On May 15th, 1864, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was stumped by the movements of Union General Ulysses S. Grant. After horrendous fighting around the Mule Shoe (Bloody Angle) at Spotsylvania Courthouse, and some heavy fighting around Myers Hill, the Federal army needed a new plan. The new offensive would be made toward the southern end of the line, where Grant believed Lee was his weakest. He would send Winfield Scott Hancock and Horatio Wright to make an assault along Massapponax Church Road. This proved a bit of a conundrum for Hancock, since his entire II Corps was already mostly set up on the north side of the Union line.
To both pull off the move to the south and to mislead Lee, he shifted a few of his divisions, including David Birney and Gresham Mott to extend their line and make it appear as if Hancock were moving back toward the Brown House where Hancock had launched the assault on the salient on the morning of May 12th. Confederate commander Richard Ewell fired artillery toward these moving troops, causing them to contract their line to better defend the far Union right flank.
They withstood the assault, but it caused Lee to question what Hancock had planned. The best way to gather intelligence on the battlefield was with cavalry. With the cavalry star of the east, J.E.B. Stuart, lost at the battle at Yellow Tavern, Lee relied on the few units of cavalry left to prod for weak points in the line and find out what the enemy was doing. Grant, too, was without much cavalry as Phillip Sheridan – the one who had drawn Stuart out from Spotsylvania in the first place – was still absent from the field.
Lee needed some eyes and ears on Grant. He sent Tom Rosser’s cavalry to recon to the north while sending Chambliss south to ride around the Union army. Rosser took his mounted force up Catharpin Road toward Piney Branch Church. The plan was to make his ride all the way to Alrich Farm, see what he could see, and then ride back to give his report. Little did he know that there would be much more excitement in this simple reconnaissance mission.
The 2nd Ohio, commanded by Major A. Bayard Nettleton, was camped around Pine Branch Church overlooking the Ni River. The bivouacked troops had spent the morning washing clothes in the river, making their breakfast, and casually preparing for the next fight – whenever that would come. They were caught completely off guard as Confederate calvary let out the rebel yell and came screaming into their camp. With no pickets to warn them of the attack, the Ohioans were totally unprepared to contest Rosser. Their retreat up Catharpin Road was also blocked as cavalry were able to get ahead of the rout. Many Federals streamed through the woods to escape the Confederates.
Nettleton sent a courier to search for help. He rode past the Alrich Farm at the intersection of Catharpin and Orange Plank Road, then turned left toward the former site of the Chancellorsville home. After the battle that took place there the previous year, nothing was left of the house, but the Federals were back to occupy that ground. Brigadier General Edward Ferrero was there with his division from Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps, guarding the wagon train and supplies that were crucial to the Army of the Potomac.
Ferrero and his division were a little unconventional. Not only was the brigadier general a former dance instructor with little military experience, he was put in command of some of the first all-black regiments, known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT). With the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Federal army had opened its doors – some begrudgingly and some heartily – to the enlisting of African Americans into what was previously an all-white fighting force.
Contradictory opinions on this abounded in the north and the south. Some believed that the blacks, some formerly enslaved, would display no bravery in the face of Confederate soldiers. Quite a few believed they would simply hand over their guns and be cowed into submission, believing the false theory that blacks had no guts for combat and were naturally inferior. Grant had put the USCT in charge of guarding the supplies with the unfortunately valid belief that if they were to face Confederate troops, they would be slaughtered without mercy and given no quarter should they be captured. Events at Fort Pillow and the Crater at Petersburg can validate such fears. Confederate President Jefferson Davis had issued such an order that black Federals would be executed for rebellion or imprisoned to be forced back into slavery in the south. The opinion that blacks would also be unteachable and without restraint or discipline also made some leery toward the order to welcome them into the army. Others, the louder majority, believed that the USCT would prove themselves admirably in a battle, as it would give them a chance to fight against former oppressors. They only needed the opportunity and the Union army was willing to give them such. The action on May 15th would become a defining moment in the story of the USCT.
The courier from Nettleton came galloping into Ferrero’s camp, breathless and terrified for the fate of the outnumbered 2nd Ohio should they not receive reinforcements. Ferrero immediately called the 23rd USCT to gear up and fall into line down the Orange Plank Road with the Alrich Farm as their objective. Company B of the regiment was ordered up to establish a skirmish line ahead of the column, joined later by some of the 30th USCT. Major Leake shouted to the troops, “Now just imagine you are hunting for coons, and keep your eyes open!” Pretty much all of the regiment had never fired a shot in battle. One of them shouted back, “’Pears like there was the coons doing the huntin’ this time.”
Meanwhile, Rosser’s man had been driven past the Alrich Farm and into the fields beyond the Orange Plank Road where the cavalry could not follow on horseback. The Confederates dismounted and advanced up the Catharpin Road, little expecting what they were about to meet. The 23rd USCT charged, firing their guns – sometimes with little accuracy – into the Confederates.
An Ohioan remembered, “I saw General Ferrero and staff rapidly approaching, bearing the division flag and followed by his darkies on the double quick. It did us good to see the long line of glittering bayonets approach, although those who bore them were Blacks, and as they came nearer they were greeted by loud cheers.”
With the tables now turned and the Confederates the outnumbered party, Rosser made the tactical decision to withdraw down the Catharpin Road. Bolstered by the arrival of more troops, the 2nd Ohio rallied and pursued Rosser’s cavalry. The withdraw turned into a complete rout, chasing the Confederates all the way back to the Federal camp around Piney Branch Church. There, back amongst their tents and belongings, the 2nd Ohio rejoiced in this victory.
Rosser would also claim a victory, since he had achieved his objective. He scouted the northern Union flank and made the false report that the IX Corps were situated there, as well as an absence of a supply line. Both were false, as it was only one division of Burnside’s corps near Chancellorsville and the supply line was definitely still there, guarded by the USCT. He would also formerly write in his report that he met a “small force of infantry at Mr. Alrich’s.” No mention that they were colored troops, likely for the sake of pride rather than a simple slip of the memory.
This small episode in the history of the campaign, however, would never be forgotten by those of the USCT engaged there. For this was the first time that colored troops were tested against the Army of Northern Virginia, proving to themselves and the rest of the army that they could hold their own in combat. They didn’t retreat, they didn’t surrender their arms, and they behaved with brave and respectable conduct under pressure. This was just the first in a long line of promising examples that the USCT were just as good as any other unit within the Union army.