Civil War black troops repulse Confederate assault in milestone Charles City battle

Five days later, a local planter was shot and killed, with Confederate sources alleging he had been punished for failing to salute the black soldiers.

Then Wild had a newly recruited former slave tie his master to a post and strip him to the waist, after which three black women exacted revenge through a bloody whipping.

"I wish that his back had been as deeply scarred as those of the women," Wild reported, "but I abstained and left it to them."

Soon afterward, a still more brutal and inflammatory account appeared in the Richmond Examiner.

"Robbing, burning and plundering have not been enough, but black scoundrels have literally caught (no less than three) white men, tied them to trees and whipped them on their bare backs, bayoneting and nailing them to trees," Editor John M. Daniel wrote.

"It is said black demons made some ladies, alone and unprotected, victims of their hellish appetites."

Hornet's nest

Reprimanded by his division commander — who angrily described the whipping as "barbarism" — Wild paved the way for a later court martial by replying he'd "do the same again."

He'd also forced the Confederates into action.

Ten days after the flogging, a small detachment of gray-clad cavalrymen probed a nearby fort but were driven off by its black defenders.

Two days after that Confederate President Jefferson Davis' military adviser ordered Lee to "break up the nest (at Wilson's Wharf) and stop their uncivilized proceedings in the neighborhood."

So urgent was the directive that the troopers rode through the night from north of Richmond, leaving larger and more pressing Union threats to advance on the distant outpost. Because of their haste and their worn-out horses, moreover, they made the 40-mile trip with only one field gun.

By the time Lee arrived on the morning of the 24th, Wild and his troops had labored for nearly three weeks to fortify their position, erecting an arc-shaped rampart of earth between two creeks that ran in from the river.

Though still incomplete, it protected its defenders with an 8-foot-wide ditch, a dense thicket of felled, sharpened and entangled trees and two hornlike bastions mounted with cannon, wrote Lt. Edward Simonton of the 1st USCT Infantry.

Alarmed by the earlier probe of Fort Powhatan, the Navy had repositioned its gunboats on the James, too, leaving the USS Dawn directly off Wilson's Wharf.

Then there were the 1,100 men inside the earthworks, including the 1st USCT, which had trained and conducted counter-insurgency operations in Hampton Roads for 10 months. Standing alongside them were several companies of the 10th, which had been formed from refugee slaves at Craney Island in November 1863 before joining the African Brigade expeditions.

"These are pretty well-trained infantrymen — and they're much better armed than the Confederate cavalrymen," said J. Michael Moore, curator of Lee Hall Mansion in Newport News.

"Lee's men are fighting with carbines, shotguns and pistols. But the men they're facing are firing back with long-range rifled muskets."

Bloodied attack

A West Point graduate and nephew of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the cavalry leader shrugged off his disadvantages and pressed his attack.