Image Courtesy of the Pamplin Historical Park
Photographic images of Civil War soldiers are not difficult to find. Period photographers’ ability to produce calling card sized images—carte de visites, or CDVs—made giving out one’s image the popular thing to do. Thousands of images of soldiers, both Union and Confederate, circulated during the four year conflict.
One CDV image, seemingly like so many others upon first glance, captures the likeness of Captain Charles V. York of the 6th United States Colored Infantry (USCI). But, like all photographs, there is a story behind the person pictured on it.
Charles York was 25 years old when he enrolled in the 6th USCI on August 8, 1863, in Washington DC. York had prior experience as a sergeant in the 10th New York Heavy Artillery. Like other white officers commanding black troops, he was required to pass an examination. The intent of these examinations was to determine the fitness of the candidate to lead African American soldiers, and to weed out those just looking for a quick promotion. York passed and received a commission as 1st lieutenant.
York’s first responsibility with the 6th USCI was as adjutant. His duties included writing orders and keeping the regiment’s records. However, on March 24, 1864, York received a promotion to captain, commanding Company B. He participated in the fighting on June 15, 1864, which opened Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s first offensive of the Petersburg Campaign. The 6th experienced its first true combat at Baylor’s Farm that morning and then with the attacks by Gen. Edward Hinks’s Division on the eastern section of the Confederate Dimmock Line later that day. York appears to have survived unscathed.
However, illness struck York in August. His service records specify his ailment. Dr. Ely McClellan, York’s examining surgeon at Fort Monroe, Virginia, stated on August 20, 1864, that his patient “is now suffering from Diarrhea and extreme debility the result of exposure and fatigue.” The physician explained that York “has been incapacitated for duty for the past ten (10) days. He absolutely requires a few days rest and medical treatment to fit him for active service.”
Apparently, York’s superiors felt he overstayed his hospital visit, or at least did not follow the proper protocol to extend this recuperative stay. Because on September 23, Col. John W. Ames, commander of the 6th USCI, requested the appointment of a commission to investigate York’s absence without leave. Proceeding up the chain of command, brigade commander, Col. Samuel A. Duncan, approved the request stating, “Capt. York, tho’ now returned, has offered no explanation for his continued absence.” Finally, XVIII Corps, 3rd Division commander, Brig. Gen. Charles J. Paine, ordered on September 27 that “let charges be sent forward without delay as a Ct. Ml. [court martial] is now in session.”
That courts martial would never try Capt. York. Instead, he received a mortal wound in the savage fighting two days later, September 29, 1864, at the Battle of New Market Heights, just outside of Richmond. During the battle, Capt. John McMurray of Co. D, saw York lying beside a path through the abatis, suffering from a terrible wound. McMurray made a mental note of York’s location and continued in the advance. Returning to the spot after the fight, McMurray found York stripped of all his possessions, including his uniform. York had scribbled his name, rank, and regiment on a slip of paper and pinned it to the chest of his undershirt where it remained when McMurray found him. McMurray remembered, “His uniform, a good one, had been taken by the Johnnies, with all he had about him, including the money in his pocket, his watch, and the other things in his pockets.”
Capt. York is buried in Old Depauville Cemetery in Depauville, Jefferson County, New York. Rest in peace, soldier.