Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign

By Gary W. Gallagher; Caroline E. Janney | Go to book overview

The Devil Himself Could Not Have Checked Them
Fighting with Black Soldiers at the Crater

KEVIN M. LEVIN

On July 9, 1864, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper featured on its front page a dramatic image of the 22nd United States Colored Troops (USCT) carrying the first line of Rebel works as part of the initial assaults on June 15 by the Army of the James against the city of Petersburg, Virginia. The image depicts the men hauling off a captured Confederate cannon while two dead soldiers serve as a reminder of the sacrifice paid for this prize. It is a moment of triumph that the artist, E. F. Mullen, did not want readers to think went unnoticed on the field of battle. In the backdrop, white Ohioans doff their hats, wave regimental flags, unsheathe swords, and cheer in an open display of support for their black comrades.

The accompanying article highlighted the assault of the “colored troops” in Brig. Gen. Edward Hinks’s Third Division, Eighteenth Army Corps. “The majority of the whites expected that the colored soldiers would run,” wrote the reporter, “but the sable forces astonished everybody by their achievements.” Once inside the enemy’s works, “Numbers of them kissed the gun they had captured with extravagant satisfaction and a feverish anxiety was manifested to get ahead and charge some more of the rebel works.” The corps commander praised Hinks’s men in a “congratulatory order” and stated confidently that “Such honor as they have won will remain imperishable.”1

A few weeks after this story appeared, black men serving in the Army of the Potomac were once again utilized against Confederate works outside of Petersburg, this time unsuccessfully. Writing from Bermuda Hundred a few days following what became known as the battle of the Crater, a soldier from New York informed his family that “Everybody here is down on the niggers.”2 Even a cursory glance at the available archival record suggests that this man’s sentiments were representative of many white soldiers in the Army of the Potomac. This assessment of African American men in the two brigades of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division, who bore the brunt of blame for the decisive Union defeat on July 30, 1864, stands

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