From Chaplain Turner: June 25, 1864

from U.S. National Archives
From Chaplain Turner

Headquarters 1st United States Colored Troops

City Point, James River, Va., June 13, 1864

Christian Recorder: June 25, 1864

Turner writes about the Battle of Wilson's Wharf. It was the first battle to involve primarily African American Soldiers against the Confederacy. 

Mr. Editor: - Having a few spare moments, I embrace this opportunity of communicating to you a few events connected with my work since I last saw you. Having been absent from my regiment for nearly three months, by reason of a severe attack of the smallpox, I left your city (Philadelphia) on the evening of the 10th of May. Stopping but a short time at home (in Washington) and taking leave of my family, the 12th of May found me in my department at Fort Monroe, Va., where I recorded my name as present for duty from a leave of thirty days. Here being informed that my regiment was at Wilson’s Landing, some eighty miles up the James River, I went to Portsmouth, Va., remained there a few days, and then left for my regiment. My arrival among both the officers and privates, seemed to be a source of much joy. Indeed, so flattering was my reception, in some instances, that I could hardly recognize its sincerity, until the assurances were so implicitly evidenced that the indulgence of further incredulity would have partaken of the meanest ingratitude. Things, however, moved on very quietly until the 24th unit, on which occasion I was retiring from dinner, feeling very jolly over the idea of having eaten quite heartily once more of a fat chicken, &e., which is generally something special in camp, when my attention was called to the front of our works by a mighty rushing to arms, and shouts that the rebels were coming. I immediately joined the proclaiming host, and bellowed out, (I reckon in fearful tones) “The rebels! the rebels! the rebels are coming!” 

At this period the long roll began to tell that doleful tale that she never tells unless the enemy is about to invade our quarters. Then commenced another rush to arms, fearful in its aspect. Notwithstanding many were at dinner, down fell the plates, knives, forks, and cups, and a few moments were only required, to find every man, sick or well, drawn into line of battle to dispute the advance of twice, if not thrice, their number of rebels. Captains Borden and Rich, of the 1st U.S. Col’d Troops, with their gallant companies, were at some distance in front, skirmishing with the advance guard of the rebels. And here permit to say, that this skirmish was the grandest sight I ever beheld. I acknowledge my incapacity to describe it, and thus pass on. By the time our pickets had been driven in, a flag of truce was seen waving in the distance, when Gen. Wild gave orders to cease firing. Lieutenant-Colonel Wright was immediately dispatched to meet it, and found it to be a peremptory demand from Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, for the unconditional surrender of the place, with the promise that we should, upon such compliance, be treated as prisoners of war; but upon refusal, we would have to abide by the consequences, assuring us, at the same time, that he intended to take us, for he could and would do it. Gen. Wild told him to try it. 

In fifteen minutes rebel balls were flying like hail all around our heads; but gallantly was the compliment returned. It would be contraband to tell you our force on that occasion. But this much I must tell you, that the 1st Regiment of United States Colored Troops, with a very small exception, did all the fighting. I am also sorry that it is inexpedient to give you a full description of that terrific battle, which lasted several hours; but the coolness and cheerfulness of the men, the precision with which they shot, and the vast number of rebels they unmercifully slaughtered, won for them the highest regard of both the General and his staff, and every white soldier that was on the field. And the universal expression among the white soldiers was, "That it is a burning shame for Government to keep these men out of their full pay."  Indeed, many of the white soldiers of the Battery actually cursed and swore about the Government not paying the colored troops their full pay. And I would here remark, and I do not care if Congress and the entire administration see the remark, that unless the colored troops get their full pay very soon, I tremble with fear for the issue of things. The tardiness of Congress in this matter, has been watched by the colored soldiers with an undying eagerness, and every paper is ransacked with a view to their pay. But God grant that the evil may be speedily remedied, is all I will now say.

Resuming the battle question, allow me to say that the rebels were handsomely whipped. They fled before our men, carrying away a large number of their dead, and leaving a great many on the field for us to bury. They declared our regiment were sharp-shooters. Our loss, considering the terribleness of the conflict, was almost incredibly small.

From that place we went to Fort Powhatton, a few days after which we came here, and will remain here till we received marching orders. A few days ago, we went in front of Petersburg, our regiment even went under the guns of the rebels, and laid down while their bombs were flying over our heads. We would have gone in the city had we been permitted; but we accomplished all we were sent to do, and then we returned.

There are many things which I would like to speak of, but as I will have to defer some to another time, I will close by informing you that I have had the pleasure of becoming once more associated with my old friend and brother, Rev. Wm. H. Hunter, chaplain of the 4th Regt. U.S. Col’d Troops. And I do it the more freely, because when at the Baltimore Conference, which met in Washington, D.C., and the General Conference which met in Philadelphia, I was almost hourly interrogated as to his whereabouts and literary silence. Chaplain Hunter has been with his regiment until the army arrived at this point, then he was detailed for the purpose of superintending contrabands, and is now the superintendent of all the contrabands in this department. I take pleasure in saying that the A.M.E. Church has, in the person of Chaplain Hunter, given a model chaplain to the army, and a noble representative. The same characteristic energy and administrative ability which always so eminently fitted him for his pastoral responsibility, now equally fits him for his present work. No better selection could have been made to see after the contrabands, than he. He can take a man from the very rubbish of slavery, and in a few hours infuse into him all the manhood and energy necessary for any purpose of life. His regiment, to a man, admires him. He goes into a hospital where everything wears the drapery of gloom and sadness, and in a few minutes life sparkles upon every countenance. And he never falters to tell men their duty, from general officers down to privates. I predict for the chaplain a future reefed with laurels.

Before this shall have reached you, the probability is, that we may have met the enemy in battle. Should it be the case, you need not fear the consequences, for our entire division has been under fire more than once.

General Hinks, our noble division commander, has the utmost confidence in the valor of our troops, and will lead them on to victory as soon as he shall be permitted.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully,

H.M. Turner,

Chaplain 1st U.S.C.T