Fort Built, Defended by Blacks Tells of Their Valor

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"I was originally interested in classic cars." So says Fredric Minus of Trenton, N.J., as he portrays a first sergeant in the 6th Regiment Infantry of the USCT (United States Colored Troops) in a re-enactment at Fort Pocahontas on the James River, about 15 miles upstream from Williamsburg.

"I had a musket from my great-great grandfather, John Henry Minus. He had been in the 3rd Regiment USCT, but I was not really interested in re-enacting until I went to a museum in Hamilton Township, N.J. I thought they were only interested in getting my musket. Instead, they said I should be involved in re-enacting. That was 1996. Since that time, I've traveled from Boston to Jacksonville, out to St. Louis and Fort Pillow, Tenn. I've spoken at elementary schools and universities," Mr. Minus says.

"Blacks being involved in re-enacting was not a big thing until the movie 'Glory.' Now there are over 1,000 black men and women taking part in it. I'm glad when I see younger people getting involved. I'm 62 but I can't really complain. During the Civil War, men 65 and sometimes older joined up to fight for the cause. For example, another ancestor, Charles Rixson, was 40, a freeman with a wife and two children, yet he joined the Union Army."

While interviewing Sgt. Minus, as we sat in his tent with rain coming down, watching his fellow Colored Troops walk by, it was easy to forget that it was 2003 and to drift back to May 24, 1864. At that time, Fort Pocahontas was an earthen fort built and manned by hundreds of Colored Troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Edward Augustus Wild. The engagement that day resulted in a victory for the USCT against a dismounted cavalry attack led by Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, Robert E. Lee's nephew.

Harrison Ruffin Tyler, grandson of President John Tyler and the resident owner of Sherwood Forest, a family home since the president purchased it in the 1840s, bought the well-preserved earthen-fort site known as Wilson's Wharf in 1996. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources considers Fort Pocahontas, virtually untouched for more than 130 years, "one of the best preserved fort sites." It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

At noon on May 24, 1864, about 2,500 Confederate cavalry initiated action on Wilson's Wharf, manned by a force of about 1,400 black troops led by white commanders. It was the first meeting between USCT and the Army of Northern Virginia.

The area had been seized barely three weeks earlier as part of a Union attempt by Gen. Benjamin Butler to capture Richmond while Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's army operated against the bulk of Lee's army north of Richmond. On May 23, Gen. Braxton Bragg, military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, ordered Fitzhugh Lee to "surprise and capture if possible a garrison of Negro soldiers at Wilson's Wharf."

Wild, who commanded the black troops, had lost an arm at the Battle of South Mountain in 1862 and was a fervent abolitionist. Wild was supported from the James River by two gunboats, the USS Dawn and USS Young America.

According to a statement given later by Lt. Edward Simonton (Company I, 1st Regiment USCT), "Our entrenchments were only about one-third completed when General Lee's force came upon us so suddenly. Along the unfinished portion of our line, the enemy could easily and successfully have charged upon the works, but our men were ready for them."

After delivering several surrender summonses, a Confederate reported that Wild replied, "Present my compliments to General Fitz Lee and tell him to go to hell." This reply inflamed Lee and goaded him into sending his men to assault Wild's strongest position. Lee's true intentions were later penned by Pvt. Charles Price, 2nd Virginia Cavalry, "We had orders to kill every man in the fort if we had taken them."

Lee's troops eventually left the field with more than 100 casualties. …