The Long Journey to Freedom

According to Professor Jonathan Noyalas at Shenandoah University, more than six hundred African Americans, all originating from the Shenandoah Valley, many of them freed and escaped slaves, served in a military organization known as the United States Colored Troops during the American Civil War. The deeds of these men have in most cases become obscured by time and memory. I would like to offer for your consideration the sacrifices of just one of these African Americans.

Edward, was at the time of the Civil War, living in Winchester, Virginia. Edward had been born in Jefferson County in 1827 and at the age of seven was brought to Winchester and sold into slavery. For the next thirty years he would abide as the chattel property of another human being. At the time of the war this man, known only as Edward, as slaves were not allowed to have surnames under Virginia law, waited for an opportunity to seek freedom for himself and his family. His mate, Ellen, could not even be identified as his wife, as marriage was also illegal among enslaved peoples in Virginia.

Near the end of 1863, however, Edward seized the opportunity to alter the situation under which he and his family lived. He decided he would do it by fighting for his freedom. In late 1863 Edward escaped his Winchester master, possibly under the cover of darkness on some cold winter’s day, and headed for Benedict, Maryland. He left his son Charles, and spouse Ellen behind, alone and abandoned to an uncertain future. Edward made his way to Camp Stanton in Maryland where he joined the 30th U. S. Colored Troops, which was organized in February and March of 1864. His unit would be attached to the 1st Brigade, Ferrero’s 4th Division, 9th Corps, Army of the Potomac.

Charles County Maryland Wayside Marker

Much of what allowed Edward to take this action was the result of a law passed by the U. S. Congress in July of 1862 called the Second Confiscation and Militia Act. This decree freed slaves who had masters in the Confederate Army. Two days later, though, slavery was abolished in all of the territories of the United States, and on July 22, 1863, President Lincoln presented the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet.

After the Union Army turned back Lee’s first invasion of the North at Antietam, Maryland, and the Emancipation Proclamation was subsequently announced, black conscription was pursued in earnest. Recruitment was slow at first until black leaders such as Frederick Douglas “encouraged black men to become soldiers in order to ensure their eventual full citizenship.” Two of Douglass’s own sons volunteered to join the war effort. Other volunteers soon began to respond, and in May 1863 the Government established the Bureau of Colored Troops to manage the growing numbers of black soldiers.

Black troops, however, faced far greater peril than white soldiers, especially when captured by the Confederate Army. In 1863 the Confederate Congress threatened to punish officers of black troops severely and to enslave black soldiers if they were captured. As a result, President Lincoln issued General Order 233, threatening reprisals on Confederate prisoners of war for any mistreatment of black troops. Although the threat generally restrained Confederates, black prisoners were usually treated more harshly than white captives. In perhaps one of the most heinous examples of abuse, Confederate soldiers shot to death black Union soldiers captured at Fort Pillow, Tennessee in 1864. A second, less storied instance, occurred that same year at a battle known as “the Crater.”

The month of July had seen a Rebel Army under Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early drive north through the Shenandoah Valley and threaten Washington itself. General Early would finally decide Washington could not be taken without losses so severe that it did not warrant the attempt. Still, General U. S. Grant was compelled to send reinforcements to Washington which he had planned to use against Petersburg.

To counter Early’s perceived threat, it was decided a major offensive against Petersburg needed to be pressed. Grant would have to take advantage of other opportunities. One of those prospects would come in an unusual form. Along the Petersburg front, the 48th Pennsylvania held the apex of “the Horseshoe,” a forward projection of the Union trenches that came within a hundred yards of a Confederate strong point known as Elliott’s Salient. “Lieutenant Colonel Henry Clay Pleasants, commanding the 48th, had been an engineer in civilian life, and had designed and constructed numerous long tunnels for coal mines and railroads. In mid-June Pleasants suggested a plan for tunneling across the no-man’s-land between the Horseshoe and Elliott’s Salient, planting explosives below the strong point, and blowing it up.”

Pleasants’ believed the mine explosion would create a wide breach in the Confederate line, through which Federal infantry could attack. “Beyond Elliott’s Salient was open ground which rose gradually to the low north-south ridge along which ran the Jerusalem Plank Road. If Union infantry could seize and hold that high ground its artillery would command the town of Petersburg, splitting the Confederate army in two.”

Unfortunately, General Ambrose Burnside’s operational plan began to fall apart the day before the attack, when General Meade forbade the use of the “Colored Division” as the spearhead. Meade did not think blacks were suitable soldiers, and he feared political repercussions if he gave them so important and dangerous a mission. If they failed with heavy losses, Republicans in Congress would condemn him for “using Negroes as cannon fodder.” Democratic politicians would condemn him no matter what happened. 

Lieutenant-colonel Henry Pleasants’ plan involved having his miners dig a sloping tunnel 500 feet long that would end in a large chamber. Once complete they then proceeded to fill the chamber with 320 kegs, or about four tons of gunpowder. The resulting explosion would be the largest intentional explosive detonation of the Civil War.

The fuses were lit on schedule but there was no explosion. Two volunteers from the 48th Regiment, Lieutenant Jacob Douty and Sergeant Harry Reese, crawled into the tunnel. After discovering the fuse had burned out at one of the splices, they merged a length of new fuse and relit it. “Finally, at 4:44 a.m., one hour behind schedule, the charges exploded in a massive shower of earth, men, and guns.” A crater 170 feet long, 120 feet wide, and at least 30 feet deep was created.

“The earth below the Rebel strongpoint bulged and broke, and an enormous mushroom cloud, full of red flames, and carried on a bed of lightning flashes, mounted towards heaven with a detonation of thunder.” “Clods of earth weighing at least a ton, and cannon, and human forms, and gun-carriages, and small arms were all distinctly seen shooting upward in that fountain of horror.” The explosion immediately killed 278 Confederate soldiers of the 18th and 22nd South Carolina. As a result, the stunned Confederate troops were unable to direct any significant rifle or artillery fire at the enemy for several minutes.

Period drawing of the mine explosion at the Crater.

Ledlie’s untrained division was not prepared for the explosion, and reports indicate they waited 10 minutes before leaving their own entrenchments. Eventually hundreds of white Union soldiers were pushed into the breach. Colonel Stephen M. Weld of the 56th Massachusetts recalled the ground was “filled with dust, great blocks of clay, guns, broken carriages, projecting timbers, and men buried in various ways . . . some with their legs kicking in the air, some with the arms only exposed, and some with every bone in their bodies apparently broken.”

Footbridges were supposed to have been placed to allow attackers to cross their own trenches quickly. Because they were missing, however, the men had to climb into and out of their own trenches just to reach no-man’s land. “Once they had wandered to the crater, instead of moving around it, as the black troops had been trained, they thought that it would make an excellent rifle pit in which to take cover.”

Ledlie’s troops moved down into the crater itself and realized too late that the crater was much too deep and exposed to function as a rifle pit and quickly became overcrowded. Confederates, under Brigadier General William Mahone, quickly gathered as many troops together as they could for a counterattack. In about an hour, they had formed up around the crater and began firing rifles and artillery down into it in what Mahone later described as a “turkey shoot.”

The plan had failed, but Burnside, instead of cutting his losses, sent Ferrero’s Colored Troops in to bolster the attack. Three hours after the initial attack Edward and his comrades were sent into this maelstrom. After several hours of fighting, though, all the advantages of surprise and shock were gone. Nevertheless, “the USCT assault accomplished far more than could have been expected. Lieutenant Colonel H. Seymour Hall and Colonel Delavan Bates, commanding the two leading regiments in the first brigade, improvised a pincer attack that drove the Rebel defenders back, and captured 150 prisoners and several battle-flags.”

About 10:30 a.m. General Burnside decided to abandon his plan and left it to the officers in the crater to extricate themselves. The troops were “dispirited and caught in an indefensible position.” “Between eight hundred and a thousand men were packed into the bottom of the crater, without food or water, in oven-like heat, unable to fight but vulnerable to mortar-fire.” A thin line of riflemen defended the crater shoulder and the trenches to either side. Officers who commanded in the crater testified that “Black troops were the mainstay of this last-ditch defense.” Private Bird of the 12th Virginia gave them the accolade: “They fought like bulldogs and died like soldiers.” 

Then at 2:30 p.m. the Confederates made their final assault. Two of Mahone’s brigades were joined by the rallied survivors of Elliott’s South Carolinians and Ransom’s North Carolina Brigade. The attackers chanted, “Spare the white man, kill the nigger.” Major Matthew N. Love of the 25th North Carolina wrote, “such Slaughter I have not witnessed upon any battle field any where. Their men were principally negroes and we shot them down untill we got near enough and then run them through with the Bayonet . . . we was not very particular whether we captured or killed them the only thing we did not like to be pestered berrying the Heathens.”

Major John C. Haskell of the North Carolina Branch Battery observed: “Our men, who were always made wild by having negroes sent against them . . . were utterly frenzied with rage. Nothing in the war could have exceeded the horrors that followed. No quarter was given, and for what seemed a long time, fearful butchery was carried on.” Some of the officers tried to stop the killing, “but [the men] kept on until they finished up.”

The killing went beyond the excesses that occur in the heat of battle. “Many Black wounded and POWs under escort were shot, bayonetted or clubbed to death as they went to the rear. Confederate Captain William J. Pegram thought it was “perfectly” proper that all captured Blacks be killed “as a matter of policy,” because it clarified the racial basis of the Southern struggle for independence. He found satisfaction in the belief that fewer than half of the Blacks who surrendered on the field “ever reached the rear . . . You could see them lying dead all along the route.”

The performance of the black troops had been superior to that of any of the other engaged units. “They seized more critical ground, captured more enemy troops, advanced further and suffered heavier losses than any other units. Ledlie’s white division, which was engaged for nine hours, suffered 18% casualties. The Fourth Division, engaged for less than half that time, lost 31%; and because so many of their wounded were murdered, their ratio of killed to wounded was more than double that of any Federal unit.”


23rd U.S. Colored Infantry74115121310
29th U.S. Colored Infantry215647124
31st U.S. Colored Infantry274266135
43rd U.S. Colored Infantry148623123
30th U.S. Colored Infantry1810478200
39th U.S. Colored Infantry139747157
28th U.S. Colored Infantry11641388
27th U.S. Colored Infantry9469075
19th U.S. Colored Infantry22876115

Edward would survive the crater assault and would go on the participate in both of the bloody assaults on Fort Fisher during the Carolinas Campaign. He would also be present for the surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston and his army in 1865. The 30th would see duty as occupation troops at various points in North Carolina until December. Edward continued to serve in the 30th USCT regiment until he suffered a devastating injury in March 1865 at Morehead City, North Carolina, when a haybale fell on his back while loading a ship.

After the war Edward would work as a contract “gardener and day laborer” under a system buoyed by the Freedman’s Bureau. In the end, due in part to his own struggle for freedom, Edward was able to legally claim a surname. He chose Hall. The Cohabitation Act of 1866, passed by the General Assembly on February 27, legalized the marriages of formerly enslaved people in Virginia and declared their children to be legitimate. As a result, Edward Hall would have been able to marry Ellen and declare Charles his lawful son.

Soldiers who were disabled because of their service were eligible for pensions; the amount depended on their rank and their injury. Supposedly, “the Civil War pension system was color blind in that there was nothing in the application process that required applicants to be white.” “Still, the fate of black veterans’ applications was decided by white bureaucrats who found it easy to turn them down without fear of retribution.” Fortunately, Edward would later in life receive a pension of $27 a month for his service and his injury. (Note: “The last Union pensioner was Albert Woolson who died in 1956, but that was not the end of Civil War pensions. The last known widow died in 2008 and there were still at least two dependents receiving benefits in 2012.”)

“Although the Shenandoah Valley’s African Americans who served in the Union army and navy during the conflict proved an important element in ensuring that one day all of this nation’s citizens, regardless of race, could enjoy freedom, liberty, and equality, those USCT veterans never lived in a world where that existed. Despite slavery’s constitutional destruction and federal laws granting voting rights in the Civil War’s aftermath, oppressive black codes and Jim Crow segregation created a world which emulated antebellum America. Sadly, as one Shenandoah Valley native, John Brown Baldwin observed, around the time of Sergeant Hall’s death: “While slavery has been abolished in the sense of property interest, the negro is in all those personal characteristics… as much a slave today as he was before the Civil War. He still struggles.”

Edward Hall died on August 24, 1915, and was buried in Winchester’s Orrick Cemetery. Edward’s veterans stone has only the company designation of which he was a member. The portion of the stone that would have named his regiment is missing, perhaps the victim of weather or vandalism over the years since his death. The land upon which this cemetery sits was donated by the Reverend Robert Orrick, a former slave himself. It was intended for use by African American families who, because of racism and segregation, were excluded from both public and private cemeteries.

Edward Hall’s Memorial Stone at Orrick Cemetery in Winchester

Was Edward Hall a hero? Certainly. Perhaps more so than other Civil War Soldiers. He certainly had more to risk. There was the constant uncertainty of what would happen to his family when he ran away. Also, remember, Edward had to break the law when he escaped risking punishment and death. If he was captured by Confederate soldiers, he risked immediate torture or demise by execution. Yet despite all these concerns Edward and many thousands of other African Americans assumed these risks and chose to fight. Mark Anthony’s oration at the funeral of Julius Caesar probably states it best when he declares: “The Evil That Men Do Lives After Them; The Good is oft Interred with their Bones.” This Shakespearean quote praises the good deeds of people but notes that the memory of those deeds is fleeting, in stark contrast to evil deeds and their perpetrators. Such may be the case with the triumphs of African American troops during the American Civil War. Still, I choose to see Edward Hall and all of his comrades as a heroes. They offered up everything they had for the object they so desperately desired; freedom.

Note: “By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war—30,000 of infection or disease. Black soldiers served in artillery and infantry and performed all noncombat support functions that sustain an army, as well. Black carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons, and teamsters also contributed to the war cause. There were nearly 80 black commissioned officers. By war’s end, 16 black soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor.”

Ayers, Edward L. Thin Light of Freedom. The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America. W. W. Norton and Company. New York, N. Y. 2017.

Noyalas, Jonathan. Slavery and Freedom in the Shenandoah Valley During the Civil War Era. University Press of Florida. Tallahassee, Fl. 2021.

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