Commander of a Black Brigade to the Headquarters of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina and the 18th Army Corps

Wilson's Wharf, James River [Va.]  May 12th 64

Sir–  Not being in the habit of accepting rebuke for acts not committed, and feeling that I can judge of “the qualities becoming to a man or a Soldier” quite as well as I can be informed by Brig. Genl. Edwd. W. Hinks in such a letter as the above, I have the honor to forward it, together with this, my protest, through Division Hd. qrs. for the consideration of the Major General Commanding the Department–

I protest against the whole tone of the above letter, as unbecoming and unjust; as being full of harsh rebuke, administered before even making any inquiry; and therefore, as pre-judging cases against me, and taking for granted, that “acts perpetrated” by me are necessarily “barbarous and cruel” not admitting the possibility of any justification; nor the probability of any excuse–

I have the honor to submit the following statement of facts–

On Friday May 6th I sent a party to surprise a Rebel Signal Station at Sandy Point.  The party at the Station numbered 10 men,  on being driven from the house they run into a swamp, directly upon one of my detachments, forming part of the trap–  after considerable resistance, the Capture was complete,  5 Rebels were Killed, 3 wounded and 2 Caught,  the dead were properly buried on the spot, the wounded and Prisoners were brought into camp and afterwards sent down to Fortress Monroe.  The 10 guns were brought into camp,  according to the nicest discrimination they were classed thus–8 Soldiers and 2 citizens of whom 1 citizen was killed and 1 wounded.  In this affair great credit is due to Capt. Eagle and Lt. Price 1st U.S.C.T. for skillfully carrying out the Plans.

On Monday Morning May 9th before daylight I sent a party to surprise a Squad of Rebel's who had been playing the Guerrilla, and attacked us three times,  learning that they were passing the night at a Certain house I sent thither to take them; but being misinformed as to the distance, my party did not arrive till day.  The Rebels 11 in number, made a stand, in good order under an officer in uniform, (said to be an adjutant)   Our mounted advance party consisting only of 5 charged upon the 11 killed one, wounded another, run them into a bit of a swamp, and then waited for the main body to come up, but the rebels had passed through the swamp, and in two Boats crossed the Chicahominy,  The Citizen Killed proved luckily to be Wilcox, the owner of the house, and the Enrolling Officer of the District.  He was properly buried in the Yard,  His house was burned.  In this affair Major Cook 22d U.S.C.T. deserves credit for his boldness, and especially I would mention Henry Harris a Colored Sergeant of Capt. Choate's 2d U.S.C. Baty. for the daring he displayed,  I wish it to be distinctly understood by Brig. Genl. Hinks that I shall continue to Kill Guerrillas, and Rebels offering armed resistance Whether they style themselves Citizens or Soldiers–

On Tuesday May 10th William H. Clopton, was brought in by the Pickets.  He had been actively disloyal so that I held him as Prisoner of War, and have sent him as such to Fortress Monroe.  He has acquired a notoriety as the most cruel Slave Master in this region, but in my presence he put on the character of a Snivelling Saint.  I found half a dozen women among our refugees, whom he had often whipped unmercifully, even baring their whole persons for the purpose in presence of Whites and Blacks.  I laid him bare and putting the whip into the hands of the Women, three of Whom took turns in settling some old scores on their masters back.  A black Man, whom he had abused finished the administration of Poetical justice, and even in this scene the superior humanity of the Blacks over their white master was manifest in their moderation and backwardness.  I wish that his back had been as deeply scarred as those of the women, but I abstained and left it to them–  I wish it to be distinctly understood by Brig. Genl. Hinks that I shall do the same thing again under similar circumstances.  I forgot to state that this Clopton is a high minded Virginia Gentleman, living for many years next door to the late John Tyler ExPresident of the U.S. and then and still intimate with his family.

And now as this is the second time that Brig. Genl. Hinks, has invoked the rules of Civilized warfare, and enjoined upon us the excercise of magnanimity and forbearance, I would respectfully inquire, for my own information and Guidance, whether it has been definitely arranged that Black Troops shall exchange courtesies with Rebel Soldiers? and if so on which side, such courtesies are expected to commence, and whether any guaranties have been offered on the part of the Rebels calculated to prove satisfactory and reassuring to the African Mind?  Very Respectfully Your Obt. Sert

(Signed)  Edwd. A. Wild

Brig. Genl. Edwd. A. Wild to Maj. Robert S. Davis, 12 May 1864, copied in endorsement by Brig. Genl. [Edward W. Hinks], 13 May 1864, vol. 34/66 1/4 25AC, pp. 40–42, Endorsements Sent, series 1662, 3rd Division 18th Army Corps, U.S. Army Continental Commands, Record Group 393 Pt. 2 No. 73, National Archives. On May 11, 1864, General Edward W. Hinks, commander of the 3rd Division of the 18th Army Corps, had ordered Wild to report the circumstances attending the death of a citizen at the hands of his brigade and the whipping of another citizen prisoner in his camp, averring “the seeming impossibility of any justification for the one, and the extreme improbability of any excuse for the other.” Hinks had warned Wild: “I wish it to be distinctly understood that I will not countenance, Sanction or permit any Conduct on the part of my command not in accordance with the principles recognized for . . . modern warfare between Civilized Nations, and for any departure from these rules all officers concerned will be held individually accountable. Barbarism and cruelty to persons in our power are not among the qualities that are becoming to a man or a Soldier.” (Vol. 33/66 1/2 25AC, p. 13, Letters Sent, series 1659, 3rd Division 18th Army Corps, U.S. Army Continental Commands, Record Group 393 Pt. 2 No. 73, National Archives.) Hinks forwarded Wild's response to General Benjamin F. Butler, commander of the 18th Army Corps and the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, requesting in an endorsement that Butler either court-martial Wild or relieve him of command and examine him “to determine and report upon his soundness of mind.” The following month, a court-martial found Wild guilty of disobedience of orders and suspended him from rank and pay for six months. During the trial, Wild challenged the legality of the proceedings because the court included no officers who, like himself, commanded black soldiers, and also because some members of the court were his junior in rank. On July 18, 1864, less than a month after judgment was rendered, Butler reversed the conviction, observing that he had “found a prejudice among some officers, now happily dying out, so strong, inveterate, and deep rooted, that in his judgement after mature reflection, such officers would not form an impartial tribunal for the trial of an officer in command of Color'd Troops.” Such attitudes had prompted Butler to issue an order in December 1863, requiring that a majority of any court-martial trying an officer in command of black troops be composed of other officers commanding black troops. (Proceedings of general court-martial in the case of Brig. Gen. E. A. Wild, 18th Army Corps, 28 June–30 July 1864, LL-2249, Court-Martial Case Files, series 15, Office of the Judge Advocate General (Army), Record Group 153, National Archives.)

Published in The Destruction of Slavery, pp. 95–98; an excerpt appears in Free at Last, pp. 115–16.