On September 29, 1864, Black soldiers serving in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCTs) led an assault against Confederate defenses protecting Richmond during the Battle of New Market Heights. New Market Heights was part of the larger Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. It included fighting at Fort Harrison, Fort Gilmer, and Laurel Hill. During this battle, two brigades of the USCTs proved their heroism, fought courageously and captured New Market Heights. Fourteen soldiers from the USCTs earned Medals of Honor for gallantry.
In September 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant approved a plan to send Union Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James to break through Confederate defenses guarding the Confederate capital of Richmond. Included in the 20,000 Union troops were some 4,500 Black soldiers fighting in the USCTs.
The offensive consisted of a two-pronged attack, which called for Major General Edward Ord’s XVIII Corps to cross the James River at Aiken’s Landing and move toward the Confederate-held Fort Harrison. Fort Harrison was later captured and renamed Fort Burnham.
The second prong, and focus here, is Maj. Gen. David B. Birney’s X Corps, and Brigadier General Charles J. Paine’s USCT regiments (who were detailed from the XVIII Corps but operating with the X Corps that morning).
At dawn on September 29th, Paine’s division, spearheaded by the 4th and 6th USCTs (Third Brigade), crossed the James River at Deep Bottom Landing. Their objective was to take New Market Heights. That would give them control of New Market Road, which led directly to Richmond. As they advanced towards New Market Road, the division came under heavy fire from Confederate earthwork defenses. After heavy losses of half their forces, the Union brigade withdrew.
Next, the Second Brigade, consisting of the 5th, 36th, and 38th USCTs, advanced. They also engaged in brutal fighting and lost more than 1/3 of their forces before finding an opening and bursting through the Confederate line. They advanced up New Market Heights while the Confederates retreated toward Richmond.
When the battle was over, the Union Army suffered an estimated 3,300 casualties for soldiers fighting north of the James River on September 29-30. Confederate casualties numbered 1,750. Soldiers from the USCTs proved their mettle. Over and over, as color-bearers and white commanding officers were shot down, Black soldiers stepped up to retrieve the colors and lead the troops. During the entire Civil War, only 16 Black soldiers received the Medal of Honor. Fourteen of those were awarded to soldiers after the Battle of New Market Heights.
Following are short bios for each of the 14 members of the USCTs awarded Medals of Honor for their actions that day:
William H. Barnes was born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, and enlisted in the 38th Regiment of the USCT, Company G, on July 2, 1864, at age 19. He was 5’4” and listed his occupation as a farmer. During the Battle of New Market Heights, Barnes was “among the first to enter the enemy’s works; although wounded.” Barnes was later promoted to Sergeant and traveled to Indianola, Texas, with his regiment. While in Texas, Barnes contracted tuberculosis and died in Indianola on Christmas Eve in 1866. He was officially mustered out of service in January 1867.
Powhatan Beaty was born in Richmond, Virginia, on October 8, 1837, and was formerly enslaved. At some point, he became a freedman and moved to Cincinnati, where he studied acting. Beaty enlisted in the 5th USCTs, Company G, on June 9, 1863, in Ohio. He served as a 1st Sergeant. During the Battle of New Market Heights, Beaty raced to retrieve the flag from a fallen color-bearer. Finding the officers all dead or wounded, he took command of his company and gallantly led it.” He mustered out of service on September 20, 1865, at Carolina City, North Carolina.
James H. Bronson was born in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. His military records show that he was 25 years old and mixed race. Bronson had grey eyes, dark hair, 5’9”, and was employed as a barber when he enlisted July 4, 1863, in Trumbull County, Ohio. He served in the 5th USCTs, Company D. He was later promoted to 1st Sergeant. During the Battle of New Market Heights, Bronson took charge of his company and led them throughout the day after his company officers were all killed or wounded. Following the battle, Bronson requested to have his rank reduced so he could join the regimental military band. He was mustered out on September 20, 1865, at Carolina City, North Carolina.
Christian A. Fleetwood was born a freeman in Baltimore, Maryland, and enlisted in the 4th USCTs on August 11, 1863. Before he enlisted, Fleetwood worked as a clerk. He was 23 years old, with a brown complexion, black eyes, black hair, and stood 5’4.5” tall. Fleetwood received a promotion to Sergeant Major. At the time, this was the highest rank a Black soldier could attain in the U.S. Army. At the Battle of New Market Heights, Fleetwood “Seized the colors after two color bearers had been shot down, and bore them nobly through the fight.” Following the war, Fleetwood worked as a clerk in the War Department.
James Gardiner served as a private in the 36th USCT, Company I. He was born in Gloucester, Virginia, and worked as an oysterman. He enlisted on September 15, 1863, when he was 19 years old and 5’7” tall. During the Battle of New Market Heights, Gardiner “rushed in advance of his brigade, shot at a rebel officer who was on the parapet cheering his men, and then ran him through with his bayonet.” The day after the battle, Gardiner was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. He was mustered out of service at Brazos de Santiago, Texas, on September 20, 1866.
James H. Harris was born in 1828 in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. When he was 36 years old, he enlisted in the 38th USCTs, Company B. He was a farmer and described as 5’10” tall with a black complexion, black eyes, and black hair. He was promoted to corporal on July 25, 1864, and then to sergeant on September 29, 1864 – the same day as the Battle of New Market Heights. During the battle of New Market Heights, Harris was wounded and later awarded a Medal of Honor for “gallant conduct.” His muster roll records show he spent September and October in the hospital and returned to duty in November 1864. On July 1, 1865, his rank was reduced to private, although no reason is given in his records. Harris mustered out of service on January 25, 1867, at Indianola, Texas.
Thomas R. Hawkins was born in 1840 in Cincinnati, Ohio. According to his obituary, Hawkins “escaped the Southern lines in 1863” and as soon as he reached the North, knelt down and kissed the Union soil. He vowed to do anything he could for the cause of liberty. He enlisted in the 6th USCTs in Philadelphia and entered service as a Sergeant Major. He was wounded in the arm early in his service but quickly rejoined his regiment when the wound healed. During the Battle of New Market Heights, Hawkins was shot through the shoulder, hip, and foot, but managed to rescue the regimental colors. After the war, Hawkins was active in the Temperance Society in Washington, D.C. This letter found in the Freedmen’s Bureau Record Collection on Ancestry® shows Hawkins asking for the use of a room to hold a Temperance Society meeting in 1867. The wounds Hawkins received during the Battle of New Market Heights eventually led to his death. He was awarded a Medal of Honor on February 8, 1870, but died less than three weeks later, on February 28, 1870, in Washington, D.C.
Alfred B. Hilton was one of 14 children born to parents who were formerly enslaved. In August 1863, Alfred and his two brothers joined the 4th USCTs, Company H. Hilton was 21 years old and listed his occupation as a farmer when he enlisted with the rank of sergeant. During the charge on New Market Heights, Sgt. Hilton retrieved the regimental colors after the color bearer was wounded. Hilton was also wounded and struggled forward until he could no longer continue. Hilton was admitted to a military hospital at Fortress Monroe where his right leg had to be amputated below the knee. He eventually died from his battle wounds on October 21, 1864. According to Freedmen’s Bureau Records, Hilton’s parents, Isaac and Harriett, received a $90 pension payment in 1868.
Milton M. Holland was born in Austin, Texas in 1844. When he was 18, he enlisted as a Sergeant Major in the 5th USCTs, Company C, at Athens, Ohio. He was a shoemaker who stood 5’8” tall. His Medal of Honor citation states, “Took command of Company C, after all the officers had been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it.” Despite acting as an officer during combat, Holland was refused an officer’s commission because of race. Following the war, Holland moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a government clerk. When he died on May 15, 1910, his valuable estate consisted of “thirty-two acres of land, more or less, improved by a twelve-room frame dwelling house, all modern improvements: good barn, stable and carriage houses and all other necessary outbuildings.”
Miles James was born in 1829 in Princess Anne County, Virginia. He enlisted in the 36th USCTs, Company B, on November 16, 1863. At the time, he was 34 years old and worked as a farmer. During the Battle of New Market Heights, he was severely wounded in the left arm, necessitating an amputation right on the battlefield. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, the citation reading, “After having his arm so badly mutilated that immediate amputation was necessary, [he] loaded and discharged his piece with one hand, and urged his men forward…” While recovering in the hospital, Brig. Gen. Alonzo G. Draper, commander of the 36th USCTs, wrote a letter saying that James requested that he not be discharged. He wished to remain in the service. Draper urged military officials to grant the request. Draper wrote, “He is one of the bravest men I ever saw… and a model soldier. He is worth more with his single arm, than half a dozen ordinary men.” James was discharged by order of Surgeon’s Certificate for disability on October 13, 1865, at Brazos de Santiago, Texas. In the 1870 Census, James was living in Norfolk with his wife Sarah and three children working as a shoemaker. He died on August 28, 1871, in Norfolk, Virginia.
Alexander Kelly was born near Saltsburg in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, on April 7, 1840. He enlisted in the 6th USCTs, Company F, at Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on August 24, 1863. He was a 23-year-old coal miner and enlisted as a substitute for his brother Joseph Kelly after Joseph was drafted. Joseph had a large family dependent upon him for support, so Alexander took his place. Kelly saw fighting at Petersburg, Dutch Gap, and at the Battle of New Market Heights. During that battle, when the color bearer had been shot down, he gallantly seized the colors, rallied the survivors, and led them in a charge on the breastworks of the enemy. Kelly died on June 19, 1907.
Robert A. Pinn was born a freeman on March 1, 1843, in Stark County, Ohio. His father escaped from slavery and fled to Ohio at the age of eighteen. Pinn attempted to enlist in the Union Army at the beginning of the war but was denied because of his race. Instead, Pinn joined the 19th Ohio Infantry in 1861 as a civilian worker. He fought in the Battle of Shiloh despite his non-military status. After President Lincoln opened the way for Black men to serve, Pinn enlisted in the USCTs 5th USCTs, Company I, in 1863. During the Battle of New Market Heights, Pinn served with gallantry at Fort Harrison. Later that same day, he was severely wounded at Fort Gilmer and hospitalized in Portsmouth, Virginia. Following the war, Pinn returned to Ohio where he studied law and became the first Black lawyer in Massillon County. He was active in the GAR and became the first Black Commander of Hart Post 134. He died in his hometown of Massillon, Ohio, in 1911.
Edward Ratcliff was born enslaved on a farm in James City County, Virginia, on February 8, 1835. Ratcliff, along with 37 other enslaved individuals, worked the lands for slave owner Alexander Hankins. When the Civil War broke out, Hankins formed a Confederate military unit, called the James City Artillery. In 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and one year later, 29-year-old Ratcliff walked away from the Hankins farm to enlist in the 38th USCT. During the Battle of New Market Heights, Ratcliff took command after his commanding officer was killed. Ratcliff became the first Union soldier to enter the enemy’s defenses and stand inside their fortification. He was promoted to 1st Sergeant, and later to Sergeant Major. Ratcliff was mustered out of service at Indianola, Texas, on January 25, 1867. He died on March 10, 1915, in York County, Virginia.
Charles Veal was born in 1838 in Portsmouth, Virginia. He enlisted in the 4th USCTs, Company D, in July 1863. At the time, he was a 25-year-old fireman. During the Battle of New Market Heights, the 4th and 6th USCTs were the first to advance. Christian Fleetwood, a fellow Medal of Honor recipient, later recalled the battle. He said that a color guard consisting of 14 men (two sergeants and twelve corporals) advanced on the field. One of them was Veal. They came under fire, and Veal was the only one left standing. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry when he “seized the national colors, after two color bears had been shot down close to the enemy’s works, and bore them through the remainder of the battle.” He died July 27, 1872, in Hampton City, Virginia.
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