Beyond the Bounds of Our Days: Garland White and the Taking of Richmond in April 1865

Today’s post features an extraordinary letter from Chaplain Garland H. White of the 28th U.S. Colored Troops that describes his regiment’s entry into Richmond in April 1865.
Garland White was born a slave in 1829 in Hanover Co., Virginia; he was soon sold to Robert Toombs of Georgia and was Toombs’ body servant while Toombs served in the U.S. Senate through the 1850s. White attempted to escape in 1850 while in Washington, D.C. but was quickly caught by slave catchers. He escaped later in the 1850s and made his way to Canada where he became a minister to the African Methodist Episcopal church of London, Ontario. Following the outbreak of the Civil War and the cessation of enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, White returned to the U.S. and took up residence in Toledo, Ohio. White devoted his efforts to his church and to recruiting black soldiers for the Union war effort, canvassing the state to raise men for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments. Governor Oliver Morton of Indiana took note of White’s efforts and requested his help with raising what became the 28th U.S. Colored Troops.
The 28th U.S. Colored Troops served in the eastern theater while attached to the Army of the Potomac and took part in the siege of Petersburg and the Battle of the Crater in July 1864. It was later assigned to duty at the army supply depot at City Point, Virginia before being assigned to the newly formed 25th Army Corps under the command of Major General Godfrey Weitzel. As the Confederate defenses at Petersburg collapsed in late March and early April 1865, General Weitzel was directed to take the city of Richmond. As related in White’s letter, the men expected to have to make a desperate assault on the Confederate fortifications but were surprised to find that the Confederates had retreated, leaving the city open to occupation by the 25th Army Corps.
White and black soldiers photographed in front of the U.S. Christian Commission in Richmond, Virginia in 1865
(Library of Congress)

The occupation of Richmond was a tremendous occasion for Chaplain White for a host of reasons as related in this letter. It no doubt served as a bit of sweet justice as he had been sold in the city of Richmond to Robert Toombs many years prior; to now return in Federal uniform as a conqueror of the powers that once enslaved him must have been a heady feeling.  But perhaps most poignantly was an event not described in this letter. As related in an account to the Christian Recorder, Garland was reunited with his mother who he had not seen for many years. “I cannot express the joy I felt at this happy meeting of my mother and other friends,” he wrote.
Chaplain White was a frequent correspondent to the Christian Recorder newspaper, but this account saw print in the April 21, 1865 edition of the Daily Toledo Blade.

City Point, Virginia
April 15, 1865
            Mr. J.C. Greiner,

            It is with great pleasure that I seat myself to write you a few lines to inform you that the regiment is generally well.

            If there be one poor mortal in the world who should rejoice over the fall of Richmond more than another, it is me; for by it I am satisfied to my heart’s content. Never did I witness such a day in all my life. The Sunday night previous to going into the city, we were called into line of battle and rested upon our arms during the greater part of the night with the knowledge of having to make a charge at 4 a.m. on Monday. Just before the awful hour arrived, we heard a mighty convulsion beneath the earth and a great illumination of the heavens above as though the last day of time’s existence had come. At this juncture, the drum tapped, and 30,000 colored troops sprang to their feet, ready for the awful contest.  

We were for a while unable to determine the real cause of what we had seen and heard, but before we could definitely ascertain the true nature of the case, we received orders to move toward the mighty works in our front and carry out the first order. Bear in mind that in doing so we only had to advance about half a mile before discovering that the enemy had preferred to fight white troops instead of black troops and had removed all to Petersburg to oppose the Army of the Potomac.
Ruins of the Exchange Bank in Richmond
(Library of Congress)
            On reaching their first line of fortifications, it was plainly to be seen that they had left in great haste and not carried off anything with them- tents, pots, kettles, cornmeal, old clothes, guns, bayonets, everything that constituted the Rebel outfit, were lying in great quantity all along the road to the city of Richmond. You could not tell that they had evacuated by the appearance of anything in their lines, and this was intended to make us believe that they were ready for battle. We expected to have a fight at every point until we reached the city. 

On approaching the city, we saw dense columns of smoke and fire rising far above the buildings and threatening to lay the whole place in ruins. We paid no attention to the destroying element at this juncture for we were in search for the broken fragments of Lee’s army which constituted a large proportion of the remaining inhabitants and could not be detected until the colored people pointed them out to the soldiers. It was a great sight to see a colored man arrest a white man in Richmond, where slave pens and whipping stocks are looked upon as popular places. 

The march of the colored troops up Broad Street to Camp Lee, passing through the prominent parts of the city all singing “John Brown’s body” was a proud one. It was a great and glorious day to be remembered by all who witnessed it. We of the old 28th colored regiment and other troops explained to the poorly-clad slaves who stood in the streets in numbers that no man could number that we had left our homes in the far distant North to come and break the chains that bound them, and to open the doors of every slave pen and bid the inmates to come out and be forever free under the flag they saw flying in the midst of the colored troops.
When I had been called upon by the brave white and colored troops of the 25th Corps to make this announcement, the boys rushed to all the slave pens (five in number) and with the hands that caused Richmond to fall, opened the doors, never to be shut upon one of our race. Out sprang 1,000, some being mothers with babes in their arms who have never seen sunlight. The demonstrations of joy manifested upon the part of the freed persons can never be described. I have been a slave and read a great deal about slavery, but to hear those people tell what they suffered during the war is enough to make me almost willing to deny ever having lived in a country where such atrocious crimes were perpetrated upon a portion of humanity.
Soldiers and civilians in front of the African M.E. Church in Richmond, Virginia
(Library of Congress)

I am sorry to say that the prejudice between the white and colored troops is greater than at any stage of the rebellion. The former can’t bear to have it said that the colored troops took Richmond, but I know it is so for I was there and saw myself and on the 3rd of April 1865 delivered the first speech asserting the rights of colored people that was ever heard in the streets of Richmond. There are many things connected with this campaign which are of very great interest to all colored men, but I cannot tell the fourth part. I will merely add that I believe the day has broke and the sun begins to shine. I am glad in my heart that I joined the army. It has been the most important schooling our people ever had, and its effects will be seen and felt beyond the bounds of our days.

G.H. White,
Chaplain, 28th U.S.C.I.


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