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Tucker’s Marine Brigade
Confederate States Marine Corps
From Drewry’s Bluff to Appomattox Court House1865
by Ray Davidson
In 1998, Confederate States Marines Charles Cleaper, James Hicks and Joe Johnson names finally were added to the exhibit on Black Confederates at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. A tribute and belated honor to a story worth telling of grey coated warriors that served to the honor of the Corps.
Cleaper, Hicks and Johnson enlisted in the Confederate Marine Corps in Charleston, South Carolina and served aboard the Confederate States Ship (CSS) Chicora until March 1865. The Confederate States Marine Corps (CSMC), as well as the Confederate States Navy, authorized recruitment of one black for every five whites recruited. These Marines and sailors served alongside their white counterparts in integrated units. Several skilled pilots on Confederate gunboats were “men of color” and held an officers rank. One such pilot was Moses Dallas, who served with the Savannah Squadron from 1862 to 1864. A letter from the Savannah Squadron Commander to the Secretary of the Navy gives us a small glimpse of the value of blacks to the Confederate Navy:
“I have also been compelled to increase the pay of Moses Dallas from $80 to $100 per month in order to retain him. He is a colored pilot and is considered the best inland pilot on the coast.”
Later Dallas was on the expedition that captured the Federal gunboat USS Water Witch on the rainy night of June 3-4, 1864. He was among six Confederates killed in action during the firefight that erupted as they boarded the ship. Another black Confederate Naval Officer, Ben Newell, piloted the captured gunboat back to harbor.
In early spring 1865 the Union Army was making a concerted effort to capture Richmond, the Southern capitol and defeat Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. All Confederate States Marines along the east coast were ordered to Drewry’s Bluff for defense of Richmond.
The only obstacle that protected Richmond from a river approach was Fort Darling on Drewry's Bluff, overlooking a sharp bend on the James River their eight cannons in the fort, including field artillery pieces and five naval guns, some salvaged from the Virginia, commanded the river for miles in both directions. Guns from the CSS Patrick Henry, including an 8-inch smoothbore, were just upriver and sharpshooters gathered on the river banks. An underwater obstruction of sunken steamers, pilings, debris, and other vessels connected by chains was placed just below the bluff, making it difficult for vessels to maneuver in the narrow river.
Blunting previous Union nautical assaults Drewry’s Bluff remained an integral part of Richmond's defense until the fall of Petersburg and Richmond in 1865. The garrison at Drewry's Bluff took part in the evacuation of Richmond and Petersburg. Once Fort Darling had been abandoned by the retreating Confederates, the Union forces quickly cleared a path through the obstructions in the James River beneath Drewry's Bluff. On April 4 President Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad passed the fort on the way up the James River to visit Richmond.
BATTLE OF SAYLER’S CREEK
At Drewry’s Bluff, Cleaper, Hicks and Johnson and the men of the Charleston Squadron joined with remnants of the Wilmington (NC) Squadron and Virginia based personnel to form "Tucker’s Marine Brigade" that was named after its commander, Commodore John R. Tucker.
The Battle of Sayler's Creek was fought April 6, 1865, southwest of Petersburg. Tucker’s Marine Brigade had joined up with two Confederate divisions led by Maj. Generals Curtis Lee and Joseph B. Kershaw. These two divisions made up nearly one fourth of the retreating Confederate army. At Sayler’s creek they were cut off by Sheridan's cavalry and elements of the Union II and VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
Tucker’s Marine Brigade was the only Confederate unit that didn’t break under the first Federal charge. After repulsing the charge, the Brigade – numbering 300 to 400 men, was surrounded by six Union divisions. Tucker would not surrender and counterattacked, smashing the 37th Massachusetts Infantry into fragments and tearing into the 2nd Rhode Island in hand to hand combat.
Withdrawing to a wooded area, these Confederate Marines repulsed multiple Federal attacks. Tucker’s Brigade was resilient and did so much damage that the Federal generals estimated the "Marine Brigade" to number some 2,000 men. Tucker was ultimately talked into surrendering towards the end of the day.
Note: The Slayer’s Creek battlefield was designated a national Historic Landmark in 1985.
APPOMATTOX COURT HOUSE AND THE LEGACY
The remnants of Tucker’s Brigade; four Confederate States Marine Corps officers and 21 enlisted Marines withdrew to Appomattox and surrendered with General Lee on April 9, 1865. The ranking Confederate Marine Officer was 1stLt Richard Henderson (former USMC Commandant Gen. Archibald Henderson’s son). Standing proudly with Henderson were Charles Cleaper, James Hicks and Joe Johnson, “free men of color” who served with distinction as Confederate States Marines.