Ce­cil County African-Amer­i­cans fought, died at Bat­tle of the Crater



This ar­ti­cle orig­i­nally ap­peared in the Ce­cil Whig in July 2014.

The pied­mont of Vir­ginia can be a hot and hu­mid place late in July. The sun beats down on any­thing not in the shade and the hu­mid­ity clings to ev­ery­thing. Such was the weather re­port for the last week in July of 1864 at Peters­burg, Vir­ginia where 85 hun­dred Union and 61 hun­dred Con­fed­er­ate troops faced off in a gru­el­ing siege that could end only one way, death for hun­dreds of de­fend­ers and at­tack­ers alike. Among those Union forces were at least eight African Amer­i­cans from Ce­cil County.

Two weeks ear­lier, the Union com­man­der, Gen­eral Am­brose Burnside, ap­proved a pro­posal from some Penn­syl­va­nia coal min­ers that he and they thought might bring an end to the siege. Burnside pro­posed and his su­pe­ri­ors agreed to the dig­ging of a tun­nel un­der the Con­fed­er­ate lines, load­ing it full of ex­plo­sives, and blow­ing a hole in those lines, thus pro­vid­ing a gate­way for Union forces to breech the stub­born de­fenses and take Peters­burg.

While the min­ers dug, Burnside con­structed the at­tack plan that called for the use of over four thou­sand fresh troops. Those troops would be mem­bers of the many United States Colored reg­i­ments that sur­rounded Peters­burg. Their train­ing be­gan, but one day be­fore the an­tic­i­pated at­tack, Gen­eral Meade, Burnside’s com­man­der, ve­toed the use of Black troops. Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Park Ser­vice re­port on the bat­tle, Meade feared that “if the at­tack failed, the Union com­man­ders could be ac­cused of want­ing to get rid of the only Ne­gro troops then with the Army of the Po­tomac.” So, white troops, who were not nearly as rested or highly trained for the bat­tle, were sub­sti­tuted. The re­sult was pre­dictable.

When the four tons of pow­der was ig­nited, and the re­sult­ing ex­plo­sion sent earth, ma­te­ri­als, and men into the air, the im­age was so im­pres­sive, so smoky, and the grounds so cov­ered with de­bris, that it took sev­eral hours for the Union troops to be­gin their charge. By that time, the Con­fed­er­ates over­came the shock and be­gan re­form­ing their de­fen­sive lines. In ad­di­tion, the in­ad­e­quately trained Union troops, in­stead of go­ing around the crater, ran head­long into it, caus­ing a bot­tle neck for them and a shoot­ing gallery for the Con­fed­er­ate de­fend­ers above them.

Af­ter the ini­tial charge, Burnside or­dered the Colored Troops into the fray, but it was too late. By noon, Burnside re­al­ized the bat­tle was lost and is­sued an or­der to re­treat from the crater. But what of the eight sol­diers from Ce­cil County? Three were wounded and one was de­clared miss­ing in ac­tion.

Wounded were Pri­vates Jack­son Jaynes of North East, Cyrus Wes­ley of Cedar Hill, and Joshua Rick­etts. Pri­vate Wes­ley was wounded in the neck and hip by a mini ball. He spent the re­main­der of the war re­cov­er­ing in a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal. Af­ter the war he would set­tle in the Fair Hill area, pur­chase land, and farm it with his wife and 4 chil­dren. He’s buried in Cedar Hill Ceme­tery.

Pri­vate Jaynes re­turned to Ce­cil County and both pur­chased and farmed land in North East with his wife. They had no chil­dren.

There is a record of Jaynes sell­ing some of his land to pro­vide right of way for a rail­road line. Post war cen­sus records in­di­cate Jaynes suf­fered from rheuma­tism late in life. He too is buried in Cedar Hill.

Very lit­tle is known about Pri­vate Rick­etts ei­ther be­fore or af­ter the war. His mil­i­tary records in­di­cate that he too was wounded at Peters­burg on July 30th, 1864 and was hos­pi­tal­ized for over a year at Portsmouth, Vir­ginia. The gov­ern­ment owed him a $100 en­list­ment bounty.

The only known sol­dier killed in ac­tion from Ce­cil County among the United States Colored troops that fate­ful day in July, 150 years ago, is Pri­vate Charles H.B. Thomas. Like Pri­vate Rick­etts, there are no pre-war pub­lic records about Thomas. How­ever, the mil­i­tary records in­di­cate only that he was first de­clared miss­ing in ac­tion, then dead as of Novem­ber, 1864.

In 1866, a “Burial Corp” con­sist­ing of 100 men was formed to re­trieve the bod­ies buried on and around the Peters­burg bat­tle­field. It was dur­ing this process that the re­mains of Pri­vate Thomas were lo­cated, in­terred, and marked with a mar­ble stone in what would be­come Po­plar Grove Na­tional Ceme­tery, just out­side of the city.

And so, we re­mem­ber Pri­vates Jaynes, Wes­ley, Rick­etts, and Thomas for their ser­vice, their sac­ri­fice, and their brav­ery. They put their lives on the line to pre­serve the Union and free the mil­lions of men and women, who, like them, were African Amer­i­can free­dom seek­ers, both north and south.


A Na­tional Archives photo of the af­ter­math of the Bat­tle of the Crater.


A July 1863 draw­ing of the Bat­tle of the Crater done by A.R. Waud.


The grave­stone for Pvt. Charles H.B. Thomas, a USCT sol­dier, is seen at the Po­plar Grove Na­tional Ceme­tery in Vir­ginia.

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