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.”
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