The Most Heroic Day You’ve Never Heard Of

The Most Heroic Day You’ve Never Heard Of

When I first heard of the Civil War Day of Action led by the Journal of the Civil War Era, I was ecstatic and excited at the prospect of bringing forgotten and ignored history to people. I also knew my location. It would be 156 years almost to the day of a ferocious Civil War battle marked by heroism, sacrifice, leadership, and triumph. September 29th, 1864 was the greatest day in African American military history. A day that the U.S. military and the entire nation should remember and celebrate. It, however, has not except for a few avid historians. The battle of New Market Heights has been lost to history because the vast majority of those soldiers who fought it were Black.

Several United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments fought against the Confederate army defending Richmond, Virginia in the fall of 1864. Composed of both free and former enslaved men these regiments formed the nucleus of the Union attack that fateful September morning. They fought bravely. After a hard struggle, those USCT regiments forced the enemy to retreat. Due to almost 160 years of Lost Cause historiography, racism, and intentional forgetting, most Americans have no knowledge of this Civil War battle and the pivotal role African American soldiers played. It is time to remedy this reality.

After President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863, many Black men flocked to the colors and enlisted in the Union Army. Thousands turned out to enlist across the North, even more from the seceded Southern states joined up. Led by white officers, the soldiers who fought at New Market Heights had been in the Army for over a year when the battle took place. By September 1864, they were now grizzled veterans and professional soldiers who were well trained, disciplined, and would be a part of the army that ultimately won the Civil War.

The idea of Black Americans fighting for the Union was a child of many fathers. Union generals, like John C. Fremont and Benjamin Butler, led the way by forming units of former enslaved men to fight the Confederacy as early as 1861. President Abraham Lincoln and government officials admonished them. By 1862, the cry from abolitionists, the northern Black communities, and stressed state governors needing to fill their quotas convinced Lincoln to change policy. Once emancipation was introduced, Federal officials formed Black regiments and recruited men in earnest. Almost 200,000 Black men were brought into military service and helped to secure a United States victory.[1]

In all, over 180 regiments would join the United States army to fight for not only the Union but to prove themselves as men. They also fought for the freedom of their families. Many would make up an entire corps of the Army of the James, which participated in Ulysses S. Grant’s assaults on Richmond and Petersburg.[2]

Early on the morning of 29 September 1864, USCT regiments from the Union Army of the James moved into position to attack Confederate defenses to the Southeast of Richmond, a place called New Market Heights. These units included the 4th and 6th US Colored Infantry Regiments, who would make the main assault that day.[3] The enemy was well entrenched behind fallen trees and trenches, and the Four Mile Creek ran parallel to their lines. Through the mist Union forces moved forward, got caught in the defensive line and took heavy fire from rifles and cannon. The unsupported first regiments fell back to regroup. More USCT units joined the attack and pushed forward through the trees. Private James Harris and First Sergeant Edward Ratcliff were the first to reach the trenches. Ratcliff took over the command of the company after his commanding officer was killed. First Sergeant Powhatan Beaty of the 5th USCI did the same.[4] Private James Gardiner, a member of the 36th USCI, mounted the parapet in front of the trench, shot a Confederate officer and ran him through with his bayonet before waving his comrades forward. Corporal Miles James of the 36th USCI had his arm mutilated by an enemy shot yet continued to load and fire at the enemy. Others like Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood saw their fellow comrades fall and pushed forward, seizing the regimental colors and carrying them the rest of the fight. By mid-morning the trenches were clear and the Confederates retreated to another defensive line. In the attack hundreds of men were killed or wounded, including captured Black soldiers executed by Confederate defenders, and fourteen Black men would earn Medals of Honor for their gallantry.[5]These USCT regiments played a key role in destroying the Confederacy during 1864 and 1865.

While lauded by their leaders at the time for their bravery and martial skill, USCT soldiers were given little to no formal recognition during or after the war ended. With the resurgence of white supremacist governance in the South, Jim Crow laws, and Lost Cause historiography, post-Civil War recognition of their deeds disappeared altogether. The Civil War as taught to generations of Americans became solely a white man’s war with USCT contributions erased from history.

Today, the New Market Heights battlefield is made up of private homes, small farms, and a county water treatment plant. The battlefield land is not protected like Gettysburg or Chickamauga. There are no monuments to the various USCT units or states involved. There is one historical marker located hundreds of yards west of the actual battlefield. Another newer marker has been placed along the road by the creek. The American Battlefield Trust has preserved a small portion of the battlefield where only white soldiers fought on. The lack of educational placards, maps, and an interpretive center discourages visitors. It’s among the many forgotten Civil War sites and has become lost to popular memory. Although Civil War USCT scholarship and the contribution of African Americans has increased over the years, the battlefield and those who fought there are still ignored.

It is now my mission to actively remember. It must become our mission. Through our efforts, we must ensure that their sacrifices for Union and for freedom are never forgotten again on subsequent anniversaries of their noble deeds.

[1] See Douglas, R. Egerton, Thunder At The Gates, The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

[2] Edward G. Longacre, Army of Amateurs, General Benjamin F. Butler and the Army of the James, 1863-1865 (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 1997).

[3] Edward G. Longacre, A Regiment Of Slaves, The 4th United States Colored Infantry, 1863-1866 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011).

[4] Versalle F. Washington, Eagles On Their Buttons, A Black Infantry Regiment In The Civil War (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999).

[5] James S. Price, The Battle of New Market Heights, Freedom Will Be Theirs By The Sword (Charleston: The History Press, 2011).

6 Replies to “The Most Heroic Day You’ve Never Heard Of”

  1. No surprise which portion of the field The American Battlefield Trust decided to “preserve”. They’ve been in the business of Lost Cause historiography a long time, and when I called them on it regarding their utter erasure of the charge of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg, their president resigned in disgrace.

  2. in ron chernow’s biography of u.s. grant, which is nothing if not detailed, there is just a single mention of the battle of new market heights: on page 397, the defeat by confederate forces of union brigadier general franz sigel’s forces. there is no indication that sigel’s forces included colored regiments, though both chernow and grant praise the bravery of colored union regiments in other battles. an odd omission.

  3. The Battle of New Market Heights Memorial and Education Association (BNMHMEA) is working toward commemorating the brave United States Colored Troops who fought at New Market Heights, and creating greater awareness of the battle and the soldiers who fought there. You can help us with our mission by making a donation or joining as a member at the organization’s website:

    1. Tim Talbott and Jimmy Price, with help from discerning authors, are doing an excellent and noble job of removing the “the battle you’ve never heard of” subtitle to the study of New Market Heights.

  4. Ellen Kaye, I believe you have the Battle of New Market (May 15, 1864, in the Shenandoah Valley) confused with the Battle of New Market Heights (September 29, 1864, near Richmond). Sigel’s forces at the Battle of New Market did not have any United States Colored Troops with them.

  5. yes you’re right, i was referring to the battle of new market. chernow has no mention of the battle of new market heights in his bio of grant. so it was indeed ‘the battle you’ve never heard of.’

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