When Freedom Came, Part 2
Elvatrice Belsches | 4/2/2015, 11:50 p.m. | Updated on 4/4/2015, 12:06 a.m.
The Free Press presents a three-part installment chronicling the African-American experience during the liberation of Richmond in April 1865 and the final days of the Civil War. This is Part Two.
In the early morning hours of April 3, 1865, the first Union troops arrived in Richmond.
Isaac J. Hill, a 38-year-old soldier from Pennsylvania who enlisted with the 29th Regiment of the Connecticut Colored Troops, wrote about events he witnessed as Confederates fled and his Union regiment moved to liberate Richmond and its enslaved people.
“During Sunday night the brigade was out in line of battle, and at three o’clock in the morning the rebels blew up three gun boats and commenced vacating their works in our front. At 5 A.M. the troops commenced to advance on the rebel works — the 29th taking the advance, the 9th U.S.C. Troops next. Soon refugees from the rebels came in by the hundreds…
“…On our march to Richmond we captured 500 pieces of artillery… The main body of the army went up the New Market road. The 29th skirmished all the way, and arrived in the city at 7 A.M., and were the first infantry that entered the city; they went double quick most of the way. When Col. Wooster came to Main Street he pointed his sword at the capitol, and said “Double quick, march,” and the company charged through the main street to the capitol and halted in the square until the rest of the regiment came up.
“Very soon after the arrival of the white troops the colored troops were moved to the outskirts of the city, and as fast as the white troops came in the colored troops were ordered out, until we occupied the advance. The white troops remained in the city as guards. We remained on the outpost.” — Isaac J. Hill from “A Sketch of the 29th Regiment of the Connecticut Colored Troops: A Full Account of its Formation; of all the Battles through which it passed, and its final Disbandment”
The honor of being the first troops to enter Richmond has been accorded to several regiments and continues to be debated. What is irrefutable, however, is that members of the United States Colored Troops were among the first to enter, if not the first.
What also cannot be refuted is the profound irony of the liberation of Richmond by men of color, many of whom had been sold from the capital of the Confederacy.
Marching into the city that day — April 3, 1865 — were several regiments of U.S. Colored Troops. Among them were members of the 8th Infantry, 9th Infantry, 36th Infantry, 38th Infantry, 22nd Infantry and the 29th Regiment Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, according to the National Park Service.
Thomas Morris Chester, the only known black reporter to cover the Civil War for a major daily newspaper, chronicled the entry of black troops into Richmond and their reception for the Philadelphia Press.
“ …The General [J. Godfrey Weitzel] and staff rode up Main street amid the hearty congratulations of a very large crowd of colored persons and poor whites, who were gathered together upon the sidewalks manifesting every demonstration of joy.”
“There were many persons in the better-class houses who were peeping out of the windows…There was no mistaking the curl of their lips and the flash of their eyes…” — Thomas Morris Chester, April 4, 1865
One of the most incredible stories of what the liberation meant can be found in the actions of a free black teen, Richard Gill Forrester.
Born circa 1845 to 1847, Richard was the son of a free black well-respected couple, Richard Gustavus and Narcissa Forrester. (Richard Gustavus Forrester would go on to become one of the first African-Americans to serve on the Richmond School Board and on Richmond City Council during Reconstruction.)
When Virginia officially seceded from the Union in April 1861, young Richard was 13 or 14 and working as a page at the Capitol. The job is believed to have been procured for him by his white paternal grandfather, Gustavus Myers, an attorney and leader in Richmond’s Jewish community. Mr. Myers was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1860.
Among Richard’s duties as a page was to raise the U.S. and state flags atop the Capitol each morning, according to an account by descendant Theresa Guzman-Stokes. When Virginia seceded, he saw others lower the U.S. flag from the Capitol and discard it. Richard quietly retrieved it, hiding it under his shirt and taking it to his family’s home on College Street. He hid the flag under his bedding for the next four years, until Union forces arrived.
Richard, then about 17, took the flag from its hiding place and ran to the Capitol, where shortly after 7 a.m., he raised the U.S. flag once again above Virginia’s Capitol.
Upon being questioned by Lt. Royal B. Prescott of the 13th Regiment of the New Hampshire Volunteers, Richard relayed the entire story of how he had hidden the flag for safekeeping.
His patriotic act was recorded for posterity when Lt. Prescott had the teen write his name in the lieutenant’s diary. He would be honored later in life with a copy of the history of the 13th New Hampshire Volunteers signed by some of its soldiers.
(Several of Mr. Forrester’s descendants remain in the Richmond area. One, the late Dr. William M.T. Forrester, a Richmond physician born in 1906, co-founded the Metropolitan Junior Baseball League in 1966, when his son, William Forrester Jr., was denied the opportunity to participate in several all-white Little League baseball programs. William Forrester Jr. now serves as the program’s executive director.)
With the U.S. flag flying, Union troops — both black and white — were met by cheering throngs whose gratitude for their liberation from the war and slavery were immeasurable.
According to several eyewitness accounts, African-Americans being held in the slave jails in Shockoe Bottom began singing when they saw the U.S. Colored Troops marching down Richmond’s streets.
“Slavery chains done broke at last! Broke at last! … Gonna praise God ’til I die!”
Black people in the streets joined in the chorus.
The Rev. Garland H. White, an escaped slave who returned from Canada to enlist and later become chaplain of the 28th Regiment U.S. Colored Infantry Indiana, offered a poignant and very personal account of the troops entering Richmond to the Christian Recorder, an official publication of the A.M.E. church.
He had lived as a child outside Richmond — in Hanover County — before being sold and taken to Georgia, where he learned to preach. Later, he escaped to freedom.
When his regiment entered the city, officers and fellow soldiers asked him to make a speech.
“A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him. In this mighty consternation I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart…” — Rev. Garland H. White, April 12, 1865
In the throngs, many of the newly liberated African-Americans were searching among the troops for family members from whom they had been separated under the cruelty of slavery.
“Among the densely crowded concourse there were parents looking for children who had been sold south of this state in tribes, and husbands came for the same purpose; here and there one was singled out in the ranks, and an effort was made to approach the gallant and marching soldiers…
“Among the many broken-hearted mothers looking for their children who had been sold to Georgia and elsewhere, was an aged woman, passing through the vast crowd of colored, inquiring for one by the name of Garland H. White, who had been sold from her when a small boy, and was bought by a lawyer named Robert Toombs, who lived in Georgia. Since the war has been going on she has seen Mr. Toombs in Richmond with troops from his state, and upon her asking him where his body-servant Garland was, he replied: ‘He ran off from me at Washington, and went to Canada. I have since learned that he is living somewhere in the State of Ohio.’
“Some of the boys knowing that I lived in Ohio, soon found me and said, ‘Chaplain, here is a lady that wishes to see you.’ I quickly turned, following the soldier until coming to a group of colored ladies.
“[One quizzed him and then declared] ‘This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son.’
“I cannot express the joy I felt at this happy meeting of my mother and other friends. But suffice it to say that God is on the side of the righteous and will in due time reward them. I have witnessed several such scenes among the other colored regiments.” — Rev. Garland H. White, April 12,1865
On April 4, 1865, the day after Union troops liberated the city, President Abraham Lincoln traveled by boat from City Point, now Hopewell, up the James River to Richmond. Accompanied by his son, Tad, an African-American guide and about a dozen sailors and Marines as protectors, President Lincoln walked from the area around 17th and Dock streets through Capitol Square to the headquarters Gen. Weitzel had set up in the house of Confederate Jefferson Davis, the leader who had fled.
“As soon as he landed the news sped, as if upon the wings of lightning… By the time he reached General Weitzel’s headquarters, thousands of persons had followed him to catch a sight of the Chief Magistrate of the United States… The colored population was wild with enthusiasm. Old men thanked God in a very boisterous manor, and old women shouted upon the pavement as high as they had ever done in a religious revival.” — Thomas Morris Chester, April 6, 1865
President Lincoln later returned by carriage to the Capitol, where throngs of hungry men, women and children had flocked — many with all of their earthly possessions — hoping for food.
The provost marshal’s office was inundated with requests for protection, food and housing.
After addressing the crowd, President Lincoln and his son went through part of Richmond’s slave trading district as they returned to the boat.
“I never witnessed such rejoicing in all my life. As the President passed along the street the colored people waved their handkerchiefs, hats and bonnets and expressed their gratitude by shouting repeatedly, ‘Thank God for his goodness; we have seen his salvation’ …
“The gratitude and admiration amounting almost to worship, with which the colored people of Richmond received the President must have deeply touched his heart. He came among the poor unheralded, without pomp or pride, and walked through the streets, as if he were a private citizen more than a great conqueror. He came not with bitterness in his heart, but with the olive leaf of kindness, a friend to elevate sorrow and suffering, and to rebuild what had been destroyed.” — Isaac J. Hill
On April 7, 1865, First African Baptist Church at Broad and College streets held a grand Jubilee meeting, celebrating freedom for the city’s previously enslaved people. The church’s 1,500-seat auditorium, which had been commandeered on occasion by Jefferson Davis, was now filled to twice its capacity with people jubilant over the city’s liberation and signs that the Civil War was almost over. Newspaperman Thomas Morris Chester was asked to speak. He implored the mass of people to embrace the responsibilities inherent in freedom.
Just two days later, on April 9, 1865, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia would formally surrender to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the McLean House at Appomattox Court House, 92 miles west of Richmond. Several of the African-American regiments that had seen service in and around Richmond were present.
A battle took place that morning at Appomattox, with the home of Dr. Samuel Coleman caught in the middle of the battlefield. The family had fled, but an enslaved woman, Hannah Reynolds, was ill inside the home. She was struck by a shell that blasted through the house and died three days later. She is the only known civilian to perish in that battle, according to the National Park Service.
Despite the surrender, several minor skirmishes would continue sporadically throughout the South into June 1865. However, for millions of African-Americans, freedom’s door was open and now they looked toward equalization under the law.