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

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 the Union's new Army of the James steamed from Yorktown aboard 120 ships 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 ire that 2,600 cavalrymen under Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee were sent to strike back. Five hours after demanding Wild's surrender — and rejecting responsibility for the 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."

True believer

Tall, gaunt and reddish-haired, Wilder was already a formidable figure when he joined the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry at the start of the war.

But after his right hand was crippled at the Battle of Seven Pines — and his left arm mauled, then amputated after the Battle of South Mountain — the Harvard-trained physician from Massachusetts began to take on the look of a Biblical prophet.

Assigned to recruiting duty after recovering from his wounds, the veteran of the Turkish Ottoman army and the Crimean War helped enlist white officers and black men for the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, whose story was the subject of the 1989 Academy Award-winning film "Glory."

He then went south, drawing thousands of refugee slaves from North Carolina and Virginia into four units that were mustered into Federal service in Hampton Roads as the 35th, 36th, 37th and 38th United States Colored Troops infantry regiments.

Still, the harsh punitive character of the counter-insurgency campaign his African Brigade waged through old Princess Anne and Norfolk counties, then into northeastern North Carolina in late 1863 not only raised questions among other Union officers but also prompted the Confederates to threaten him and his men with hanging.

Especially galling was the report that Wild had executed a suspected partisan himself by kicking over the barrel on which the condemned man was standing.

"Wild was a true believer when it came to fighting slavery," said Newport News historian Edward G. Longacre, whose articles and books on the Civil War include studies of Wild, the 4th USCT and Fitzhugh Lee.

"And as far as the South was concerned, he was a war criminal."

Master whipped

Few white residents of Charles City doubted the charge after Wild's men landed and began fortifying a Union signal and supply station at Wilson's Wharf.

Overrunning Sherwood Forest, they took so much property that one writer reported, "I hear they have left not $5 worth."