Mere months before the United States Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment which officially abolished slavery, 14 African American soldiers received the highest military honor in the land for their bravery in the little-known Battle of New Market Heights.
In a single day, the United States Colored Troops (USCT) who fought and fell at New Market Heights made progress on two fronts: Not only did they inch the Union army closer to the gates of Richmond, they also made important strides toward dismantling assumptions about whether Black soldiers could contribute meaningfully to the war. In fact, a Confederate soldier later admitted, “upon 29th September, Richmond came nearer to being captured, and that, too, by negro troops, than it ever did during the whole war.”
The property at stake is a crucial 22-acre tract in the heart of the battlefield. The cost is $260,000, and we have applied for a grant from the Virginia Battlefield Preservation Fund that would cover half of the purchase price. We also have to remove a modern house to restore the property at an estimated cost of $20,000. That means we need to raise $150,000 to save this critical hallowed ground from Richmond’s residential development boom and restore it to its wartime appearance.
In the pre-dawn hours of September 29, 1864, as part of General Ulysses S. Grant’s efforts to simultaneously assault Richmond and Petersburg and dislodge General Robert E. Lee’s army from miles of entrenchments, the eastern arm of the Federal Army of the James swept toward New Market Heights to face a small but determined Confederate brigade of infantry, comprised of Texans and Arkansans, and dismounted Confederate cavalry of the Hampton Legion.
United States Colored Troops crossed the lower branch of Four Mile Creek on the land we’re working to save today along with regiments from Connecticut and New Hampshire. Confederate artillery harassed the advance the entire distance, and attackers fell in droves as they attempted to maneuver through extensive obstructions the Confederates had placed before their position.
After several attempts, the Union advance finally seized the hilltop as the Confederates fell back to another prepared position. For a moment, it seemed that the road to Richmond was open, but the Union forces could go no further that day – or the next.
Christian Fleetwood (Library of Congress)
After the battle, Sgt. Maj., Christian Fleetwood – one of those USCT soldiers who received one of those 14 Medals, described the carnage in his diary: “When the charge was started, our color guard was full; two sergeants and ten corporals. Only one of the twelve came off that field on his own feet. Most of them are there still….It was a deadly hailstorm of bullets sweeping men down as hail-stones sweep the leaves from trees….It was very evident that there was too much work cut out for our two regiments….We struggled through two lines of abatis, a few getting through the palisades, but it was sheer madness….”
That “sheer madness” had tragic results for the regiments who led the charge that day, suffering 387 casualties before falling back. Today, let’s honor their sacrifices by preserving the land where they fought and fell.
Please consider making your most generous gift now to help raise the $150,000 we need to preserve this precious American history forever.