By A. Peter Bailey Special from Trice-Edney News Wire
Editor’s Note: The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which promotes, preserves and researches the history and culture of African Americans, set the annual 2011 Black History Month theme as “African Americans and the Civil War.” This is the second in a four-part series on the theme.
When I accepted, in 1986, the position of sports information director at Virginia Union University, a historically Black institution in Richmond, Va., I was not aware of the Black history gold mine located in the former capital of the Confederacy.
For me, the most notable nugget was Thomas Morris Chester, the only Black Civil War correspondent. From August 1864 through June 1865, Chester covered Black Union troops for a newspaper called The Philadelphia Press. From his book, “Thomas Morris Chester, Black Civil War Correspondent,” I first became aware that Black Union soldiers, on Monday, April 3, 1865, were the first to enter into a defeated Richmond, which had been hurriedly evacuated by Confederate government officials the day before.
Those warriors must have been bursting with pride as they marched victoriously into the capital of the enslavers, a place from which some of them had been sold as children and teenagers.
I was mesmerized when reading Chester’s vivid and detailed account of that historic occasion. Excerpts from his dispatches are as follows:
“Bervet Brigadier General Draper’s brigade of colored troops, Brevet Major General Kautz’s division, were the first infantry to enter Richmond. The gallant 36th U.S. Colored Troops, under Lieutenant Colonel B.F. Pratt, has the honor of being the first regiment. Captain Bicnnef’s company has the pride of leading the advance…In passing over the rebel works, we moved very cautiously in single file, for fear of exploding the innumerable torpedoes which were planted in front. So far as I can learn none has been exploded, and no one has been injured by those infernal machines. The soldiers were soon, under engineers, carefully digging them up and making the passage way beyond the fear of casualties.
Along the road which the troops marched, or rather double quicked, batches of negroes were gathered together testifying by unmistakable signs their delight at our coming. Rebel soldiers who had hid themselves when their army moved came out of the bushes, and gave themselves up as disgusted with the service….For marching or fighting Draper’s 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 25th Corps, is not to be surpassed in the service, and the General honors it with a pride and a consciousness which aspire him to undertake cheerfully whatever may be committed to his execution. It was his brigade that nipped the flower of the Southern army, the Texas Brigade, under Gary, which never before last September knew defeat. There may be others who may claim the distinction of being the first to enter the city, but as I was ahead of every part of the force but the cavalry, which of necessity must lead the advance, I know whereof I affirm when I announce that General Draper’s brigade was the first organization to enter the city limits. According to custom, it should constitute the provost guard of Richmond.”
Chester’s total contempt for what he called “man sellers” is reflected in his observation that “There were many persons in the better-class houses who were peeping out the windows, and