This rare portrait of African American troops serving in battle during the Civil War depicts the 30th United States Colored Infantry at the Battle of the Crater, at Petersburg, Virginia. The regiment was composed of African American enlisted men commanded by white officers and was authorized by the Bureau of Colored Troops which was created by the United States War Department on May 22, 1863.
The Battle of the Crater, July 30th, 1864, was part of the Siege of Petersburg, fought between the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee and the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade (under the direct supervision of the general-in-chief, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant).
At the top of the painting, Colonel Delevan Bates raises his saber to lead the charge of the 30th United States Colored Infantry. Bates was promoted to this command just prior to this battle, having served with distinction in the 121st New York Infantry at the Battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Though the Battle of the Crater would eventually be won by the Confederacy, it was here that Bates and 23 other troops would be award the United States highest award for bravery during combat, the Medal of Honor.
After weeks of preparation, on July 30, Union forces exploded a mine in Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's IX Corps sector, blowing a gap in the Confederate defenses of Petersburg, Virginia. From this propitious beginning, everything deteriorated rapidly for the Union attackers. Unit after unit charged into and around the crater, where soldiers milled in confusion. Grant considered the assault "the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war." The Confederates quickly recovered and launched several counterattacks led by Brig. Gen. William Mahone. The breach was sealed off, and Union forces were repulsed with severe casualties. Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero's division of black soldiers were badly mauled. This may have been Grant's best chance to end the Siege of Petersburg. Instead, the soldiers settled in for another eight months of trench warfare. Burnside was relieved of command for the last time for his role in the debacle, and he was never again returned to command.
Bates was seriously wounded in the battle but survived the war, mustering out honorably in December 1865. He eventually moved back to New York, married and had a family, and was a merchant and shopkeeper.
A full account of the battle and a full page illustration of this painting was published in the book, "Deeds of Valor" in 1903.
Though the work is signed, we consider it an attribution to Abbott Fuller Graves, as it is unclear if the work was done by him or another artist of the same surname. However, another battle scene illustration by Abbott Fuller Graves has come up in the past, which appears to be done by the same hand.
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