SHARING THE STORIES OF NORTHWEST CONNECTICUT'S AFRICAN AMERICAN CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS
On the night of April 2nd, 1865, rumors reached the camp of the 29th Connecticut that major activity was underway along the Richmond/Petersburg line. When night fell at the end of the day on April 2nd, General August Kautz learned that the “Army of the Potomac had carried the entire Petersburg front, and had captured 12,000 prisoners.” Early the next morning, Sergeant John C. Brock of the 43rd USCT remembered, “we were startled by the heavy explosion of what was, apparently, a magazine; but which, afterwards, proved to be their gunboat, that had been floated down the river and destroyed. There was a great light seen in the direction of Richmond, which led us to suppose there was something more than usual going on. Presently, we heard a succession of heavy reports which was ascertained to be exploding of shells in the city.” The sounds and explosions were all related to the Confederate government and army evacuating their capital.
Few if any days would be as exciting for the men of the 29th Connecticut as April 3rd, 1865. Advance scouts discovered that the enemy positions in their front appeared to be abandoned. The 29th was roused from its camp and ordered to advance. According to Sergeant Thomas J. Griffin of the 29th Connecticut (Colored), it was “about 6 o’clock” when the unit “left Fort Burnham…, moving against the formidable works of the enemy.” Discovering that the enemy positions appeared to be unoccupied, small groups of the regiment began to move toward Richmond. The men quickly discovered that the Confederates had planted torpedoes - Civil War jargon for land mines - across the route. Colonel Wooster ordered them removed. “The road was strewed with all kinds of obstacles,” stated a member of the 29th Connecticut, “and men were lying all along the distance of seven miles.” Wooster marched with his men to a spot from which they could see the Confederate Capitol. Shouting, “Double quick, march,” he led his men through the streets of the city to the Capitol, ordering his men to halt in the city’s main square. The 29th Connecticut - an African American regiment for whom the war against slavery was intensely personal - was the first Union regiment to enter the Confederate capital.
Lincoln in Richmond, April 4th, 1865
One officer of the 43rd USCT, a fellow African American unit, remembered: “As we entered the city there was a scene of wild excitement, the burning buildings, the negroes taking anything they found and the white people hiding in their homes, expecting the Yankees to do the most terrible things to them.” A white officer with the 43rd recalled, “The delight of the colored population, in welcoming our troops, can neither be expressed nor described,” related Sergeant Brock of the same regiment. “Old men and women, tottering on their canes, would make their way to a Union soldier, catch him by the hand, and exclaim, ‘Thank God! Honey, that I have lived to see this day!’ … The young people and children manifested their delight in every possible way.”
The next day, Abraham Lincoln visited the conquered city of Richmond. The incredible emotions felt by the men of the 29th are difficult to imagine as Lincoln, mounted on General Grant’s horse Cincinnati, reviewed the regiment. Alexander Newton, chaplain of the 29th Connecticut remembered, “We were present in Richmond when President Lincoln made his triumphal entry into the city. It was a sight never to be forgotten. He passed through the main street. There were multitudes of Colored people to greet him on every hand. They received him with many demonstrations that came from the heart, thanking God that they had seen the day of their salvation, that freedom was theirs, that now they could live in this country, like men and women, and go on their way rejoicing,” Lincoln spoke, saying, “Now you Colored people are free, as free as I am. God has made you free and if those who are your superiors are not able to recognize that you are free, we will have to take the sword and musket and again teach them that you are free. You are as free as I am, having the same rights of liberty, life and the pursuit of happiness.” When Lincoln commented on the number of men who had lost their lives in the cause of ending slavery, Newton remembered crying, but noted, “They were tears of gladness and sorrow, of regret and delight; but the tears of my own people were the tears of the greatest joy.”