Edward Ratcliff's Legacy

Born a slave, Medal of Honor recipient inspired generations of descendants to service
Damon and Edward Radcliffe

Brothers Damon (left), a law enforcement officer, and Edward Radcliffe, a U.S. Marine, retrace the assault made by their great-great-grandfather, one of 14 USCT soldiers who received the Medal of Honor at New Market Heights.

Jay Paul

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Commanded and gallantly led his company after the commanding officer had been killed; was the first enlisted man to enter the enemy's works.

First Sergeant Edward Ratcliff’s Medal of Honor citation


We can often turn to our family history to explain many of the features we inherit, but for Damon and Edward Radcliffe, the story of their Civil War ancestor does not explain such things as a long line of brown eyes or an aversion to cilantro — but instead a multigenerational focus on patriotism and service.

Today, you can find Damon serving as a lieutenant in the York-Poquoson (Va.) Sheriff’s Office. Meanwhile, his brother Edward is a master sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. In September 1864, their second great-grandfather, First Sgt. Edward Ratcliff, served with Company C of the 38th U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) at the Battle of New Market Heights — also known as Chapin’s Farm. Edward exhibited a degree of bravery that the average civilian cannot easily comprehend when he led his company forward in combat after the fall of his commanding officer. Not only that, he was the “first enlisted man to enter the enemy’s works.” His gallant actions were cemented in history forever when he was recognized with the Medal of Honor.

This past summer, the Radcliffe brothers went on a journey through their extraordinary ancestor’s footsteps, visiting the Hankins Farm and the New Market Heights Battlefield.

Damon Radcliffe walks along a trail at the Hankins Farm
Damon Radcliffe walks the Hankins Farm, near Williamsburg,Va., where his ancestor was born and enslaved for 29 years until joining the Union army. Like generations before him, Radcliffe still lives in the area. Jay Paul

Upon arrival at the Hankins Farm — the ground on which his second great-grandfather was enslaved in James City County, Va. — Damon said, “There was a heart flutter when we pulled into the driveway up front, which I guess it could be him saying, ‘Hey, this is where it all began.’”

To the brothers, this place is charged with emotion, as they considered their ancestor’s experience on the property and imagined the courage it took for him to leave at age 29. He proceeded to make the 16-mile trek to Yorktown to enlist in the Union army in January 1864 — as a man fighting to keep his freedom.

Melvin Morris in uniform
Melvin Morris, a Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam War, expounds on what the USCT soldiers might have experienced physically and emotionally during the battle. Jay Paul

Melvin Morris, a Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor recipient for his actions at Chi Lang, accompanied them, reflecting on his own experiences while envisioning the long-ago life of a fellow soldier of color. Morris expressed his curiosity for Ratcliff’s path to service when he said, “He could’ve gone anywhere; why would he join the Union army after he got his freedom?”

While we’ll never know his exact thoughts, it is known that the recruitment of U.S. Colored Troops was on the rise, and Ratcliff chose to answer that call. Within a month of his enlistment, Ratcliff was promoted from private to first sergeant, signifying that he was looked upon highly by both his peers and superiors — likely for his ability to lead.

While USCT were often called upon for labor, especially the building of fortifications, combat was not as common. But in his eighth month in service, Ratcliff dove into combat with a grit that allowed him to guide and inspire the men fighting by his side at New Market Heights.

Great-great-grandsons Damon and Edward pause to think about what this meant to their ancestor and his fellow soldiers, as it was likely that they had yet to be in combat. “I couldn’t imagine what any of the men were going through, let alone an ancestor of mine.” Yet, these current-day men have carried Ratcliff’s attitude into their careers and everyday lives, putting their lives on the line to serve the greater good.

Mark and Damon Radcliffe being interview at New Market Heights Battlefield
During the battle, the 5th USCT was pinned down in the ravine created by Four Mile Creek for some 30 minutes. It’s likely this artillery maelstrom wounded his officer, forcing Ratcliffe to step forward and lead the assault. The physical landscape brought the story alive like never before for the brothers. Jay Paul

“They’re patriots, and that’s what [Ratcliff] was,” Morris said. “He wanted freedom for all. He had a dream about the new United States. And so that was his legacy, and it’s being carried forward.”

The Trust has saved 87 acres at the New Market Heights Battlefield and intends to acquire more acreage as opportunities arise, partly motivated by the powerful stories — like Ratcliff’s — woven into the fabric of the landscape. Damon noted, “Being here [at New Market Heights], being the hallowed ground that it is, and knowing that Edward traversed through this very path, it’s almost unimaginable without this [land] being here.”

Special thanks to Howard Hankins and John Plashal for facilitating access to the Hankins Farm as part of this project.

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