“Our Men did Not Flinch”:The Shenandoah Valley and United States Colored Troops
By Jonathan A. Noyalas
On Sunday, April 3, 1864, troops from the 19th United States Colored Troops (USCT) marched west toward Winchester on the Berryville Pike. The regiment, largely recruited from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, looked to strengthen its ranks with new African American recruits from the Shenandoah Valley. As the 19th USCT trudged along the road to Winchester shots shattered the air’s stillness several miles east of Winchester. The men in the regiment reasonably surmised that the fire came from a contingent of Confederates. Captain James H. Rickard of Company G recalled that “for a moment some confusion prevailed, as it was expected we were intercepted by a rebel force.” After the 19th quickly regained its composure it moved off the road to a wooded area on the Berryville Pike’s south side and prepared for an impending battle. One of the regiment’s officers noted that the 19th USCT loaded their muskets “then returned the fire and did not flinch.” After one volley one of the 19th USCT’s officers “was sent forward to ascertain the cause of the firing” and much to the surprise of everyone in the regiment discovered that they were fired upon by Jessie Scouts (Union soldiers who oftentimes disguised themselves in Confederate uniforms in an effort to gather intelligence).
This cruel attempt by the Jessie Scouts to “see how” the men of the 19th USCT “would stand” resulted in one member of the regiment, Private Benjamin Curtis, being wounded. A bullet from one of the Jessie Scouts struck Curtis in the forehead and “knocked out” a “piece of his skull as large as a silver half dollar,” remembered one member of the regiment. Although Curtis eventually lost sight in his left eye as a result of the “friendly fire” he survived his wound and returned to the regiment in November 1864.
Undoubtedly startled by the affair on the Berryville Pike the 19th USCT’s veterans knew they had to maintain their composure and continue their march to Winchester. When the regiment entered Winchester and bivouacked in Market Square (the present-day location of Rouss City Hall) the town’s Confederate sympathizers could not believe their eyes. Appalled at the sight of armed African Americans in Union uniforms the staunch Confederate Mary Greenhow Lee penned: “I was in my room and hearing the sound of horses feet look up and saw a white Yankee officers and to my inexpressible horror, a company of negro infantry following him; I was near fainting and more unnerved than by any sight I have seen since the war… there is nothing I have dreaded so much during the war… as being where negro troops were garrisoned.”
For Winchester’s Confederate civilians the only thing more shocking than the unfolding scene was when troops from the 19th USCT shouted orders at the civilians to clear the street. An exacerbated Kate Sperry noted that the men of the 19th USCT “behaved dreadfully and ordered ladies and gents off the streets… It’s horrible to think of.”
Even some of the community’s Unionist sympathizers could not fathom the sight. Unionist Julia Chase confided to her diary: “We have witnessed a sight today that I never expected to see. A Negro regiment came into town… this causes great excitement among the whites as well as blacks… We shall expect to see almost anything after this.”
During the 19th USCT’s recruiting drive in the lower Shenandoah Valley the regiment only recruited two men—Henry Woodbury and John Douglas. Although some might interpret the reluctance of the area’s African Americans to join the regiment as an indication of either their ambivalence to the war’s outcome or confirmation that they enjoyed a subservient existence void of equality the reluctance of area African Americans was the result of myriad fears. What would happen to them if captured in battle by Confederate soldiers? How would white Union soldiers treat them? And perhaps the greatest concern of all—what would happen to family members left behind in the oft-contested region?
Although the 19th USCT’s recruiting effort in April 1864 proved a failure, it did not mean that African Americans from the Shenandoah Valley did not serve in USCT regiments and thus take an active part in their emancipation and the effort to ameliorate conditions for all Africans Americans—slave or free. More than 700 of the region’s African Americans served in the Union army during the conflict, many of whom enlisted prior to the 19th USCT’s recruiting mission.
Among those who enlisted prior to the 19th’s arrival in the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1864 was Phillip Lewis Brent. At the outset of the conflict Brent was a free black farmer living in Clarke County. In the summer of 1863 Brent journeyed to Baltimore where on August 31, he enlisted in the 4th USCT. Twenty-five years old at the time of his enlistment, Brent served in the regiment until he was mustered out on May 4, 1866. Brent is one among three USCT veterans from the Shenandoah Valley buried in Winchester’s National Cemetery.
Five months before Brent enlisted in the 4th USCT Edward Hall, a laborer from Winchester, enlisted in the 30th USCT. He served in the regiment until he suffered an injury in March 1865 at Morehead City, North Carolina. After the war Hall received a pension of $27 a month. He died on August 24, 1915, and was buried in Winchester’s Orrick Cemetery.
While many of the region’s African Americans who served in USCT regiments during the conflict survived the war some paid the ultimate sacrifice in a conflict that preserved the Union and permanently broke slavery’s shackles. Among those who sacrificed all was William Banks, a native of Frederick County who at the age of twenty-two enlisted in the 32nd USCT. Wounded in action at James Island, South Carolina, on February 10, 1865, Banks lingered for several months and finally succumbed to his wounds at a hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina, on June 21, 1865.
As part of the approximately 200,000 African Americans who served in the Union army and navy during the Civil War the Shenandoah Valley’s African Americans who fought in USCT regiments proved an important element in ensuring that all of this nation’s citizens, regardless of race, could enjoy the very basic, fundamental principles established by our founding fathers—freedom, liberty, and equality.
Prof. Jonathan A. Noyalas is director of Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute and the author or editor of eleven books on Civil War era history. His latest book project is ‘To Be Free Some Day’: Race, Slavery, and Emancipation in the Shenandoah Valley During the Civil War Era.”