THE SUTHERLAND AFFAIR
On April 23, 1865 in a small town twelve miles west of Petersburg, VA, disparate cymbals crashed against one another, part of a symphony orchestrated by bigotry and hunger and a demand for respect. It was a clash in which two opponents forgot they were part of a common cause, part of a fraternity of triumphant soldiers, and were each ready to draw the blood of comrades in blue. For two days following the Confederate surrender of arms at Appomattox, regiments of the Third Brigade of the First Division of the Fifth Corps had drawn the unenviable task of collecting weapons , munitions, and stores left behind in the Rebel camps. According to John Smith, historian for the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry, " whole battalions had stacked their arms and left for home, taking no part in the surrender, not even signing their parole." It was also a task performed on nearly empty stomachs, as rations had been exhausted. Railroad bridges had been destroyed preventing supply trains from reaching the area, while road conditions kept wagons from moving. Foraging parties were sent out, but pickings were slim. Beef was scarce and what little was found was "poor and tough." Some scavengers picked the ground for corn that had been fed to horses and mules and, according to Smith, ate it "with great relish."
Eleven days earlier and 90 miles to the east, one thousand Black troopers of the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry had followed Col. Charles Francis Adams, the great-grandson of John Adams and grandson of John Quincy Adams, into Richmond. Lt. Edward J. Bartlett would write home "Today, is the most glorious in the history both of the country and our regiment." Fannie Walker, a Richmond native, would react with "horror" at the sight of the "Negro" cavalrymen singing "John Brown's Body" in the streets of the fallen Confederate capitol.
The Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry had been mustered into service over a three-month period, from January to May 1864. Twenty-one of its white officer cadre was drawn from the 1st and 2nd Mass. cavalries, three from the ranks of the 44th Mass. Infantry, while 12 had no prior military experience. The enlisted ranks were overwhelmingly filled by free blacks hailing primarily from Massachusetts cities and towns, including Boston, Framingham, Rehobeth, Amherst, Springfield, Marshfield, Waltham, Roxbury, Duxbury, Provincetown, Dorchester, and Middleboro. The barbers, laborers, waiters, farmers, sailors, painters, and blacksmiths from the Old Bay State were joined by enlistees from such distant locales as Pittsburgh, Raritan and Jersey City, New Jersey, New Orleans, Newbern, Goldsboro and Plymouth, North Carolina, St. John's in New Brunswick, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Reading, Pennsylvania, Frankfort and Logan County, Kentucky, Wellsville and Cincinnati, Ohio, Chicago, Batavia and Elmira, New York, South Kingston and Providence, Rhode Island, the West Indies, and Valparaiso, Chile. Assigned to the 18th Corps in the Army of the James, they had initially performed picket and reconnaissance duty and then became part of the 17 general troop movement toward Richmond in June. The regiment had been engaged at the battle of Baylor's Farm, where three of its members were killed and another eighteen wounded. They would not be allowed to further their combat record, however. In late June the regiment was reassigned to supplement companies drawn from the Veterans Reserve Corps and stand guard over Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout, Maryland, the largest of all Northern POW camps. There were reports of rough treatment of prisoners by members of the 5th and after five prisoners were shot dead in three separate incidents, including two for supposedly talking in their tent after dark, James Barnes, commanding the military district of St. Mary's came down hard and warned the regiment that unwarranted or unjustified discharge of weapons would meet with harsh consequences.
The warning served its purpose and a cavalry regiment that wasn't a cavalry regiment performed their duty as required. Like any regiment they had their good and bad elements, drunks, slackers, two who were found guilty of striking their sergeant, others who verbally abused their officers, or were found to be mutinous by disobeying orders, but as a whole performed well and the majority without incident. They'd continue this duty through Thanksgiving, when they sat down to a traditional New England repast, afterwards chasing a greased pig and engaging in wheelbarrow races, then Christmas, on into the fading winter, when finally, in March 1865, the regiment joined the siege at Petersburg, occupying the extreme right of Union lines at Deep Bottom as part of the 25th Corps. On April 6th, three days after their entry into Richmond, Adams was given orders to shift the regiment to Petersburg. They remained a day before receiving additional orders to move twelve miles to the west, to Sutherland Station, to guard the Southside Railroad. Adams own stay at Sutherland Station lasted only nine days. On the 16th of April he was summoned to appear before Major General Edward O.C. Ord, then commanding the Army of the James. There Adams was arrested and charged with neglect of duty in "allowing his command to straggle and maraud," and was further ordered to report to Fortress Monroe for trial. The charge of marauding was leveled because of complaints from Richmond citizens alleging members of the 5th Mass had appropriated horses for their own use.
The Third Brigade began its march back to Washington on April 14th. Spirits were dampened and there was no sense they were a conquering or triumphant army. Hunger and rain will do that. Officers used a carrot and stick approach, urging the men toward Farmville, 27 miles away, where rations were said to be waiting. After two days of marching through mud, the strung out column finally reached its first milestone destination and found the promised supplies waiting. As Smith recalled, "We stacked arms and laid around, and for the first time realized that the war over." The whole scene was brightened further by the clearing of rain clouds overhead, but any feelings of contentment were 18 shattered at 4 p.m. when a dispatch was read aloud announcing the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had won the love and devotion of the Army of the Potomac. In a display of mourning the color bearers from all regiments draped their flags in black, dyeing white handkerchiefs and any other fabric available in ink obtained from the ranks.
On April 20th the Third Brigade, which included veterans of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spottsylvania, would break camp and resume its eastward trek along what is now Rt. 460. They had 55 miles to go before they would reach Sutherland Station and make their acquaintance with the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry.
While the 5th Massachusetts encamped, the Third Brigade swept through Burkeville, fifteen miles from Farmville, reaching Nottoway nine miles further on. By the 21st they were at Wilson's Station, and finally on the 22nd, eight days after leaving Appomattox, within easy reach of Sutherland. One day beyond Sutherland lay the city of trenches and bomb-proofs that had shielded them for ten months from everything Petersburg had to throw at them, except snipers. Beyond that, after four long years for some, Richmond, and beyond that, a mere hundred miles away, the dome atop the Capitol building. Beyond that home, and children never seen before, wives who had gone without an embrace, fathers and mothers who had grayed, and younger siblings who had grown more than a foot taller in their absence. Those thoughts buoyed their every step through the Virginia countryside.
On Sunday the 23rd, dirty, dishevelled, and stomachs growling, the Third Brigade stacked arms at Sutherland Station. Men of the 118th Pennsylvania took quick note of the 5th Massachusetts camped in their front. They were put off by the cleanliness of the cavalry uniforms and the perception, real or imagined, that they were being looked down upon by black men. Some of Philadelphia's best immediately began itching for a fight and looking for an excuse headed for the tent of the 5th's sutler. None had money to pay for what they wanted, they simply began taking it and were joined by more comrades in the taking. Three of the 5th, assigned to guard duty, ordered the 118th to back off. That demand only drew more of a crowd, until the corporal of the guard, "a big black fellow, wishing to magnify his office, came up and undertook to arrest our men for disobeying orders." Sergeant Charles Brightmeyer of the 118th threw the first punch, knocking the corporal to the ground, and then all hell broke loose. Knives sliced through ropes holding up the sutler's tent and a rush began for boxes of canned peaches, canned tomatoes, sardines, tobacco, cheese, and every other item that someone could pick up and run with. Soldiers from the 20th Maine and 1st Michigan joined in the pillaging. While a distraught sutler looked on, buglers could be heard in the distance sounding "Boots and Saddles."
Officers from the 5th Massachusetts, brandishing swords and intent on making arrests, were immediately set upon and became participants in an all out brawl. Swords went flying into the air, while tasselled hats were kicked around like balls. Samuel Chamberlain, acting Colonel of the 5th in place of Charles Adams, raced to the scene on his horse, the rest of his command in close pursuit. Fists froze in mid-punch. Chamberlain demanded officers from the three white regiments arrest those responsible and hold them strictly accountable, threatening to take action himself if his demands weren't met. The troopers, under Chamberlain's direction, formed a line in front of the sutler's tent, ready to spur their horses forward if signaled to do so. There was no mistaking the now steeled expressions and open contempt that registered in the eyes of white men who looked at black men led by white men. An unidentified Third Brigade colonel ordered them to fix bayonets, six to eight of which were then thrust into the chest, belly, and flank of Chamberlain's horse.
Major General Alfred L. Pearson, commanding the Third Brigade, finally arrived on the scene to restore order. Chamberlain launched an immediate protest and looked for justice, not only for his men, but his horse that was later destroyed due to its wounds. Pearson quickly sized up the situation and ordered Chamberlain to withdraw his men, cautioning the Colonel that unless he complied some of them were certain to be killed.
A month later, on May 23rd, the Third Brigade stepped out into the line of march and proudly paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue with the rest of the Fifth Corps and the triumphant Army of the Potomac, in lock step, arms swinging upward, eyes right when they passed the reviewing stand, the cheers of the crowd deafening in their ears.
The Fifth Massachusetts moved from Sutherland to City Point, where on June 16th they loaded their horses onto trains to begin a 1200 mile journey to Clarksville, Texas. They would stand vigil along the Mexican border until mustered out of service on October 31, 1865.
Carl Culshaw, 118th PA
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Spring 2010