Union Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild was already a marked man when he landed on the banks of the James River near Sherwood Forest plantation in Charles City on May 5, 1864.
So was his “African Brigade,” whose relentless pursuit of Confederate partisans in Hampton Roads and northeastern North Carolina in late 1863 had enraged the South with a trail of destruction that included burned houses, shaken female hostages, the liberation of nearly 1,000 slaves and the hanging of a suspected guerrilla.
The fiery abolitionist was unrepentant, however, when he steamed from Yorktown with Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler’s new 33,000-man Army of the James to threaten the strategic Confederate rail line southeast of Richmond.
And when he presided over the whipping of a Charles City planter by his former slaves, Wild’s brutal application of Old Testament justice filled the Southern capital just 20 miles away with such raw ire that 2,600 veteran cavalrymen under Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee were ordered to strike back.
Five hours after demanding Wild’s surrender, however — and rejecting responsibility for the unspoken consequences if he didn’t — the badly bloodied Confederates were withdrawing from a debacle in which nearly 200 men had been killed, wounded or captured by a force less than half their size.
So resounding was the defeat that a North Carolina trooper lamented: “We retreated under that awful fire from the most useless and unwise attack, and the most singular failure we were ever engaged in.”
“This is the first time a black unit — on its own — defeated a Confederate attack, and they did it despite being outnumbered more than two to one,” says historian John V. Quarstein, sizing up the May 24, 1864 Battle of Wilson’s Wharf.
“The Union troops had determined leadership. They had the advantage of fighting behind defensive works. They had the support of a gunboat.
“The Confederates should never have attacked.”
You can find more of the fourth and final installment of our Black History Month series on "Lincoln's Black Legion: The United States Colored Troops in Civil War Hampton Roads" in the Sunday paper.
Keep up with our Hampton Roads history stories and blog posts at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.
-- Mark St. John Erickson