The 23rd Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry were instrumental in the American Civil War and was the first of the Colored Troops to engage Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army in direct combat. The 23rd were also helpful in liberating slaves held by the southern states and offering protection to those they helped go free.
The battle between Gen. Lee’s army and the 23rd took place on May 15, 1864 in Spotsylvania, Virginia. The 23rd was joined by members of the 30th Colored Infantry in beating back an advancement made by Confederate forces by Gen. Thomas L. Rosser. As the white Union Army soldiers were close to being overtaken, the colored infantrymen pushed Gen. Rosser’s men into retreat and took control of an important roadway.
While the skirmish was brief, it helped white Union officers and soldiers realize that Black soldiers belonged on the battlefield. Many of the U.S. Colored Troops were former slaves, and saw the war as an opportunity to liberate others from what they faced. In an account of the Spotsylvania battle, it was said the first shots fired in the clash were from former slaves who were now troop members.
The 23rd were involved in other major Civil War battles, including the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Virginia, which was depicted in the 2003 Hollywood film, Cold Mountain. The 23rd also supported Gen. Ulysses S. Grant when his forces made Gen. Lee surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse battle in April 1865.
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