“… when colored soldiers, seeking the ‘bauble-reputation at the cannon’s mouth,’ performed great and uncommon service on the battlefield, they should be rewarded by distinction and promotion, precisely as white soldiers are rewarded for like services.” Frederick Douglass – Abolitionist, Statesman & Former Slave (From first White House interview with President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, concerning black rights)
That Was Then…
Some 150 years in the wake of Frederick Douglass’ landmark interviews with President Abraham Lincoln, on a nippy weekend morning before Veteran’s Day, 2013, I experienced the overwhelming urge to visit an important Civil War battle ground site where black Union troops had fought with lasting distinction.
The site was not far from where I live in Henrico County, near the Varina district, on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. So, on that brisk, invigoratingly cool Saturday morning, along with my wife and one of my grandsons, I hopped in my pickup truck and set out on another one of my favorite retirement adventures, a history-oriented road trek back to colonial times.
As the blended rust-orange, red-and-yellowed Autumn leaves trickled down, as if by invitation, the teasing breeze seemed to work in tandem with the scenic rural roadway. It covered the approaches to this hallowed ground, like magical snowflakes in the fall. But, it really wasn’t too difficult to locate, since I often passed its related roadside marker. It was the kind of commemorative plaque I’ve seen many times, as a former public utility investigator, traveling many miles– and, a few centuries– deep inside the colonial countryside of Virginia and North Carolina– seemingly with never enough time to stop.
Yet, this particular scenic route– Virginia’s State Route 5 (dubbed the Virginia Plantation and Battlefield route), coupled with U.S. Route 17 (which linked the Great Dismal Swamp and many of the “missing pages” to Western Hemispheric Maroon Societies and runaway slave life, from southeastern Virginia and North Carolina to Florida and Northeast Brazil) was strikingly inviting and among the most memorable landscaping I’ve been blessed to witness. The bright Virginia fall foliage was simply icing on the cake.
This is Now?
This specific Civil War site– commemorating the Battle of New Market Heights— often loomed large within my mind, from my years of independent studies in Black History. This was due to the relatively large number of black wartime heroes spawned by this single bloody encounter. In spite of the loathing many Southerners held for them, it was always interesting to me, in view of the prevalent racism which seeped into Antebellum streets and Civil War battlefields, how (and why) they fought for their equal rights- and dignity– within an ideologically white society, still bent on teaching “…negroes their proper places,”
For example, take this recent Richmond Times-Dispatch posting (November 6, 2013), from its series called “The Civil War 150th: On This Date in 1863.” It read:
“Yesterday morning the Mayor called the attention of his police to the ordinance concerning negroes in the streets, and directed the chief to enforce it rigidly …. By this ordinance negroes are commanded to give the sidewalks and crossings to white persons — they are to walk on the outside of the footway, and, if necessary to make room for white persons, they are to go into the carriageway. (If this section is enforced, ladies will not be rudely run against by mulatto wenches, who have become exceedingly insolent.) It prohibits the assembling in the streets of more than five negroes, and makes it a punishable offence for them to congregate and loiter about their churches on Sundays or other times. Any violation of this ordinance is punishable by the lash at the whipping post; and for the sake of decency and good order it is to be hoped that the police will … teach negroes their proper places.”
That was the profound reality for black soldiers and black citizenry back then, and other times in our nation’s history, as we proudly wore various armed forces uniforms, adorned with military patches– and, the American flag— in the ongoing fight for freedom, as well as equality and dignity. But, over the years, my personal experiences with racism, and the various slights and indignities I’ve run across, have helped me to further understand the battles my ancestors fought within racially hostile environments, military and civilian.
Accordingly, I often thought of the Battle of New Market Heights, since the dates of the Civil War skirmish coincide with the month and day I was born. But, a local newspaper’s recent drip-drip-drip of daily Civil War commentaries and dispatches, promoting the valor of white soldiers, had become a bit much for my sense of taste. Especially gnawing was the missing footnotes of black Civil War valor. It whetted my appetite for the raw backstory I often look for while thinking through America’s past, not found in classroom history books. So, all of a sudden, the often obscure roadside marker, especially at 55 m.p.h., came into view that morning, overshadowing any plans I had for that day.
“Footnotes” to a Backstory…
When I found the marker, a closer examination of this nearly inconspicuous highway sign revealed the following narrative:
“On 28 September 1864, elements of Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James crossed the James River to assault the Confederate Defense of Richmond. At dawn on 29 September, 6 regiments of U.S. Colored Troops fought with exceptional valor during their attack along New Market Road. Despite heavy casualties, they carried the earthworks there and succeeded in capturing New Market Heights, north of the road. Of the 16 Medals of Honor awarded to ‘Negro’ soldiers during the Civil War, 14 were bestowed for this battle. Butler wrote that ‘the capacity of the negro race for soldiers had then and there been fully settled forever.'”
Impressive. But, I still wasn’t satisfied. In fact, I was a little irked that the “footnotes” documenting the backstory to this significant battle was not mentioned. At least, it was a backdrop significant to me and probably many other African-American military veterans and their families, as well as the families of many white veterans who fought courageously during this encounter. The seemingly dirty little secret to this battle, in my opinion, was not just the suppressed history of the Medals of Honor awarded to black soldiers, but the vulgar events which led up to this attack, as well.
Some historians call it “the revenge for Fort Pillow.” But, that battle, the Battle at Fort Pillow (a.k.a., the “Fort Pillow Massacre”) was simply an ugly mass slaughter of black and white troops. It took place on April 12, 1864, at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, about 4 hours west of Chattanooga (TN), where my mother was born, and 4 hours southwest from my own birthplace in Frankfort, Kentucky. To me, it was the missing “footnote” to the Battle of New Market Heights.
The War Within…
When you dig deep into the nation’s psyche, during the Civil War, it becomes readily apparent that Southern soldiers, and the Confederacy they fought for, often viewed black Union Troops, like the “United States Colored Troops” (USCT), with disdain and contempt. Many considered it their mission, in fact, their “Christian duty”— and personal marching orders from their families– to “execute” black soldiers whenever they could, void of any mercies or civil treatment mandated by prevailing Rules of War at the time. Many atrocities were recorded. In fact, according to James S. Price (Author of “The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs By The Sword”), “The Confederacy viewed the use of United States Colored Troops as ‘inciting
servile insurrection,’ which was a nightmare come true for anyone who could remember back to what Nat Turner and John Brown had done.”
Regardless of what Southern whites called them, both (Turner and Brown) were Abolitionists– “freedom fighters,” in my book– who rebelled against the disgusting horror and harshness of slavery. In the process, many whites were killed for the cause of freedom that Turner and Brown believed in. In my opinion, it was like another war within the nation’s war with itself, before the terrible military aggression and cultural conflict, between the North and South, even began. So, like flag bearers of Union Regiments, black Union Troops were forever in the crosshairs of Southern rifles and muskets.
In fact, according to Civil War archives, in 1863, “the Confederate Congress threatened to punish severely officers of black troops and to enslave black soldiers. As a result, President Lincoln issued General Order 233, threatening reprisal on Confederate prisoners of war (POWs) for any mistreatment of black troops.” Yet, overall, black soldiers that were captured were still treated more harshly than white captives.Clearly, racists and racism were not elements foreign to Civil War battlefields.
A Black Battle Cry is Born
According to archives, except for General William T. Sherman’s storied invasion of Georgia, black troops took part in every major military campaign, in 1864 and 1865. However, it was at Fort Pillow, Tennessee that the battle cry of black soldiers, this side of the Mississippi River, became “Remember Fort Pillow!” Without a doubt, it was a massacre. The 292 black and 285 white Union troops, a mix of runaway slaves who manned artillery batteries and white cavalry units, which occupied the Union-held fortification, faced some 2,500 seasoned Confederate troops, led by General Nathan B. Forrest, who swarmed the fort and drove Union defenders into a deadly crossfire, allegedly under a fake flag of truce. Reportedly, only 62 of the black troops survived. Depending on which of the varying version you review, most of the Union soldiers were killed as they surrendered. Most of the surviving white Union troops later died in prisons.
Civil War archives say that “Abraham Lincoln condemned the atrocity” but refused to agree to Union political demands that an equal number of Confederate prisoners should be executed in an act of revenge. In the official post-war investigation that followed, it was found that “the Confederates were guilty of atrocities which included murdering most of the garrison after it surrendered, burying soldiers alive, and setting fire to tents containing Federal wounded.” The South’s innovative Lt. General that led the assault– Nathan Bedford “Devil” Forrest— was recorded as never prosecuted for the war crimes, but later became the first Imperial Wizard of the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan (Andrew Ward, River Run Red: “The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War,” New York: Viking Press, 2005). Confederate casualties were estimated at no more than 18 (86 were listed as wounded).
Although later denied, Forrest reportedly boasted that the Mississippi River was “dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards,” while his field commander bragged that the massacre taught “the mongrel garrison” a memorable lesson, according to Ward (“River Run Red”).
Black Valor, Black Honor… Black Pride
Yet, one Confederate soldier, moved to sympathy after witnessing the bravery of black soldiers facing certain death in their charge, wrote that “in my opinion, no troops to that time had fought us with more bravery
than did those negroes.” The vicious battle, which actually took place at Chaffin’s Farm, at New Market Heights, was later listed in Civil War archives “as one of the most heroic engagements involving African-Americans.” After being pinned down by Confederate artillery fire for about 30 minutes, black soldiers charged the earthworks, rushing up the slopes of the heights, suffering tremendous casualties. Fourteen (14) Medals of Honor were later bestowed to them for this battle, among the 16 Medals of Honor awarded to black soldiers for the entire Civil War period.
It was significant within African-Americans gaining new rights during the Reconstruction Era. It formed part of the reason why Frederick Douglass noted, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” By some accounts, at the end of the Civil War, some 178,000 blacks had volunteered to serve in the Union Army, making up 10% of the army, forming 135 infantry regiments, 6 regiments of cavalry, 1 light artillery regiment, 13 heavy artillery regiments and one independent artillery battery. Another 19,000 served in the Navy. Some 40,000 died:
…In spite of the racism …in spite of the harsh treatment …in spite the daily onslaught of various indignities … in spite of the times… in spite of the “Fort Pillow Massacre” and other bloodbaths…
And, in spite of the many buried footnotes and “missing pages” of our nation’s complex and bloody history, the unsung sacrifices of black Union Troops, and other veterans that preceded me, black or white, still brings tears to my eyes, as well as a powerful swelling of pride.
That’s why I felt the compelling urge, on that invigoratingly cool Saturday morning, to visit the New Market Heights battleground site.
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