When the gray-clad soldiers of the 49th North Carolina Infantry formed a line of battle on the old Somerton Road near Suffolk early on the morning of March 9, 1864, they were already bone weary and foot sore.
Nearly two weeks of hard marching and skirmishing in their home state had sucked the life from their legs — and they were hard-pressed when ordered to move out on the double quick in pursuit of an unseen foe.
More than one Tarheel later recalled fighting that fatigue as they pushed three miles through the sand in a blind chase toward the gabled roofs and church spires of Suffolk. Then a Confederate rider galloped up to urge them on, galvanizing their worn-out limbs with the revelation that they were hunting what one captain described as “the hated negroes.”
Organized by Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler at Fort Monroe, the 2nd United States Colored Cavalry — with hundreds of former slaves from Suffolk, Nansemond, Isle of Wight and the rest of Hampton Roads — was a reviled symbol of the lethal threat that black men in blue Union uniforms posed to the Old South and a way of life 300 years old.
And so deep was their loathing that the soldiers of the 49th and the rest of Brig. Gen. Matthew W. Ransom’s brigade raced forward with new-found vigor — the artillery leap-frogging ahead, unlimbering their guns to fire and then rushing forward again in the hopes of capturing and punishing the increasingly desperate, nearly encircled Federal troopers.
When the North Carolinians finally trapped several black cavalrymen in a house on the edge of town, they set the structure ablaze and watched as the flames consumed their prey, the intense heat flushing the faces of the white women who gathered to shake their handkerchiefs and cry out “Kill the negroes!”
“This was black-flag warfare — with no quarter asked and none given,” says Kennesaw State University historian Brian Steel Wills, who describes the grim scene in “The War Hits Home: The Civil War in Southeastern Virginia.”
“The mere existence of these men challenged all the Confederate notions about what the world was about. And they were determined to teach an object lesson.”
You can read my complete story on the March 9, 1864 skirmish between the 2nd Colored Cavalry and Ransom's brigade when it appears in the Daily Press this coming Sunday as the third installment of a Black History Month series on the United States Colored Troops in Civil War Hampton Roads. -- Mark St. John Erickson
More than one Tarheel later recalled fighting that fatigue as they pushed three miles through the sand in a blind chase toward the gabled roofs and church spires of Suffolk. Then a Confederate rider galloped up to urge them on, galvanizing their worn-out limbs with the discovery that they were chasing what one captain described as “the hated negroes.”