When the gray-clad soldiers of the 49th North Carolina formed a line of battle on the old Somerton Road near Suffolk early on the morning of March 9, 1864, they were already bone tired and foot sore.
Nearly two weeks of tough marches and skirmishes 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 the pain and 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 they were hunting what one captain described as "the hated negroes."
Organized at Fort Monroe, the 2nd United States Colored Cavalry — made up of hundreds of former slaves from Suffolk, Nansemond, Isle of Wight, Great Bridge and the rest of Hampton Roads — was a reviled symbol of the mortal threat that black men in blue Union uniforms posed to the Old South and a way of life 300 years old.
So profoundly were they loathed 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 up again in the hopes of encircling and punishing the desperate 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. And the intense heat from the fire only flushed the angry faces of Suffolk's white women still more as they gathered to shake their handkerchiefs and cry, "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 of what the world was about. And they were determined to teach an object lesson."
Even in a war distinguished by its savagery, such horrific violence was uncommon.
Many of the Southerners who witnessed the burning of the Union troopers remembered the awful spectacle in their diaries, letters and post-war writings with unusual detail, notes Wills, whose books include a study of Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest and the infamous April 1864 massacre of captured black troops at Tennessee's Fort Pillow.
Still, the day that ended so brutally on the outskirts of Suffolk began for both sides with routine patrols.
Five days earlier, the men of the 2nd had ridden out from Camp Getty near Bower's Hill to investigate reports of a Southern incursion near Portsmouth. They were conducting another reconnaissance when they ran into trouble on the morning of March 9.
Many of these black horsemen knew the fields, forests and swamplands near Suffolk well, Wills said, and as they passed the town some may have looked back on the homes of their former masters.
"This was just backward from what you'd normally expect," the Suffolk-born historian added.
"The people born and raised there were the Union black cavalry troopers — and the outsiders were the Confederates."
That familiarity didn't stop the men of the 2nd from riding so far afield that a detachment led by Lt. Col. Nathan P. Pond became isolated and exposed while patrolling along the old Somerton Road.
When the deadly chase began, they found themselves racing for their lives in an attempt to escape being encircled by several rapidly converging Confederate columns.
"That was the whole idea," said Chesapeake resident E. Curtis Alexander of the U.S. Colored Troops Descendants group, describing the wild hunt that two of his ancestors managed to elude.
"They wanted to catch the African-American troops. They wanted to punish them and make an example."
As the pursuit unfolded, numerous white civilians appeared, offering the weary Confederates encouragement and water.
"Do hurry friends, or they will get away," one of them urged.
"Do, do hold out a little longer," another said, as some of the townspeople assumed a posture of prayer in the hopes of being delivered from what they saw as a black menace.
"It was grating for these civilians," Wills said. "They were having to endure something they considered to be unendurable."
Ensnarled first by the racing Confederates was a second detachment of black troopers led by regimental commander Col. George W. Cole, who ordered his men to stand their ground and provide their fleeing comrades with a shield.
Within minutes, the struggle grew so close that some of the combatants fought hand-to-hand. Cole reportedly shot the opposing cavalry chief dead from his horse before being forced to withdraw by the arrival of the Southern artillery and infantry.
"Never did soldiers display more bravery, nor officers more coolness and courage than that displayed by Col. Cole's command," Brig. Gen. Charles A. Heckman later reported to Fort Monroe.
"Almost entirely surrounded by 10 times their number, they fought their way out, losing no prisoner or horses except those that were (already) killed."
Among those losses were the black troopers trapped inside the burning house.
Fighting desperately, they killed two Southerners and wounded several others during the initial attack, then faced the choice of leaping to their deaths at the point of a dozen bayonets or perishing in the inferno.
At least three jumped from the flames, only to perish almost instantly, one Confederate writer recorded.
Three others stayed and "met their doom with manly resolution. They were burnt to cinders."
"Twas worthy of a better cause," the soldier concluded. "But death was their doom, and the flames were their choice."
Numerous other black cavalrymen reported lost were far more fortunate, including one last seen lying motionless under his dead horse.
Exploiting their familiarity with the fields, forests and swamps, all but two who had died from their wounds managed to crawl out of sight until they could make their way back to Camp Getty.
"The troopers from the 2ndwere mostly local men," says Alexander, whose great-grandfather — Sgt. March Corprew of Co. I — is among the USCT veterans buried in a family cemetery off Chesapeake's Bells Mill Road.
"They knew the area and the terrain — and they knew how to get around it better than the Confederate troops who didn't know anything about it."
Exactly how many men were killed or wounded on either side is impossible to gauge from the conflicting and likely exaggerated reports, Wills says.
But there's no doubt that the vast bulk of the 2nd escaped the trap that left both sides gasping.
Equally clear is what the fearful level of violence said about the Union's use of black troops and the way it had transformed the war.
"The mercilessness of the attack was all wrapped up in issues of slavery and race," Wills said.
"The world was changing in ways no one had imagined — and this proved it was going to be bloody. It was going to be vicious. It was going to be brutal."
Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783. Find more Hampton Roads history at dailypress.com/history.
About the series
Lincoln's Black Legion
From mid-1863 to the spring of 1864, Hampton Roads became a pioneering proving ground for the recruiting, training and operational use of the newly formed United States Colored Troops. This Black History Month series explores President Abraham Lincoln's black legion.
Feb 2: A Norfolk doctor with a gun tests Lincoln's resolve to protect black soldiers and their white officers
Feb. 9: Hampton Roads becomes the home and training ground for thousands of USCT soldiers
Today: A black Union cavalry regiment finds trouble on the Blackwater River
Feb. 23: The African Brigade shows its mettle in a battle with Confederates
For more Black History stories, go to dailypress.com/blackhistory.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun