.” John W. Graham, a member of the 56th North Carolina and son of prominent politician William A. Graham, informed his father that his regiment gave “no quarter” to the black troops, for it was “understood amongst us that we take no negro prisoners.” Sergeant Thomas Roulhac of the 49th North Carolina wrote that several captives were bayoneted or burned, adding that the “men were perfectly exasperated at the idea of negroes opposed to them & rushed at them like so many devils.”  After hearing from several participants about the Suffolk fight, Halifax County resident Catherine Edmondston noted in her diary: “They took no prisoners & never intending taking any.” Shortly after noon on March 10, Ransom’s force withdrew from Suffolk. By the next day, his regiments reached Franklin and entrained there to return to Weldon.

The prisoner killings at Suffolk, though probably small in number and largely overlooked, reflected an emerging pattern as more African Americans joined the Union ranks and the Confederates began to encounter them on the battlefield. At Olustee in Florida, Confederate soldiers had murdered black prisoners in February, and about a month after the Suffolk fight, victorious rebels would kill hundreds of Black soldiers after combat ended at Fort Pillow in Tennessee. As the number of African American regiments grew, so did the frequency with which Black soldiers saw combat. Indeed, the events at Suffolk were not unique and would be repeated elsewhere in 1864.

Univ. Press of Kansas, 2019

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Blackberry Raid Project Update

A draft is done (except for some pandemic-delayed library trips). The maps are mostly done. The project is now heading out to a few friends for some preliminary reads.  

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Morton's Ford, Feb. 6, 1864: Benjamin Butler's Fault

Morton's Ford (Library of Congress)

Little-Known Fact: The Battle of Morton's Ford on Feb. 6, 1864 was the direct result of Benjamin Butler's request for a demonstration to take pressure off New Bern, which had been attacked several days before by George Pickett. Concerned about the Confederate threat in NC, Butler proposed two operations. First, he planned to conduct a large raid against Richmond by his own troops on the peninsula to dash into the city and free Union prisoners - aided from intelligence gathered by Union spymaster Elizabeth Van Lew. Second, he recommended that Meade’s Army of the Potomac conduct a demonstration against Robert E. Lee’s army west of Fredericksburg to prevent Lee from reinforcing Richmond and North Carolina. 


John Sedgwick, temporarily commanding the Army of the Potomac in place of an ailing Meade, was hostile to the plan but, after a testy exchange with Butler, reluctantly agreed to help “as far as I can by vigorous demonstrations, and take advantage of such chances as may occur.”

On Feb 6, Sedgwick conducted an advance along the Rapidan River, where his men became embroiled in some bloody fighting. At Morton’s Ford, a Second Corps division crossed the river and clashed with Richard Ewell’s corps, costing the Federals 262 casualties. In a bitter note drafted after the engagement, Sedgwick did not hide his unhappiness with Butler’s scheme. “One result of the co-operation with General Butler,” he jabbed, “has been to prove that it has spoilt the best chance we had for a successful attack on the Rapidan.”

You can read more about this in The Fight For The Old North State.

Talk at the Petersburg CWRT: August 5, 2021

I'm looking forward to heading back to the Petersburg Civil War Roundtable (CWRT)  on August 5.  At this event, I'll be talking abou...