Civil War Fort Built, Defended
By Blacks Tells Of Their Valor

By William S. Connery
Editor/Writer The World & I Magazine
Exclusive To - May Not Be Reproduced In Any Media

"I was originally interested in classic cars." So says Fredric Minus of Trenton, New Jersey, as he portrays a first sergeant in the 6th Regiment Infantry of the United States Colored Troops in a reenactment at Fort Pocohantas on the James River, about 15 miles upstream from Williamsburg, 35 miles downstream from Richmond, on May 17, 2003. 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 reenacting until I went to a museum in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. I thought they were only interested in getting my musket! Instead, they said I should be involved in reenacting. That was 1996. Since that time I,ve traveled from Boston to Jacksonville, out to St. Louis and Fort Pillow, Tennessee. I've spoken at elementary schools and universities.
"Blacks being involved in reenacting was not a big thing until the movie 'Glory'. Now there are over a thousand black men and women taking part in it. I,m glad when I see younger people getting involved. I,m 62but 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 free man with a wife and two children, yet he joined the Union Army."
While interviewing Sgt. Minus, as we sat in his tent with the rain coming down, watching his fellow Colored Troops walk by, it was easy to forget that it was 2003 and drift back to May 24, 1864. At that time Fort Pocahontas was an earthen fort built and manned by over one thousand USCTs under the command of Brigadier General Edward Augustus Wild. The engagement that day resulted in a victory for the USCTs against a dismounted cavalry attack led by Maj.Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, Gen. 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, had bought the well-preserved earthen fort site known as Wilson's Wharf in 1996. Virtually untouched for over 130 years, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources considers Fort Pocahontas as one of the best preserved fort sites., It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was basically 'discovered' after examining an aerial photo of the site.
Confederate Arrogance
The land was the seat of the Kennon family from the late 1730s until 1765. Richard Kennon and his son, William, served in the House of Burgesses, and William was appointed colonel of the Charles City County militia. In 1742, the Virginia Assembly selected Kennons, as the site of a tobacco inspection station where warehouses are kept., In 1765, William Kennon emigrated to North Carolina.
During Benedict Arnold's raid on Richmond in January 1781, his British fleet anchored off Kennon's, and sent troops ashore there. Virginia Militia General (later Governor) Thomas Nelson, Jr. ordered two cannon sent to the high point there to attack Arnold's returning fleet. Upriver, British Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe led his Queen's Rangers and Hessian riflemen in an assault on Hood's Point (later named Fort Powhatan).
Josiah C. Wilson purchased the land in 1835. Kennon's Landing then became known also as Wilson's Wharf., In 1857, Edmund Ruffin (noted agriculturist and fire-eater secessionist) took the passenger steamer from Berkeley Plantation to "Kennon's wharf." From there, he walked 3 miles to Sherwood Forest,, residence of ex-President John Tyler.

At noon on May 24, 1864 about 2,500 Confederate cavalry initiated action on Wilson's Wharf, manned by a force of about 1,200-1,400 USCTs, led by white commanders. It was the first meeting between USCT and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

The area had been seized barely 3 weeks previously, as part of a Union attempt by General Benjamin Butler and his Army of the James to capture Richmond while U.S. Grant's army operated against the bulk of Robert E. Lee's army north of Richmond. On May 23, General Braxton Bragg, military advisor to President Davis, ordered Maj.Gen. Fitzhugh Lee to surprise and capture if possible a garrison of Negro Soldiers at Kennon's Wharf., Fitzhugh Lee took Brig.Gen. William C. Wickham's Brigade (comprised of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Virginia Cavalry Regiments) and Brig.Gen. Lunsford L. Lomax's Brigade (5th, 6th, 15th Virginia Cavalry Regiments). Brig.Gen. Gordon's brigade (1st, 2nd, 5th North Carolina Cavalry Regiments) and Colonel John Dunovant's 5th South Carolina Cavalry Regiment were attached. Shoemaker's battery of horse artillery sent along one gun under Lt. Edmond H. Moorman. Lee's total force probably exceeded 2,600 men. So Lee had about a 2 to 1 advantage in troops.

In his later report, Fitzhugh Lee downplayed his own force of 2,600 or more cavalrymen (which Union Gen. Wild estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000) as: "My total force was about 1,600. It was standard practice for one-fourth (possibly one-fifth in some companies) of Lee's troopers to act as horse-holders in the rear while the others fought dismounted. So Lee's 1,600' would not be very far off; but it certainly was not his total force,, which implied a dismounted fighting strength of only 1,200 cavalrymen, less than half his actual strength.

Fitzhugh Lee's antagonist, Edward Augustus Wild, was a Brookline, MA physician who had served as a medical officer in the Turkish army during the Crimean War. He had been wounded at First Bull Run, again during the Peninsula Campaign, and he lost his left arm during the Battle of South Mountain in September, 1862 leading his 35th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. A fervid abolitionist and advocate of enlisting black soldiers, he was promoted to brigadier general and organized Wild's African Brigade, in June, 1863 at New Berne, NC and led it on a raid, during which he had personally hanged a Confederate guerrilla, by kicking a barrel out from under him.

Union Brigadier General Wild's 1st Brigade (composed of the 1st, 10th, 22nd, 37th Infantry Regiments, USCT), part of Brig. Gen. Edward W. Hinks' 3rd Division, 18th Corps, Army of the James, had seized Wilson's Wharf and Fort Powhatan, seven miles upriver, while Hinks' 2nd Brigade of USCT landed at City Point, further upriver. Butler chose Colored Troops to seize key points along his James River line of communications since he knew they would fight more desperately than white soldiers because Confederate policy denied POW status to black Union soldiers and their white officers, if captured. About a month earlier at Fort Pillow, Tennessee on April 12, a number of black Union soldiers were killed or badly wounded, many while trying to surrender. This is known as the Fort Pillow Massacre. Captain Solon A. Carter, on Hinks' staff, wrote his wife on 1 May: "We must succeed. Failure for us is death or worse." Wild was supported from the James River by two gunboats, the USS Dawn and USS Young America.

Wild's troops also freed slaves, and his officers recruited soldiers from among the free blacks and freed slaves. Robert Brown, a 20 year-old mulatto; free and single farmer, was enlisted on May 19 at Wilson's creek, by Lt. Edward Simonton in time to fight five days later. His descendent, Richard Bowman, served in the U.S. Army 24th Inf. (a Colored Regiment) in 1945, and Mr. Bowman, who also has Indian ancestry, is fittingly the Charles City County Historian. At least five other local residents, including Samuel Braxton, Samuel Harrison, Robert Lewis, Robert A. Waters, and Oliver Williams; joined the 1st Regiment, USCT during the May12 to 23 period.

On May 11, Wild reported that he had ordered a soldier to tie up a 53 year-old farmer, William H. Clopton, a very cruel slave master, active Rebel [and] suffered his own slaves to whip him; among them three women whom he had whipped repeatedly., Clopton's propensity for whipping slave women in the nude earned him the reputation as the cruelest master in Charles City County., The soldier who had tied Clopton up, was Private William Harris, 1st Regiment, USCT, one of Clopton's own former slaves. remembered that the impending flogging of the frightened Rebel caused him to "put on the character of a Snivelling Saint" and to beg for mercy. Wild who saw Clopton, as the embodiment of slavocracy was not in a forgiving mood. Cheers erupted among the black soldiers when Harris commenced to whip the slaveholder. According to Sergeant George W. Hatton, "Mr. Harris played his part conspicuously, bringing the blood from his loins at every stroke, and not forgetting to remind the gentleman of days gone by." After fifteen or twenty strokes from Harris, Wild handed the horsewhip to three former slave women whose scarred-backs told the story of years of abuse.

Determined to exact a measure of revenge for decades of egregious treatment at the hands of the infamous planter, the women "took turns in settling some old scores on their master's back.

During the lashing, the women delighted in telling Clopton that they had been rescued from slavery by northern soldiers and were then "safely housed in Abraham's bosom and under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner, and guarded by their own patriotic, though down-trodden race." Wild intended for the lashing to leave scars on Clopton's back as severe as those on the women whom he had repeatedly flogged. Sergeant Hatton no doubt spoke for his regiment when he rhapsodized: "Oh! that I had the tongue to express my feelings while standing upon the banks of the James river, on the soil of Virginia, the mother State of slavery, as a witness of such a sudden reverse! Wild sent Clopton to Fortress Monroe where he was held as a prisoner of war.

Regardless of the justice of the punishment, Wild had no authority to summarily punish a civilian. Brig. Gen. Hinks severely reprimanded Wild: I wish it to be distinctly understood that I will not countenance, sanction, or permit any conduct on the part of my command not in accordance with the principles recognized for belligerents in modern warfare between civilized nations. Barbarism, and cruelty to persons in our power, are not becoming to a man or soldier., Wild replied indignantly in a long statement. General Hinks prevailed, and Wild was court- martialed and found guilty of insubordination. His punishment included a suspension of his rank and lost wages for half a year.

Wild contested his conviction on the basis that the court did not include any officers who commanded black troops. After careful review, Butler reversed the court's decision in July 1864, concluding that prejudice among some officers, had prevented Wild from being judged by an impartial tribunal for the trial of an officer in command of Colored Troops., The prevalence of racist attitudes was behind the promulgation of Butler's order in December 1863 in which he decreed that in such cases, the court had to include a majority of military judges who commanded African American soldiers. The purpose of his directive was to protect commanding officers of black units from unfair prosecution in court-martial proceedings.

On 24 May, the Union fortifications were incomplete. Lt. Edward Simonton, Co. I, 1st Reg. USCT recalled: "Along one-third of the line ran a ditch 8 feet wide and 5-6 feet deep [but] along the remaining part [there] was no ditch at all; abatis constructed simply of felled trees with trimmed branches and limbs [was] placed outside the ditch. Our intrenchments 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."

Chaplain Henry M. Turner, 1st Reg. USCT was one of only 14 African-American chaplains in the Union Army. Turner was born free in South Carolina, and he described the Action in a letter to the Christian Recorder, the official organ of the AME Church, published in Philadelphia on 25 June 1864: "My attention was called to the front of our works by a mighty rushing to arms, shouts of "The rebels! The Rebels! The Rebels are Coming!" The long drum roll began to tell that doleful tale she never tells unless the enemy is about to invade our quarters."

After delivering several unsuccessful attacks and surrender summons, a Confederate reported that General 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 intention were later penned by Private Charles Price, 2nd Virginia Cavalry, We had orders to kill every man in the fort if we had taken them.,,

Lt. Simonton wrote: "As the "Johnnies" showed themselves, they received a destructive fire from our line. Still the enemy charged with a yell, firing as they advanced; [they] seemed confident of their ability to drive [us] into the river. Then our sable warriors showed their fighting qualities. They stood their ground firmly, firing volley after volley into the ranks of the advancing foe. Artillery threw grape and canister into their ranks. The brave and determined foe rallied under the frantic efforts of their officers; again their ranks were scattered and torn by our deadly fire."

Six black Union soldiers were killed or mortally wounded.

Sergeant Moses Stevenson, Co. G, "killed, shot through the head;" Privates William Butler, Co. E, "fracture of skull by cannon ball, died 27 May;" Samuel Langley, Co. F, "shot in head, died 1 August;" and Dempsey Mabey, Co. F, "shot through the breast;" were all from the 1st Regiment, USCT. Privates William Rupture and Isaac West, Co. D,10th Regiment, USCT were both shot in the abdomen and died after evacuation.

Lee's troops eventually left the field with over 100 casualties. There were about 20 on the Union side. Lt. Simonton reported, The account in the Richmond Examiner was a gross exaggeration of the actual facts which amused us not a little at the time. No mention was made that Gen. Lee was defeated and driven back by Union forces consisting nearly all of colored troops.,,

Chaplain Turner wrote with very evident pride: "I must tell you, the 1st Regiment of United States Colored Troops, with a very small exception, did all the fighting [and suffered 23 of the 26 military casualties]That terrific battle lasted several hours; but the coolness and cheerfulness of the men, the precision with which they shot, and the vast number of rebels they unmercifully slaughtered, won for them the highest regard of both the General [Wild] and his staff, and every white soldier that was on the field. Our loss, considering the terribleness of this conflict, was incredibly small."
About Confederate losses, Chaplain Turner wrote: "Allow me to say the rebels were handsomely whipped. They fled before our men, carrying a great number of their dead, and leaving a great many on the field for us to bury. They [Confederate prisoners] declared our regiment were sharpshooters."

On 26 May, Maj. Gen. Butler telegraphed Secretary of War Stanton: "Further official reports show the repulse at Wilson's Wharf was even more completeThe enemy retreated during the night [of 24-25 May], leaving 25 of their dead in our hands, and showed a loss of killed and wounded of more than 200."

On the Confederate side, Fitzhugh Lee, implying that the casualty figures for Wickham's brigade and Dunovant's regiment were for their entire "detachments," understated his total losses as 10 killed, 48 wounded, and 4 missing; 62 total. Lee did not report any casualties either for Gordon's Brigade, which assaulted the works on the east, or for Lomax's Brigade, which fought on the front and west side. They constituted about half of Fitzhugh Lee's force. In fact, 25 bodies were left behind in the abatis on the east side of the fort, and Chaplain Turner, 1st Regiment, USCT wrote: "The rebels fled before our men, carrying a large number of their dead." A correspondent stated that "nineteen prisoners were taken." Based on all of the accounts and records, an estimate of 175-200 total Confederate casualties seems reasonable.

The Richmond Examiner, which had clamored for action, went further: "The enemy, supposedly negro troops--and a large number of marines from the fleet so strongly intrenched and fortified [that Lee] deemed it impracticable [to attack] losing only some 18 killed and wounded in the whole affair." Two days later, the newspaper elaborated: "Lee ventured a partial attack-- ditch 10 or 12 feet deep,15-18 feet wide, an abatis made more intricate and impenetrable by intertwining wire. An officer [told us] it would have taken our men two hours to get inside their works had there not been men inside [to defend them]six gunboats playing upon our men all the time. We had some sixty men killed and wounded."

A Northern correspondent wrote: "Gen. Wilde [sic] directed the fight in person. [He] is an ENTHUSIAST on the subject of colored troops. He has the most implicit confidence in his troops, and so have they in him. [Some Union officers] despise negro troops and say they cannot be trusted. A Regular army officer, who entertains many of the prejudices, admitted that with good officers the negroes would make good soldiers. An old adage, and true of any men of any color."

Although Northern newspapers covered the Action in brief, fragmented reports, it was greatly overshadowed by the Battle of North Anna River on 23-24 May, during which Grant's and Lee's armies suffered a total of over 5,000 casualties. Butler's Army of the James, which failed dismally in the attempt to seize Richmond and was "cooped up" at Bermuda Hundred, was no longer a "hot news item" Remember that Wild's troops were part of that army.

Fitzhugh Lee was humiliated by defeat at the hands of black Union soldiers at a time when he was a candidate to replace JEB Stuart, killed 11 May, as head of the cavalry corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. (Wade Hampton was appointed instead). Lee slighted the Action in his reports, and the Richmond papers can be accused of a "cover up of his defeat with their clumsy exaggerations and Lee's and their own outright fabrications.

An indirect effect was that Confederate authorities failed to recognize the military effectiveness of well-led, disciplined, and trained Negro soldiers, most of them former slaves from Virginia and North Carolina, until their cause was hopeless. Shortage of military manpower, especially infantry, was one of the major causes of Confederate defeat.

This battle secured the Union outpost and demonstrated that African Americans could fight with equal bravery. Construction was completed after the battle and the fort was named Fort Pocahontas. General Wild and his troops were later replaced with Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York troops until the fort was abandoned in June 1865.

It Once Was Lost

For over 130 years from 1865 to 1996 this fort lay forgotten until purchased by Harrison Tyler. Mr. Tyler is the grandson of President John Tyler, of Tippacanoe and Tyler Too, fame. President Tyler was born in 1790. Before passing on in 1862, he begat 15 children. One of the youngest was Lyon Tyler, born in 1853. Harrison Tyler was born in 1928. His matrnal grandfather was Edmund Ruffin, the fire-breathing successionist.

In conjunction with the Center for Archaeological Research at the College of William and Mary, and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Mr. Tyler has worked to preserve and interpret the fort. Historic and archaeological research has helped to provide information about life in a Civil War encampment.

Artifacts found at the site include unfired Civil War lead bullets and knapsack hardware, all probably from Union soldiers. Mr. Tyler quickly set about clearing more than 100 years of brush from the site, researching the role that Fort Pocahontas played in the conflict and undertaking an archaeological investigation of the area. The Fort had been lost in the mists of timeits true purpose and design was only seen through ariel photography. What has emerged is both a well-preserved piece of Civil War history, and, more importantly, fascinating new information about one of the most important battles fought by USCT in the conflict.

We know from the movie Glory,, U.S. Colored Troops proved that those who initially questioned their fighting ability were dead wrong, but most of the battles in which they fought involved the extensive use of white Federal troops. The action at Fort Pocahontas proved that the African-Americans could fight effectively without extensive support from white troops,,, explains Mr. Tyler, who is on hand during the reenactment to lend a hand to whatever needs to be done to make the event more realistic.

To recognize the site's importance, Virginia has erected a historical marker which recounts the valor of the African-American troops. The plaque is on Virginia Route 5, often called America's First Highway,, near President Tyler's home, Sherwood Forest.

Both Tylers--Harrison and his Presidential forebear--are graduates of William and Mary, and Harrison's father Lyon served as president of the institution from 1888 to 1919. (As president of the College, his father is credited with securing the institution's financial footing. It was also during his tenure that William & Mary became co-ed).When it came time to select an archaeologist for the project, Tyler naturally looked to the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research and its director, Dennis Blanton. Early in 2003, Blanton and several William and Mary students began excavations.

One of our more interesting discoveries is the previously unknown site of a Federal encampment just outside the walls of the fort,,, said Blanton. Included in this area are many artifacts normally found at such sites, and, more significantly, rare evidence of shelters. We are investigating further in an effort to determine what these shelters looked like and how they might have been used.,,

Blanton explains that troops often bivouacked outside the fortifications they manned. The archaeologist has also located the site of a house within the fort itself, which he believes served as General Wild's headquarters. This house was probably the Wilson residence, which burned down sometime after the Civil War.

The fort's well-preserved bastions, breastworks and gun ramps form a rectangle that runs about 1,800 feet westward from the mouth of Kennon Creek, which flows into the James River near Wilson's Landing. The fourth side of the rectangle is formed by bluffs that overlook the James and offered a vantage point from which a few cannons could control movement on the vital waterway.

In conclusion, historical accounts indicate that during 1864 the fort was home to many African-American slaves in the region who left their masters to seek refuge with the Federal troops. Imprisoned at the fort during this period were Confederate sympathizers who had been apprehended by Wild's soldiers so that they could not pass information to Lee's embattled troops. Historians speculate the Confederate attack might have been designed to free them.

As early as Colonial days, the landing (which at various times was known as Kennon's Landing, Wilson's Landing or Wilson's Wharf) was used to ship tobacco from James River plantations to England. During the Revolutionary War, a thousand British troops under the command of Benedict Arnold disembarked at the landing to dash to Richmond in hopes of capturing the Virginia legislature.

For almost a century-and-a- half, the fort lay forgotten (except by relic hunters), until Tyler purchased it. Once the underbrush is cleared from the site and archaeological studies are completed, Tyler hopes to open the area to the many visitors who come to tour Sherwood Forest Plantation, just a few miles away. The reenactors appreciate Tyler's opening the Fort once a year for their use. Many other battlefields (e.g., Antietam and Gettysburg) are largely Federal property and not open for other uses. Here they can stand and fight and feel what their ancestor's felt. Just ask Sergeant Minus when you get a chance to meet him.
William S. Connery is an editor with the World & I magazine and has written on Fort McHenry Montana during the Civil War, and the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA. He has also written several articles on the History of Baltimore (Immigration, Death of E.A. Poe, Polish Christmas in Fells Point, the B&O Railroad, and Frederick Douglass).


On Saturday, May 22 and Sunday, May 23, 2004 Fort Pocahontas at Wilson's Wharf, will come alive through Civil War living history, civilian presentations, guided fort tours, construction of an embrasure on the period gun platform and two battle reenactments. This event will mark the 140th year since the historic Action at Wilson's Wharf took place, May 24, 1864. Located between Richmond and Williamsburg in Charles City, Virginia, the fort will be open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. each day. History will be relived by over 300 reenactors from all over the eastern half of the country portraying Union and Confederate Infantry, Cavalry, US and CS Navy and Artillery. The battle on Sunday will recreate the victory of the United States Colored Troops (USCTs) and their white officers against the Confederate cavalry. A variety of sutlers will sell period clothing and other general merchandise related to the Civil War throughout the weekend.
Special activities on Saturday, May 22 will feature a cavalry battle reenactment at 1 p.m. followed by a lecture and book signing by Dr. E. Curtis Alexander, author of Afro-Virginian Union Army and Navy Patriots from Lower Tidewater 1862-1866 and the Curator of the Bells Mill Historical Research and Restoration Society. An invitation is extended to all descendants of the Civil War soldiers who fought at Wilson's Wharf for a reunion. Evening entertainment will follow a dinner for the reenactors on the banks of the James River and artillery night fire at 9:00 p.m. from a full battery of Civil War artillery. On Sunday, May 23, the Action at Fort Pocahontas reenactment will be held at 1 p.m, which was the first successful defense of the United States Colored Troops (USCTs). Mitch Bowman, Executive Director of Virginia's Civil War Trails will narrate the Saturday and Sunday battles. Activities throughout both days will include tactical demonstrations, civilian camp demonstrations, cooking, period clothing demonstrations, church services, sutlers and guided tours through the fort by first person character presenters, such as Robert E. Lee.
During the previous May 2003 event, an artillery platform was completed on the east bastion where most of the 1864 battle took place. New in 2004 will be the creation of an embrasure on the gun platform built in 2003. Rebuilding the bastion was a means of preserving the site for historical accuracy. In addition, a corps of volunteers constructed a 20-foot tower for demonstrations and training purposes in May 2002, which will be accessible again this year. The restored Delk/Binford House, which serves as a museum and site for private functions, will exhibit artifacts uncovered by archaeological excavations from The College of William and Mary.
The admission fee for each day is $10 per adult and $8 per student. Discounts are available for individuals attending reenactments both days and for groups of 10 or more with advance reservation. Tickets will be sold at the Fort Pocahontas entrance gate, located off Route 5, on Rt. 614. Visitors are advised to wear comfortable clothing and sturdy walking shoes. All proceeds from this event will continue preservation efforts of Fort Pocahontas, a non-profit organization. For more information and tickets, please call (804) 829-9722 or visit the web site at or email
The Magazine for Lifelong Learners
William Connery
Editor/Writer The World & I Magazine
NE&csz=Washington%2C+DC+20002&country=us>3600 New York Ave. NE
Washington, DC 20002 <>



This Site Served by TheHostPros