Civil War blogdom is busy these days chronicling the start of Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign which would eventually bog down in the trenches in front of Petersburg. A side show related to Grant’s larger campaign was Benjamin Butler’s effort along the James River. Grant sought to overwhelm the Confederates in Spring 1864 by launching as many major thrusts as possible to take advantage of the massive and growing Union advantage in manpower by stretching rebel ranks so thin they would break. Butler’s Army of the James attempted to advance toward Richmond via the peninsula between the York and James River. It was the same area that had been the focus of George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign two years earlier. Grant did not expect Butler, a political general, to succeed where McClellan had failed and take Richmond. But he hoped the Army of the James could capture the Richmond and Petersburg Railway, a critical line of supply to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, or at the very least force Lee to divert troops from his main force facing Grant to save the rail link. It was a futile hope since Butler’s Army quickly got bottled up in the peninsula by 18,000 second-tier Confederate troops
Despite its miserable performance, which eventually cost Butler his command, the Army of James was notable for its extensive use of black Union troops. Indeed, an entire corps of the army, the 25th, was composed exclusively of African-American regiments. One of those regiments was the 1st U.S. Colored Infantry recruited in Washington, D.C., and nearby parts of Virginia. One of the men of this regiment was George W. Hatton, a sergeant and former slave. Hatton became a correspondent of The Christian Record, the voice of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In the May 28, 1864 issue, a revealing letter from Hatton appeared in the Recorder in which there was a significant reversal. He stated:
Mr. Editor: — You are aware that Wilson’s Landing is on the James river, a few miles above Jamestown, the very spot where the first sons of Africa were landed, in the year 1620, if my memory serves me right, and from that day up to the breaking out of the rebellion, was looked upon as an inferior race by all civilized nations. But behold what has been revealed in the past three or four years; why the colored men have ascended upon a platform of equality, and the slave can now apply the lash to the tender flesh of his master, for this day I am now an eye witness of the fact. The country being principally inhabited by wealthy farmers, there are a great many men in the regiment who are refugees from this place. While out on a foraging expedition we captured Mr. Clayton, a noted reb in this part of the country, and from his appearance, one of the F.P.V’s; on the day before we captured several colored women that belonged to Mr. C., who had given them a most unmerciful whipping previous to their departure. On the arrival of Mr. C. in camp, the commanding officer determined to let the women have their revenge, and ordered Mr. C. to be tied to a tree in front of headquarters, and William Harris, a soldier in our regiment, and a member of Co. E, who was acquainted with the gentleman, and who used to belong to him, was called upon to undress him, and introduce him to the ladies I mentioned before. Mr. Harris played his part conspicuously, bringing the blood from his loins at every stroke, and not forgetting to remind the gentleman of days gone by. After giving him some fifteen or twenty well-directed strokes, the ladies, one after another, came up and gave him a like number, to remind him that they were no longer his, but safely housed in Abraham’s bosom, and under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner, and guarded by their own patriotic, though once down-trodden race. Oh, that I had the tongue to express my feelings while standing upon the banks of the James river, on the soil of Virginia, the mother state of slavery, as a witness of such a sudden reverse!
The day is clear, the fields of grain are beautiful and the birds are singing sweet melodious songs, while poor Mr. C. is crying to his servants for mercy. Let all who sympathize for the South take this narrative for a mirror.
While no one should rejoice in the physical abuse of a human being, no matter how well justified, still it possible to derive some grim satisfaction from slaves seeing an abusive slaveholder getting his comeuppance. It bespeaks of the bitterness of the war by 1864 that white Union officers would deliver a slaveholder to the mercy of former slaves and that ex-slaves would be prepared to mete out their vengeance. Truly, for a moment in May 1864, near where Africans first stepped foot in Virginia in 1620, the bottom rail was truly a top.