Colonel William W. Woodward’s Report on the Action of His Brigade of U.S. Colored Troops in the Appomattox Campaign

Following the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Five Forks on April 1st, 1865, General Robert E. Lee abandoned his defensive lines around Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia on April 2nd. The next day, U.S. troops occupied the cities. The Federal Armies of the Potomac, the James, and the Shenandoah went in pursuit of Lee, who was marching west along the Appomattox River. The two sides fought several engagements during the westward movement before the Union forces trapped Lee near Appomattox Court House on April 9th, forcing the Confederate commander to surrender his Army of Northern Virginia. This action between Five Forks and Lee’s surrender is known as the Appomattox Campaign.

Gen. William Birney

The Army of the James included the African American 25th Corps. (That is, the enlisted men were African American former slaves or freedmen; with very rare exceptions, the officers in Black units were white). The 2nd Division of the 25th Corps, under the command of Brigadier General William Birney, was involved in the final actions around Petersburg and in the pursuit of Lee to Appomattox Court House. Colonel William W. Woodward commanded the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Division. He had previously served as a Captain in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry before he was appointed Colonel of the 116th U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) in July of 1864. Woodward was promoted to brigade command on March 23rd. Two of Woodward’s regiments, the 29th and 31st U.S. Colored Troops participated in the Appomattox Campaign while two others remained behind. Woodward’s previous command, the 116th USCT of the division’s 1st Brigade, would also be assigned to his brigade during the campaign. Here is Colonel Woodward’s official report of his brigade’s participation in the last days of the Siege of Petersburg and in the Appomattox Campaign.

Hdqrs. Third Brig., Second Div., 25th Army Corps,
Near Petersburg, Va., April 27, 1865.

Captain: I have the honor to report the operations of my command from the date of moving from the north bank of the James River.

In accordance with instructions from Second Division headquarters, the Twenty-ninth and Thirty-first U. S. Colored Troops were in line in readiness to march at sunset the 27th of March, 1865. The Tenth and Twenty-eighth U. S. Colored Troops, with the two first-mentioned regiments, composed the Third Brigade, the two latter regiments remaining on the old line on the north bank. At precisely sunset I marched with my command—the Twenty-ninth and Thirty-first U. S. Colored Troops—to Varina Landing, there forming a junction with the balance of the division, continuing the march throughout the night. The morning found us in the vicinity of the defenses around Petersburg. The moving of troops and the activity of the entire army convinced me at once that we were to take a part in what resulted in the last great struggle for the overthrow of Lee’s army. Resting six hours, we continued our march toward the left of our line till late on the 28th ultimo, when we halted near Robertson’s. The 29th and 30th we still continued moving toward the left of our lines, and finally halted and took position beyond Hatcher’s Run, deployed and connecting with General Foster’s division, Twenty-fourth Corps, on his right, and Colonel Dandy’s brigade on his left. I at once ordered a strong skirmish line to connect with Foster and Dandy. The enemy’s line retreated after a few shots, and the line was established. Under the direction of an engineer a line of works was at once constructed so as to connect the important points, thickly wooded, the clearing being very much exposed to the shells from the guns of the enemy. In this position the troops rested for the night without interruption, except the picket-firing, which was kept up throughout the night.

The morning of the 31st ultimo the enemy’s skirmish line advanced a few rods, seemingly intent on regaining the lost ground in my front. I immediately ordered the Twenty-ninth Regiment, Colonel Royce commanding, forward, deployed to support the line and drive the enemy back. This regiment moved forward handsomely and took the position ordered, but the skirmish line maintained their position. The entire day was occupied in keeping the enemy in their main works, which was done principally by the skirmish line and sharpshooters, under the command of Captain Porter, of the Twenty-ninth Regiment. His line advanced to within a few feet of the enemy’s abatis, and kept up such an accurate fire that they dare not show their heads on their line. At night-fall my command was relieved by the First Brigade, Second Division. I retired under cover and encamped for the night.

On the afternoon of the 1st of April was ordered back on the old line to relieve a brigade of the Sixth Corps. On the morning of the 2d instant, at 4 o’clock, was ordered forward in haste, as the enemy was evacuating; moved on speedily as possible through the enemy’s main line; advanced and took position near Fort Gregg, supporting a battery by the Thirty-first Regiment, Colonel Ward commanding. This regiment, although exposed to the enemy’s fire of solid shot, took their position with the greatest coolness. The enemy’s guns in the immediate vicinity of Fort Gregg being silenced, the battery advanced without support and the Thirty-first retiring to former position. At 3 o’clock moved to the right around Fort Gregg, and took position near Budd’s residence. At this point the One hundred and sixteenth U. S. Colored Troops, Lieutenant Colonel Laird commanding, belonging to First Brigade, reported to me. I assigned him to position on my left and connecting with General Turner’s command. My line was ordered forward to get a more favorable position. The skirmish line advanced, and without any resistance the enemy’s line retired to their main works. At this point I connected with Colonel Doubleday, commanding Second Brigade, on his right, and was exposed to a shell fire from Battery 45. Was preparing to advance upon the enemy’s works at 6.30, when the order was countermanded. The troops rested for the night, except the party detailed to construct a new line.

April 3, at 4 a.m. were again in motion, advancing toward Battery 45; passed through their line, the skirmish line of the enemy retiring in my front without firing a shot. The head of my column arriving in Petersburg at 5.10 a. m., I was ordered forward immediately in pursuit of Lee; moved on the Cox road ; continued the march uninterrupted (except the fatigue and hunger incident to marches of such a character). This a.m. the One hundred and sixteenth U. S. Colored Troops, Colonel Laird commanding, was ordered to report to First Brigade.

April 4, at Wilson’s the One hundred and sixteenth again ordered to report to me. The 5th, 6th, and 7th, with long and fatiguing marches, bring us to Farmville. At this point I was ordered, with my command, to report to Brevet Major-General Turner, commanding Second Division, Twenty-fourth Army Corps. The march of the 8th instant brings us near Appomattox Court-House; encamped near South Side Railroad. Early a. m. of the 9th instant in motion, moving toward Appomattox Court-House; arriving near that place my command was ordered on the left of General Foster’s division, to connect with his right. A staff officer of General Gibbon informed me the enemy were massing on our left, evidently intending to flank us. The double-quick was ordered, the troops advancing splendidly, but was soon checked by General Custer’s division of cavalry crossing the road parallel to me. As soon as possible moved to position, deployed, and advanced in line—One hundred and sixteenth on the right, Thirty first the left, and Twenty-ninth the center. The line advanced in splendid order, driving the enemy’s line of skirmishers back to their main line. Their right gave way as we advanced. Their whole [line] receded into a dense woods in their rear, which was soon evacuated by them. We had advanced one mile. Orders were received that a flag of truce was received asking a suspension of hostilities. The terms having been agreed upon went into camp near the court-house. April 10, was ordered to report to Brevet Brigadier-General Jackson, who had been assigned to command Second Division. April 11, was ordered to move back to Petersburg; arrived there the 17th instant.

USCT On Picket Duty at Dutch Gap, Virginia in 1864

During this short but very successful campaign the troops endured the privations, fatigue, and hunger with a commendable spirit. The casualties of the command are 6 killed, 9 wounded. Although very often exposed to the enemy’s fire, their practice was generally inaccurate and only occasionally any harm was the result.

I beg leave to call the attention of the general commanding to the promptness and efficiency of the regimental commanders in executing my orders at a time valor and courage must have been required, and, with few exceptions, the unwearied labor and zeal of all the officers of the command. I also desire to bear testimony to the promptness and skill of the officers of my staff in their untiring labors to promote the interest of the command, and in conveying orders with accuracy and haste when and where required; also to the good conduct generally of the enlisted men of the command, during a period of severe marching, and reduction of rations, amounting to almost absolute destitution.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

W. W. WOODWARD,
Colonel 116th U. S. Colored Troops, Commanding Brigade.

Captain I.H. Evans,
Acting Assistant Adjutant General, Second Division

Sources:

Five Forks and the Pursuit of Lee by Horace Porter. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume IV.

History of the 116th Regiment U.S.C. Infantry by Charles Kierker.

Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 46, Part 1, Section 2.


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