Battle displayed the ‘Heights’ of bravery
Whatever else might be said about Union Major Gen. Benjamin F. Butler – once described as “militarily inept but politically well-connected” – he can hardly be accused of slacking in his preparations for the 1864 conflict that we know as the Battle of New Market Heights.
In the weeks leading up to the battle, Butler put together some 16 pages of instructions outlining his proposal to attack Confederate forces on the outskirts of Richmond.
Having observed Union failures in July and August to penetrate the defenses on the Confederate left, he devised a two-pronged surprise attack on the right and center, utilizing a new pontoon bridge that would supplement the bridge already in existence at Deep Bottom.
Butler also planned to enlarge the military role of the Army of the James’ regiments of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) during the assault.
For most of the war, black soldiers had been relegated to laborers who cooked and dug trenches. If they saw action, they were led by white officers, and were not permitted to gain commissions.
Butler, however, long an advocate of arming the black troops, had succeeded in his efforts in 1862 while supervising the occupation of New Orleans. And throughout the past winter, he had sent out scouting parties to recruit blacks who would bolster the ranks of the USCT.
Aware that black troops had fared badly in the recent Battle of the Crater, he attributed the disaster to bungled leadership and insisted that the blacks needed only a decent opportunity “to show their valor or staying power in action.”
Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was growing frustrated with efforts to punch through the Richmond defenses under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee. So on Sept. 20, he sat down with Butler to hear his plan, and agreed that it might force Lee to redeploy troops north of the James, leaving vulnerable the supply lines to Petersburg – and perhaps even lead to the capture of Richmond.
On Sept. 28, Butler briefed his commanders with details of the plan, which included building a new pontoon bridge just hours before the attack. Two divisions would cross that bridge – which would be covered in manure to deaden the sound of troop movements – capture the Confederate Fort Harrison, destroy bridges, and head up Osborne Turnpike to Richmond. Meanwhile, USCT regiments under Brig. Gen. Charles Paine would be among the troops marching from Deep Bottom to storm New Market Heights and continue to Richmond on New Market Road.
Paine’s black soldiers would lead the attack on New Market Heights because, in Butler’s words, “I wanted to convince myself whether the negro troops will fight, and whether I can take with the negroes’ a stronghold that had denied previous Union attack.”
The events that followed, resulting in the award of 14 Medals of Honor to soldiers from the USCT, earn the Battle of New Market Heights the designation of No. 12 on the Citizen’s list of the most significant events in Henrico history.
‘A deadly hailstorm of bullets’
The USCT regiments and accompanying units were supposed to arrive at Bermuda Hundred a day before the attack to rest. But due to miscommunication, they did not begin arriving at the rendezvous point until 2 a.m. Sept. 29. Within a few hours, they would go into battle with no hot food and little or no rest.
The next day, USCT Sgt. Major Christian Fleetwood, a free black from Baltimore, wrote in his journal that he got his “first night’s sleep since the 27th.”
What’s more, despite all the precautions, Union troop movements were hardly a secret any more. By 4 a.m., the Confederate defenders of New Market Heights were enjoying a hot breakfast and awaiting their attackers, securely ensconced behind multilayered breastworks reinforced with a double line of abatis, or piled-up sharpened logs.
As the USCT shouldered their weapons and prepared to march out from Deep Bottom, Butler rode through the ranks, urging the men to charge with the words ‘Remember Fort Pillow’ (the April battle in which surrendered black troops had been massacred by Confederate soldiers) in mind.
Butler ordered the first wave of attackers to advance without percussion caps on the locks of their rifles, believing that would prevent the inexperienced soldiers from pausing to fire and reload, and allow them to hear the officers issuing orders.
At about 5:30 a.m. the first musket fire was heard, as black troops drove back the advance pickets posted north of Kingsland Road.
From behind the earthworks, the Confederate defenders peered into the foggy, dimly-lit dawn, getting a bead on their targets but holding fire as a small brigade of the 4th and 6th USCT stumbled and splashed across the fields, ravines and marshy swamp surrounding Four Mile Creek. Word spread rapidly through the Confederate ranks that black troops were attacking, and pickets shouted, “N--gers, boys, n--gers” as those soldiers who did not get tangled in the abatis managed to scale the earthworks.
Within 40 minutes, almost before the sun was up, the first assault was over and the USCT brigade destroyed. As Fleetwood later wrote in his diary, “Charged with the 6th at daylight and got used up. Saved colors. . . When the charge was started, our Color guard was full; two sergeants and ten corporals. Only one of the 12 came off that field on his own feet. . . It was a deadly hailstorm of bullets sweeping men down as hail-stones sweep the leaves from trees. . . We struggled through two lines of abatis, a few getting through the palisades, but it was sheer madness. . .’
‘They have fought most heroically’
Despite heavy casualties and the loss of most of their officers, black soldiers took up the colors and rallied the others to press forward in a second assault. Richmond native Sgt. Powhatan Beaty took command of his company after all the officers had been disabled. Corporal Miles James lost the use of his left arm (later amputated) but urged his troops on and continued loading and firing at the enemy with his right.
Other soldiers suffered multiple wounds but refused to leave the field.
When one color bearer went down, Sgt. Alfred Hilton, who was already carrying a flag, seized the second flag and continued forward.
He was soon wounded, but before either of the flags he was carrying could touch the ground, Fleetwood and another soldier ran forward to catch them. After 80 minutes of combat the USCT mounted the earthworks – by now abandoned by the Rebels except for a small rear guard. More than 800 black soldiers had been killed or wounded in the fight.
Although Confederate newspapers downplayed the Union victory – the Richmond Examiner scoffing, “The country will be surprised that so much noise had been made and so little damage done” – accounts of USCT heroism abounded in the Northern press.
Thomas Morris Chester, a black reporter for the Philadelphia Press, filed a report from Richmond later that week stating that Paine’s division “had covered itself with glory, and wiped out effectively the imputation against the fighting qualities of colored troops.”
And J.D. Pickens of the Texas Brigade later wrote, “I want to say in this connection that, in my opinion, no troops up to that time had fought us with move bravery than did those Negroes.”
Four days after the battle, Butler reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “My colored troops under General Paine. . . carried intrenchments at the point of a bayonet. . . It was most gallantly done, with most severe loss. Their praises are in the mouth of every officer in this army. Treated fairly and disciplined, they have fought most heroically.”
Medals of Honor awarded
But Butler wanted more than mere acknowledgment of the sacrifices of the black soldiers. He had two choices: promotion in rank, or a medal that had been authorized by Congress in 1862 for bravery on the battlefield.
Although able to promote the USCT privates to sergeant, he was unable to offer promotions to the 10 men who were already sergeants. Surviving white officers of the 4th USCT petitioned the War Department to authorize lieutenant’s bars for Fleetwood, but their request was denied.
That left the Medal of Honor, which required gathering recommendations from surviving regimental officers and forwarding a list to General Grant and, ultimately, the War Department. On April 6, 1865, the War Department finally came through, bestowing the Medal of Honor on 14 black veterans of New Market Heights.
All the recipients except Hilton, who died not long after the battle, continued to serve with their regiments until the war ended. In spite of losing his arm, Sgt. James asked to remain on active duty and was allowed to serve with the regimental provost guard. He went on to march with his company into Richmond on April 3, 1865 -- the only Medal of Honor recipient to reach the objective for which so many had sacrificed.
Fleetwood later helped to organize the Colored High School Cadet Corps in Washington, D.C., which established a high standard of military service for African American soldiers. In 1898, he offered his services to raise and equip a volunteer company of black soldiers and officers to fight in Cuba, but never heard back from the government. Fleetwood died in 1914, almost 50 years to the day after he won his Medal of Honor; his daughter later presented his medal to the Smithsonian Institution.
Just as Grant had anticipated, the fighting around New Market Heights (also known as Chaffin’s Farm) helped the Union army south of Petersburg by forcing Lee to shift his resources further north. Between the two armies, however, the battle had cost nearly 5,000 casualties.
As for Butler, whose leadership at New Market Heights was termed by one historian as his “best performance of the war,” all doubts had been put to rest.
“The capacity of the Negro race for soldiers,” he later wrote regarding the Battle of New Market Heights, “had then and there been fully settled forever.”
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) will host a candlelight vigil of remembrance and hope Tuesday, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. at the University of Richmond, outside the Cannon Chapel. The public is invited to attend and join MADD to honor victims of impaired driving crashes, while helping to remind the community to be safe during the holidays. > Read more.
Among participants at the Seventh Annual Coordinators2Inc Golf Tournament and awards luncheon Oct. 3 were (from left) Rebecca Ricardo, C2 Inc executive director; Kevin Derr, member of the winning foursome; Sharon Richardson, C2 Inc founder; and Frank Ridgway and Jon King, members of the winning foursome.
Held at The Crossings Golf Club, the tournament will benefit placement of children from Virginia's foster care system into permanent families through Coordinators2. > Read more.
Event will help kick of Marine Corps' 'Toys for Tots' campaign
All 140 A.C. Moore locations will serve as drop-off centers this year for the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, and all toys collected will stay in the local communities served by the stores in which they are donated.
On Saturday, Nov. 15, the Willow Lawn location will kick off the month-long program by hosting a "Make & Take" craft event for kids. Children ages six and older will be able to make a craft and take it home with them. Representatives from the Marines will be in-store to teach customers about the Toys for Tots program. A.C. Moore team members will be on site to help with the crafts. > Read more.
The Dominion GardenFest of Lights Grand Illumination takes place tonight at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden! This year’s theme is “A Legacy in Lights: 120 Years from Bicycle Club to Botanical Garden,” which celebrates the Garden’s history. You can also celebrate Thanksgiving again – tomorrow at Henricus Historical Park. More great events – Lavender Fields Herb Farm and Wilton House Museum will both host their holiday open house events this weekend. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.
Disney’s ‘Big Hero 6,’ lovable robot Baymax delight
It may be time for Olaf to step down as our nation’s reigning cartoon character. Big Hero 6, the latest animated feature from Disney, contains a challenger to the throne: Baymax (Scott Adsit), another lovably chubby white wonder, who will bring joy to children’s hearts and invade every home in America inside a six-foot pile of Disney merchandise.
Big Hero 6 (based ever so slightly on a Marvel comic of the same name) is the story of Baymax – and also his closest companion Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter). And then also their four friends, all of whom join together to form the titular superhero team.
At first, though, it’s only Hiro, a young boy and an engineering prodigy, who’d rather spend his time in underground robot fight clubs than do something productive with his gifts. > Read more.
Bella’s feels – and tastes – like Italy should
Short Pump is known for its share of chain restaurants and strip malls, but diners looking for something more distinct can certainly find it without heading downtown or to nearby Charlottesville.
In fact, local husband-and-wife restaurateurs Valeria Bisenti and Doug Muir brought a taste of Charlottesville (and Italy) to Short Pump when they took a chance and opened Bella’s second location in the same shopping strip as Wal-Mart and Peter Chang China Cafe. (Bella’s original location is on Main Street in downtown Charlottesville.)
For a local Italian restaurant, Bella’s is as “Mom and Pop” as its gets. Valeria is Mom, and Doug is Pop. Since its opening about six months ago, diners have been eating rich comfort foods and drinking Italian wines. > Read more.
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