Time to pick up where we left off with the May 17, 1864, edition of the Daily Richmond Examiner [pdf]. The major fighting having been dealt with in the paper’s left-most columns, the editors move on to the more sensational news. The headline—”The Yankees in Charles City County”—is innocuous, but the story as told must have been enough to boil the blood of any self-respecting Confederate.
“The columns of our paper would fail to record half of the devastation, ruin and outrage the Yankees have recently committed in Charles City and New Kent counties,” the Examiner writes. “On Monday last a party of negro Yankee cavalry committed a most cowardly and diabolical murder, the unarmed and unoffending victim being Mr. J. L. Wilcox, residing thirteen miles from the Charles City Court House on the lower Chickahominy.”
According to the paper, here’s what happened:
The unit of United States Colored Cavalry, led by a white officer, burned Wilcox’s home and farm, and as he stood in his yard “looking on the ruins,” one of the cavalryman ordered him to “march.” Mr. Wilcox, apparently confused, asked to where he should march, and he was answered with a gun barrel in his face. A second refusal to march led the trooper to call upon his white officer for guidance. “The officer replied, ‘Shoot him,’ whereupon one of the negro guard fired and shot him through the head, below the left ear, and as he was falling, another fired and shot him through the right arm and side, the bullet making a large hole. Mr. Wilcox died instantly.”
No doubt. And the forensic exactitude of the Examiner‘s reporting is impressive, if also a little ghoulish. (One wonders if, by this point in the war, a bullet’s direction and the size of its hole were all that distinguished one death from another.) Anyway, if this were not sufficient to whip up the masses against the “negro” soldiers, then there’s more. Apparently the “Yankee vandals” hanged a painter, Robert Bly, in Charles City, and inflicted “cruel and barbarous treatment” upon the citizens of Stafford and Fauquier counties, where “they set fire to a house at night, containing four helpless females, one of whom was totally blind, and one paralyzed.”
There’s reason to believe that Confederate soldiers read these newspapers, especially while entrenched before Petersburg beginning a few weeks hence. And at the Battle of the Crater, on July 30, they took their revenge. “Many a dusky warrior had his brains knocked out with the butt of a musket, or was run thru with a bayonet while vainly imploring for mercy,” recalled one of the black regiment’s white officers.
COMING IN PART III: Brigadier General Heckman is accused of being a lager-loving German, after which he is placed in the line of fire.
IMAGE: A detail of Company E, 4th United States Colored Infantry