African American West Virginians in the Civil War: The 45th USCT

African American West Virginians in the Civil War: The 45th USCT

Caleb Brownfield

The fight for civil rights began long before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. During the American Civil War, African Americans actively fought for freedom and citizenship. More so than any other group, African Americans had the most to gain and the most to lose from the outcome of the war. Fueled by a desire for equality, over 200,000 African American soldiers joined the Union Army and Navy. Through their valor and deeds they changed long held prejudices. Ultimately the United States Colored Troops helped facilitate the Union victory. African Americans from Appalachia were no exception in answering the call to arms.1 The Forty-fifth Regiment United States Colored Troops (USCT) served the Union army as a black Appalachian unit in the last year of the Civil War. Soldiers of the Forty-fifth hailed from Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. The regiment fought in the battle of Darbytown Road, marched in President Lincoln’s inaugural parade, and chased General Lee to Appomattox Court House. The Forty-fifth Regiment U.S. Colored Troops played a part in one of the early fights for civil rights in the United States and made history in the process.

The Forty-fifth USCT was unique in that it was the only regiment in the war composed of black soldiers accredited to the new state of West Virginia. According to state historian Virgil Lewis, 212 black men enlisted in West Virginia. These men were mustered to the credit of the state and joined the Forty-fifth Regiment USCT. Like other black soldiers, the Forty-fifth’s West Virginians represented many walks of life. Of the 212 West Virginians, thirty five were farmers, thirty five were laborers, seven were servants, and one was a barber. The rest did not indicate a profession upon muster-in. The white officers of the Forty-fifth included Captain Wilhelm von Wechtold, First Lieutenant Edwin Walton Junior, Second Lieutenants Thomas Edwards and William Roberts, and Corporal William Hewes. African Americans from newfound West Virginia desired to end slavery. The Forty-fifth gave them the opportunity to take action.2

In 1861, the North primarily concerned themselves with the preservation of the Union. However, President Abraham Lincoln recognized that preserving the Union would only be achieved with the abolition of slavery and citizenship for African Americans. At the start of the war, the Union reluctantly armed black soldiers. Congress legalized the arming of black soldiers by passing the Militia Act of July 17, 1862. However, black recruitment did not begin in full until Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. Lincoln then directed the creation of the famed First South Carolina Infantry and thus created the United States Colored Troops. After this, recruitment of African American regiments increased dramatically.3

Initially, the North allowed racist views to overshadow the significance of African American soldiers. The War Department appeased this discrimination by making it a policy to have only white men officer the black regiments. However, the USCT’s resilience in battle soon proved their worth. By 1864, the North realized the capability of black soldiers, and Congress pushed for fair pay and veteran benefits among soldiers; this is an early example of the fight for civil rights. Throughout the course of the war, black regiments consistently proved their worth as soldiers. By war’s end, the value of the African American soldier even penetrated long-held beliefs in the South. Rebel Governor of Louisiana Henry W. Allen acquiesced “that negroes can be taught to fight” and “they will make much better soldiers with us than against us.”4

The Forty-fifth USCT mustered relatively late in the war, but they experienced a great deal. From foothill recruitments and battles, to presidential inaugurations and peace treaties, the Forty-fifth USCT stayed active throughout their year of service. The Forty-fifth’s Civil War experience was similar to that of other black regiments. The war devastated lives and fatigue duty often broke even the strongest spirits. Historian Joe Trotter voices this in African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives. In a letter, a soldier of the 45th wrote “We have been in three or four batels and the Lord has spared me to come out.” In a March 8, 1864 letter, the same soldier effectively summarized the war experience of all soldiers when he wrote “wish yaw would pleas tell George Foster & [illeligible] to come down hear and take me out of this damd dirty hole.” Despite the brutal, inhumane nature of war, the Forty-fifth’s Appalachian traits of humility and hard work managed to shine through the dirt of war.5

According to the official record of the regiment, the Forty-fifth USCT mustered in at Camp William Penn from June 13 to August 19, 1864. This was a late muster-in considering the war would end in April 1865. However, the Union Army needed troops and the USCT answered the call. Black men from Appalachia flocked to the camp. Union Army colonels recruited in the small towns. They then sent the men to muster-in at Camp William Penn. For example, Colonel Oakum of the 45th recruited in the town of Clarksburg, West Virginia. According to town Clerk I.H. Taylor, Clarksburg managed to recruit “forty-one colored soldiers.”6 The white officers appointed during the muster included Colonel Ulysses Doubleday, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Thorn, and Major James T. Bates.7

In early July 1864, the Confederate General Jubal Early approached Washington D.C. in a hostile manner. The enemy’s maneuver necessitated more troops in defense of the capital. As a result, only four companies formed before they rushed off to reinforce Washington. Captain von Wechtold of West Virginia led the four companies. They joined the Provisional Brigade commanded by General Silas Casey. General Casey placed them on garrison duty at Arlington Heights. While the first four companies defended Washington, recruitment to fill the last six companies continued at Camp William Penn into late summer. In a rousing ceremony, Brigadier General David Birney presented the regimental flag to the remaining companies of the Forty-fifth on September 15, 1864. According to the Daily Evening Bulletin (Philadelphia, Pa), the men “performed various evolutions” and “aside from the little confusion arising from the inexperience of the troops, the evolutions were well performed.” General Birney proceeded to give what he hoped to be an inspiring speech. He assured the men that on the field of battle, they would not experience discrimination from their white comrades as long as they stood tall and did not shrink in battle. He continued by describing the victories and accomplishments of previous black regiments that hailed from Camp William Penn. General Birney then closed to great applause and handed the regimental colors to Major Bates.8

In the Civil War, regimental flags represented the livelihood of the men. Parade-like ceremonies (similar to that at Camp William Penn) often took place to present the flag. Regiments took pride in their colors. When the enemy captured the flag, the regiment lost hope. Men won Medals of Honor for taking the enemy’s flag. The USCT added another layer to the importance of the regimental flag. Black regimental flags were often decorated with figurative scenes from the black experience. They usually had a motto on one side and a unit designation on the reverse side. The flag presented to Major Bates by General Birney was no exception. The Forty-fifth’s regimental flag was one of a series of seven flags created by David Bustill Bowser, a black Philadelphia artist. The Forty-fifth’s flag portrays a black soldier standing in front of a bust of George Washington, whileholding an American flag. The motto “One Cause, One Country” adorns the Forty-fifth’s banner.9

Figure 1:

This painting by David Bustill Bowser adorned the 45th’s Regimental Flag. Brigadier General Birney presented the 45th’s colors to Major Bates at Camp William Penn on September 15, 1864.


On September 20, 1864, the six companies remaining at Camp William Penn marched under command of Major Bates to City Point, Virginia. The Forty-fifth was to participate in the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. Upon reaching City Point, the black Civil War correspondent Thomas Chester commented that the regiment “looked as if it was made of good material.”11 Here they reunited with General Birney who commanded the Tenth Corps. They briefly occupied a position in front of Petersburg, before relocating to the north side of the James River. From September 29 to October 1, the Tenth Corps participated in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. However, the Forty-fifth did not take part due to a concern over their lack of experience. Yet, it was not long before the Forty-fifth USCT experienced their first action in the battle of Darbytown Road.12

By 1864, General Robert E. Lee had constructed a trench system as protection for the Confederate capital at Richmond. These trenches stretched for miles, and the Union Army and the USCT in particular consistently performed skirmishes along the trench system in efforts to gain access to Richmond. The battle of Darbytown Road was a small clash near Chaffin’s Farm, Virginia. The Confederates had posted marksmen inside the trenches along Darbytown Road. General Birney ordered the Third Division to engage the Confederate Army in an attempt to gain reconnaissance on their position. Colonel Doubleday was in command of the Second Brigade of Third Division. On October 12, the Forty-fifth along with Second Brigade performed reconnaissance past the Kell House, a residence on Darbytown Road. They returned without encountering the rebels. On October 13, reconnaissance resumed. According to Doubleday’s official report, “starting at 4 a.m. we marched…to the left of Darby road…we then entered a very dense piece of woods.” With difficulty, the brigade managed to connect the line with the Twenty-ninth Connecticut Regiment, and “as soon as our skirmishers entered the woods they engaged those of the enemy and quickly drove them from a rail fence and two lines of rifle-pits to the shelter of their main line.” During this action, a battery behind a civilian house bombarded the right side of Doubleday’s brigade. Colonel Doubleday then detached the Forty-fifth and ordered Major Bates to perform further scouting of the enemy line. According to Major Bates’ official report, he deployed two companies which were ordered to “connect with the line upon their right and to commence firing immediately.” Upon this action, Major Bates sent two more companies to scout the rest of the line. At 1 PM, Bates withdrew his companies to their original position. At 4 PM, nearly twelve hours after fighting began, Colonel Doubleday and Second Brigade withdrew to camp. The battle of Darbytown Road offered the Forty-fifth an opportunity to prove their worth, and the men did not fall short. In fact, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton even recommended James M. Lyon (a private from Company K) to be captain by brevet for his “bravery at the battle of Darbytown Road, Virginia and for gallant services during the war.” The battle of Darbytown Road was considered a Confederate victory. There was over 900 casualties, most of which belonged to the North.13

After the battle at Darbytown Road, the Forty-fifth USCT received little rest before the war again required their services in the Second Battle of Fair Oaks. On October 27 and 28, 1864, Union forces attacked the Confederate trenches at Fair Oaks, Virginia. Another skirmish against the Confederate defenses of Richmond, the Forty-fifth was attached to Second Brigade, Third Division under Colonel Doubleday. According to Doubleday’s report, the brigade moved out at daylight on October 27. They took post near the Kell House, while the Twenty-ninth Connecticut Regiment engaged the enemy in the woods. The Twenty-ninth continued the skirmish into the night of October 28, while the Forty-fifth reinforced their rear. Doubleday wrote “though lying near, (they) were not engaged,” and had “but one casualty occurring in the Forty-fifth U.S. Colored Troops.” During the night, the brigade withdrew back to the Kell house and retreated to camp by 3 PM. Though considered a Confederate victory, the Second Battle of Fair Oaks was only a diversionary tactic performed in conjunction with an attack at Boydton Plank Road in Petersburg. After the battle at Fair Oaks, the Forty-fifth began picket duty and took winter quarters in front of Fort Harrison.14

In winter quarters, discrimination against black soldiers was more prevalent. In battle, the common goal often blinded soldiers of their prejudice. However, inactivity on the war front during the winter months often resulted in unfair workloads and racist scuffles. As historian Joseph Glatthaar asserted in Forged in Battle, “racism played a powerful role in the way officers employed their men.” The Appalachian Forty-fifth USCT regiment was not excluded from the racism prevalent in winter quarters. The first four companies mustered in defense of Washington knew only garrison duty. While the last six companies were proving themselves in battle, Companies A,B,C, and D knew the feel of a shovel more than their own musket. The close quarters of winter camps frequently caused violent interactions between white and black soldiers. For example, a soldier of the Forty-fifth stationed outside Fort Harrison was collecting firewood outside of camp when a group of white soldiers marched up and shot the private. According to Glatthaar, the group proceeded to tell the soldier to “get out of the way, you damned black son of a bitch,” before they shot him again. The soldiers marched off, leaving the black soldier to die, while they received no punishment. Such callous acts were unfortunately common occurrences, and they often went unreported. USCT regiments worked a “disproportionate amount of fatigue work.” Fatigue duty consisted of trench digging, construction of defenses, and general maintenance chores.15

Despite the oppression faced while on garrison duty, the Forty-fifth did manage to make history during their stay at Arlington Heights. The presidential election of 1864 proved to be a decisive factor in victory for the Union. The reelection of President Lincoln over George B. McClellan ensured a commitment to the war effort and demoralized the already depleted South. On March 4, 1865, President Lincoln gave his second inaugural speech. The soldiers of the Forty-fifth marched in the inauguration parade to cheers and applause. They were the only black troops in attendance and the first black soldiers to march at a Presidential inauguration. More importantly, the Forty-fifth’s attendance epitomized the success of President Lincoln’s goal of integrating African Americans into the United States military.16

By the spring of 1865, the Siege of Petersburg resumed and the two factions of the Forty-fifth USCT united for the first time. The Forty-fifth integrated into the newly formed Twenty-fifth Corps, while Colonel Doubleday was promoted to Brigadier General. On March 14, 1865, the four Washington companies joined the rest of the regiment on the front line. With the war’s end in sight, the Forty-fifth joined the army of the Potomac and crossed the James River on March 27. The regiment participated in fighting at Hatcher’s run as well as the final battle for Petersburg on April 1 and 2. The fall of Petersburg to Union forces caused chaos in the Confederate Army. Desertions began in full as the enemy retreated to Appomattox. The Forty-fifth with the Twenty-fifth Corps and the army of the Potomac pursued the retreating enemy. By April 9, 1865, the rebel General Lee staged his last effort in front of the Appomattox Court House. The Union infantry staved off the attack. The Forty-fifth acted as reserves during this action, the last in the war in Virginia. They were also present for General Lee’s surrender to General Grant later the same day. The USCT had a major impact on the critical siege of Petersburg. USCT regiments performed many of the most dangerous and difficult assaults on the city. According to Glathaar, “nearly one in every eight soldiers in the siege of Petersburg was black.” The final fighting in Virginia provided the Forty-fifth and the USCT with one last opportunity to prove their worth, as well as revel in their newfound role of conquering heroes.17

Despite Lee’s surrender, the war was not over for the men of the Forty-fifth. They still had almost six months of service remaining. The Forty-fifth spent April and May on garrison duty at Petersburg and City Point respectively. In late May, most black regiments in the Twenty-fifth Corps began shipping out from City Point, Virginia for border duty in Texas. Samuel H. Smothers of Company C, Forty-fifth USCT was a school teacher from Troy Ohio. In a letter, Smothers adequately captured the levity of a triumphant soldier, “we had a very pleasant voyage, the weather being fine and the sea smooth and calm.” The regiment traveled by sea to New Orleans, arriving on June 16. They then traveled up the Rio Grande River where the Union stationed them on the Mexican border town of Edinburg, Texas. Here the Forty-fifth performed garrison duty for two months. Unfortunately, unclean water sources spread disease and many brave soldiers that managed to survive the battles in Virginia, succumbed to disease in Texas.18

On September 8, the regiment moved to Brownsville, Texas and performed garrison duty and occupation reconstruction. The men increasingly grew weary of the mundane manual labor and disease ridden camps. Finally, on October 28, 1865, the Lieutenant-General ordered a mass muster-out for black troops in the Twenty-fifth Corps. The mass muster-out included Appalachia’s Forty-fifth USCT Regiment. The men officially mustered-out in Brownsville on November 4, 1865. They then returned to Philadelphia’s Camp Cadwalader, where they were paid and discharged for their service to the Union army. While they did have an opportunity to join one of the six remaining peacetime Regular Army black regiments, the majority of the men decided to leave the soldier’s life and truly experience the freedom for which they fought.19

As General Birney orated in the Camp William Penn flag ceremony, “some of the very best regiments in the United States are among the colored troops.” His sentiment on black soldiers reflected a drastic change in public opinion during the war. The integration of black troops into the Union military offered African Americans their first opportunity to directly fight for the freedom of slaves. It also represented a chance to gain respect and equality in the eyes of otherwise prejudiced whites. With such powerful motivation, the USCT answered the call to arms with a zeal and fervor unforeseen in the average soldier. Despite dealing with additional obstacles, their passion and excitement translated to merit on the battle field. Without the bolster of high quality U.S. Colored Troops, the North may have never preserved the Union.20

In the midst of the bigger picture, the Forty-fifth United States Colored Troops Regiment characterized Appalachian African Americans in the war of the rebellion. With over 1000 black men hailing from Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, the Forty-fifth adequately represented the qualities of the region. As with any hardship and tribulation, an expected amount of complaining occurred. However, this Appalachian unit of black soldiers never let injustice or fear21 prevent them from doing their duty. The Forty-fifth’s courage in battle and their will as soldiers earned them regard they lacked before the war started. More importantly, the actions of the Forty-fifth USCT made the fight for civil rights possible nearly a century later.

For those interested in genealogical records for the men of the Forty-fifth from West Virginia, visit the West Virginia Division of Culture and History’s website at . For those interested in the entire listing of men of the Forty-fifth, see Samuel P. Bates’ History of Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861-5. The University of Michigan has a copy online at pages 1106 to 1124.

1 James McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1965), ix.

2 List of Colored Troops, 1864. AR 382 Box 27 Folder 6, West Virginia State Archives ; Department of Archives and History of the State of West Virginia, Third Biennial Report, Virgil A. Lewis (Charleston: The News-Mail Company, 1911) 223.

3 Joseph Glatthaar, Forged in Battle (New York: The Free Press, 1990) 7,9,10.

4 Harper’s Weekly, November 5, 1864.

5 Joe W. Trotter, African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), 185-186. The actual letters Trotter references are held at the manuscript collection of the Lancaster County Historical Society. They are addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Martin D. Hess and often reference a fellow soldier of the 45th Samuel Harris.

6 Roster and Record. AR 382 Box 27 Folder 1, West Virginia State Archives ; I.H. Taylor, Letter from I.H. Taylor, July 7, 1864. AR 382 Box 27 Folder 2, West Virginia State Archives.

7 Samuel P. Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5(Harrisburg: B. Singerly, state printer, 1869-71), 1107.

8 “Presentation of Flags to Colored Regiments,” Daily Evening Bulletin (Pennsylvania), September 16, 1864 ; Bates, History of Pennsylvania, 1106.

9 “Banners of Glory” in Civil War Journal: The Legacies, eds. William Davis, Brian Pohanka, and Don Troiani, (Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 1999), 345.

10 David Bustill Bowser. One cause, one country – 45th Regt. U.S. Colored Troops. Library of Congress, (April 14 2011).

11 Thomas Morris Chester, Thomas Morris Chester, Black Civil War Correspondent (Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 138.

12 Bates, History of Pennsylvania, 1106.

13 The War of the Rebellion, Series 1-VolumeXLII-Part 1, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1898.) 776-777, 782 ; Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America, Volume XV-Part 1, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1887), 143-144.

14 The War of the Rebellion, 777 ; “Fair Oaks & Darbytown Road,” National Park Service: American Battlefield Protection Program, n.d.,, (25 March 2011).

15 Glatthaar, Forged in Battle, 182, 198.

16 Bates, History of Pennsylvania, 1106 ; Glatthaar, Forged in Battle, 207-208.

17 Bates, History of Pennsylvania, 1106 ; Glatthaar, Forged in Battle, 167 ; “Appomattox Court House,” National Park Service: American Battlefield Protection Program, n.d.,, (March 25 2011).

18 Samuel H. Smothers, “Letter 83” in A Grand army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, ed. Edwin S. Redkey, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 196-197 ; Roster and Record, West Virginia State Archives.

19 The United States Army and Navy Journal and Gazette of the Regular and Volunteer Forces, Volume III-1865-’66, (New York: Publication Office, No. 39 Park Row), 116. ; Bates, History of Pennsylvania, 1107; Glatthaar, Forged in Battle, 184.

20 “Presentation of Flags to Colored Regiments,” Daily Evening Bulletin (Pennsylvania), September 16, 1864.