Newport-News, Va. Sept. 1st, 1864.
Sir, I have the honor to report that some Government employees (colored) came up here from Fort Monroe and Hampton Hospitals, having been allowed a short leave of absence for the purpose of getting their families if possible. I told them I had no boats, but would help them with men. They reappeared the next day with sailboats. I sent with them a Captain and 15 men (dismounted Cavalry). The families were in and about Smithfield. I gave them strict instructions to abstain from plundering–to injure no one if possible–to get the women and children merely, and come away as promptly as possible. They were to land in the night. They followed these directions closely: but became delayed by the numbers of women and children anxious to follow, whom they packed in extra boats, picked up there, and towed along. They also had to contend against a head tide, and wind calm. So that their progress down Smithfield Creek in the early morn was exceedingly slow. The inhabitants evidently gathered in from some concerted plan of alarm or signals. For, 3 miles below, the party were intercepted by a force of irregular appearance, numbering about 100–having horses and dogs with them;–armed variously with shot guns, rifles, &c, and posted behind old breastworks with some hurried additions. They attacked the leading boats, killed a man and woman, and wounded another woman therein. The contrabands then rowed over to the opposite bank and scattered over the marshes. How many more have been slaughtered we know not. Two (2) men have since escaped to us singly.– When the rear boats, containing the soldiers, came up, the Captain landed, with the design of attacking the rebels. But then the firing revealed their full numbers. He found they outnumbered him, more than 6 to 1, and that the REVOLVERS of our Cavalry, in open boats or on the open beach, would stand no chance against their rifles behind breastworks. He embarked again, and they made their way past the danger, by wading his men behind the boats, having the baggage and bedding piled up like a barricade. They then had a race with 3 boats, which put out from side creeks to cut them off. But for the coolness and ingenuity of Capt. Whiteman, none would have escaped. None of the soldiers are known to have been severely wounded; but 3 are missing in the marshes and woods. We have since learned that there are signal Stations in that neighborhood–which ought to be brooken up. I would also earnestly recommend the burning of a dozen or 20 houses in accordance with your General Order No. 23.1 Very respectfully Your obt. Servant
Edwd A. Wild
1. On August 20, 1864, General George F. Shepley, commander of the District of Eastern Virginia, ordered that Confederate guerrillas thereafter captured in North Carolina north of Albemarle Sound and south and east of the Chowan River were to be treated as spies and not prisoners of war, and that citizens who aided the guerrillas would be imprisoned and, with permission from his headquarters, their houses burned. (General Orders No. 23, Head Quarters, District of Eastern Virginia, 20 Aug. 1864, Orders & Circulars, series 44, Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives.)
Published in The Destruction of Slavery, pp. 98–99, in Free at Last, pp. 122–23, in Freedom's Soldiers, pp.129–31, and in Families and Freedom, pp. 47–48.