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African-American troops stepped into history with first steps into Richmond

  • Written by A, Peter Bailey
From the book, “Thomas Morris Chester, Black Civil War Correspondent,” I first became aware that black Union soldiers were the first to enter into a defeated Richmond, which had been hurriedly evacuated by Confederate government officials the day before. Little known stories of blacks and the Civil War – Part II

A four-part Black History Month series in recognition of the 150th

Anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War

by A. Peter Bailey
Trice Edney Wire

When I accepted, in 1986, the position of Sports Information Director at Virginia Union University, a historically black institution in Richmond, Va., I was not aware of the black history gold mine located in the former capital of the Confederacy.

For me, the most notable nugget was Thomas Morris Chester, the only black Civil War correspondent. From August 1864 through June 1865, Chester covered black Union troops for a newspaper called The Philadelphia Press. From his book, “Thomas Morris Chester, Black Civil War Correspondent,” I first became aware that black Union soldiers, on Monday, April 3, 1865, were the first to enter into a defeated Richmond, which had been hurriedly evacuated by Confederate government officials the day before.

Those warriors must have been bursting with pride as they marched victoriously into the capital of the enslavers, a place from which some of them had been sold as children and teenagers. I was mesmerized when reading Chester’s vivid and detailed account of that historic occasion. Excerpts from his dispatches are as follows:

“Bervet Brigadier General Draper’s brigade of colored troops, Brevet Major General Kautz’s division, were the first infantry to enter Richmond. The gallant 36th U.S. Colored Troops, under Lieutenant Colonel B.F. Pratt, has the honor of being the first regiment. Captain Bicnnef’s company has the pride of leading the advance...

“In passing over the rebel works, we moved very cautiously in single file, for fear of exploding the innumerable torpedoes which were planted in front. So far as I can learn none has been exploded, and no one has been injured by those infernal machines. The soldiers were soon, under engineers, carefully digging them up and making the passage way beyond the fear of casualties. Along the road which the troops marched, or rather double quicked, batches of negroes were gathered together testifying by unmistakable signs their delight at our coming. Rebel soldiers who had hid themselves when their army moved came out of the bushes, and gave themselves up as disgusted with the service....

For marching or fighting Draper’s 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 25th Corps, is not to be surpassed in the service, and the General honors it with a pride and a consciousness which aspire him to undertake cheerfully whatever may be committed to his execution. It was his brigade that nipped the flower of the Southern army, the Texas Brigade, under Gary, which never before last September knew defeat. There may be others who may claim the distinction of being the first to enter the city, but as I was ahead of every part of the force but the cavalry, which of necessity must lead the advance, I know whereof I affirm when I announce that General Draper’s brigade was the first organization to enter the city limits. According to custom, it should constitute the provost guard of Richmond.”

Chester’s total contempt for what he called “man sellers” is reflected in his observation that “There were many persons in the better-class houses who were peeping out the windows, and whose movement indicated that they would need watching in the future. There was no mistaking the curl of their lips and the flash of their eyes. The new military Governor of Richmond will, no doubt, prove equal to such emergencies.”

It is very disturbing that the anniversary of April 3, 1865 is not a day of great celebration for black folks in this country. Those black Union soldiers, who played a key role in the defeat of the Confederacy, are the greatest war heroes in our history.

The African American Civil War Memorial lists the names of 209,145 black union soldiers who joined President Lincoln to save the Union and keep it united under one flag. The monument, located at the corner of 10th and U Streets NW in Washington, D.C., was built by a private foundation that operates a museum, directed by Dr. Frank Smith.

April 12, 2011 will mark the 150th Anniversary of the firing on Ft. Sumter and the start of the American Civil War. The African American Civil War Memorial Foundation will commemorate the beginning of the Civil War with celebrities reading from Civil War period newspapers, speeches, and other documents announcing the coming of the war and its profound effect on the ending of slavery in America.

We will also have celebrities read from selected press responses to the election of President Lincoln and the anti-slavery platform of the Republican party of 1860. Then, on July 18, the museum will host a Grand Opening for its newly renovated 5,000 sq. ft. space with new exhibits, artifacts, and state of the art educational programs adjacent to the monument.

(This Black History Month series is sponsored by The African American Civil War Museum and Monument and the Association for the Student of African American Life and History (ASALH). For more information: www.afroam civilwar.org/our-story.html, call 202-667-2667 or email: Info@amcivilwar.)

(Journalist/lecturer A. Peter Bailey, a former associate editor of Ebony, is editor of Vital Issues: The Journal of African American Speeches. He can be reached at P.O. Box 41003, Washington, D.C. 20018.)

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