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Black soldiers ‘silenced every cavil of the doubters’
HISTORIAN’S NEW BOOK SHINES SPOTLIGHT ON BATTLEFIELD BRAVERY NEAR RICHMOND
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
Fought just east of Richmond during the Siege of Petersburg in the Civil War’s closing months, the Battle of New Market Heights is more interesting than many.
Yet if you look for the site where it took place, only one roadside marker mentions it. No preserved acreage invites the public to learn or appreciate what happened there. People confuse it with the better-known Battle of New Market, fought in the Shenandoah Valley.
But now, New Market Heights is getting a fresh appraisal thanks to historian James S. Price, a Spotsylvania County resident who has written the first book devoted entirely to it.
“I decided this was a story that needs to be told, especially since we’re marking the 150th anniversary of the war,” he said in a recent interview at his home near Chancellorsville.
A Pittsburgh native, Price is an Air Force veteran with a master’s in military history from Norwich University in Vermont. He has worked at many Civil War sites, including Petersburg National Battlefield, Pamplin Historical Park and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. There he researched the touring exhibit “Take Our Stand: The African American Military Experience in the Age of Jim Crow,” shown last year at the Fredericksburg Area Museum.
A new adjunct professor at Germanna Community College, he is working with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park to develop a Web-based curriculum to engage schoolchildren in learning about the region’s four major Civil War battles and the conflict’s effects on civilians.
Price’s book, “The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword”—published by The History Press as part of its Civil War sesquicentennial series—is drawing critical praise and raising a few eyebrows among his fellow historians.
O. James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust, wrote the foreword. Because of Price’s account, he said, “students of the war finally have a volume that details one of the most important moments, if not the most important moment, in United States African–American military history.”
The battle resulted in the first Medals of Honor—the nation’s highest awards for valor—being issued to black soldiers. Of the 18 Medals of Honor received by black soldiers in the war, 14 were awarded for what one eyewitness called “unflinching heroism” in the attack upon New Market Heights. (Two white officers also received the medals.)
Black troops, who were shunned by many whites in their own army, went into the battle with a lot to prove. Failure in battle meant death; the Confederate secretary of war had said former slaves serving as Union soldiers were subject to execution if captured.
As Price tells the tale, New Market Heights in September 1864 nearly opened the road to Richmond and ended the stalemate around Petersburg. Had the larger offensive succeeded, Union forces could have captured the Confederate capital six months early. But Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Fifth Offensive failed, beset by poor commanders and crippled by its size and complexity.
Yet at the heights, where formidable earthworks were built to guard the New Market Road (today’s State Route 5) into the city, the Northern plan succeeded. Relatively untested black soldiers, in two charges against Southern veterans of Gen. John Gregg’s Texas Brigade, dislodged that elite unit of the Army of Northern Virginia from its defenses.
Realizing the position was lost, Gen. Gregg pulled his men out of their trenches and rushed them toward nearby Fort Harrison, which had been captured by Union Gen. Edward Ord’s forces, to try to plug the crumbling line.
“When the smoke cleared and the fighting was over, for once the black troops knew the exultant joy of driving an enemy from his position,” Price writes. “Not only had they driven the Confederates from the field of battle, they had also ‘wiped out effectually the imputation against the fighting qualities of the colored troops,’ as the African– American newspaper correspondent Thomas Morris Chester wrote after the battle.”
Their success so alarmed Gen. Robert E. Lee that he hurried to the scene to take personal charge of his forces, mounting an unsuccessful counterattack the next day and moving troops from his Petersburg line to shore up Richmond’s defenses.
The tactical Northern victory came at a painful cost. Price counts 1,027 black troops and white officers killed, wounded or missing in 90 minutes of fierce combat, compared with about 100 Confederate casualties.
‘REMEMBER FORT PILLOW’?
The author, who spent more than two years researching the subject in public and private archives, unearthed many new, firsthand accounts of the battle from witnesses on both sides.
Price seems to have laid to rest one debate about the United States’ Colored Troops’ commander, the controversial Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler. At issue is whether he urged his black troops to use “Remember Fort Pillow!” as a battle cry, in remembrance of the Confederate massacre of blacks soldiers in an assault on a Union fort in April 1864 on the Mississippi River.
It appears so. Butler certainly claimed that in his memoirs. And Price found a Sept. 29 diary entry by a Texas soldier who wrote, “[A]s they came up, they shouted remember ‘Fort Pillow’ & give the Rebels no quarter. This stirred up our men and everybody seemed mad for the first time.”
The African–American sacrifices and battlefield success at New Market Heights, Price said, added to black troops’ already heroic conduct at Battery Wagner near Charleston and the Crater in Petersburg, helped prod the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment four months later, abolishing slavery in all of the states.
THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE
Butler was immensely proud of the troops’ performance. They carried the field despite his orders not to fire until they had taken Confederate defenses at bayonet point. He ordered percussion caps removed from their rifles so that no one would be slowed in the assault by pausing to load.
Despite withering artillery and musket fire that drove back the attack’s first wave and dropped its colonel, Butler’s “Ethiopian cohorts” had advanced through fog, crossed a swampy stream, penetrated three layers of timber barriers, climbed the earthworks’ parapet and taken the Confederate defenses.
The first brigade to go in lost 387 of its 750 effective troops. The second brigade lost 447 out of 1,300 men.
From New Market Heights, the attackers in Butler’s Army of the James could see the spires of Richmond.
One former Confederate wrote after Appomattox that “upon [the] 29th [of] September, Richmond came nearer being captured, and that, too, by negro troops, than it ever did during the whole war.”
Ultimate victory was not to come until April the following year. But when Southern troops evacuated and set fire to the capital, it was these same black U.S. troops who first entered Richmond and occupied it, Price noted.
After the battle, Butler swiftly recommended that many of his men receive promotions and medals. In an Oct. 11 proclamation, he praised his men for their bravery in 1864’s campaigns, saying of his U.S. Colored Troops at New Market Heights:
“The colored soldiers by coolness, steadiness, and determined courage and dash have silenced every cavil of the doubters of their soldierly capacity, and drawn tokens of admiration from their enemies; have brought their late masters even to the consideration of the question whether they will not employ as soldiers the hitherto despised race. Be it so; this war is ended when a musket is in the hands of every able-bodied negro who wishes to use one.”
The War Department, however, was no so enthusiastic. It blocked black soldiers from becoming officers, and they were paid less than white troops.
Butler promoted 1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland of the 5th USCT to captain after the battle. The War Department reversed the move because of Holland’s race.
Butler also felt that not enough awards were forthcoming. At this own expense, he had 197 special medals cast by Tiffany & Co., modeling them after medallions that Queen Victoria issued during the Crimean War.
What came to be known as the Butler Medal was made of silver and hung from a red, white and blue ribbon. Attached to the ribbon was a wreath saying “Army of the James.”
The medal’s face read, “Distinguished for Courage, Campaign Before Richmond, 1864.” The back read, “US Colored Troops,” with a Latin inscription—Ferro iis libertas perveniet (“Freedom will be theirs by the sword”)— hence the book’s subtitle.
Later critics have accused Butler—a politically appointed general nicknamed “Spoons” for supposed theft of Confederate silver while he occupied New Orleans and derided for a stern order he issued there against women who disrespected Union solders—of using New Market Heights to advance his career.
Price noted that one author says the idea of a genuine triumph by black troops at New Market Heights is “hoopla.” Another calls the notion “militarily irrelevant Negrophilia.”
The author, who writes about USCTs on his blog “The Sable Arm,” said he readers of his book will see the battle in a more balanced way.
Butler was a political wheeler–dealer, Price acknowledged. In 1860, he had voted to nominate Jefferson Davis for U.S. president on the Democratic ticket, then switched parties and became a Radical Republican. (He is also the Union general who, commanding Hampton’s Fort Monroe in 1862, declared that slaves who escaped into Northern lines were enemy “contraband” and could properly be withheld from their former masters under international law.)
For all of his political maneuvering, Butler kept pushing for black suffrage and citizenship after the war. After witnessing the bravery of his troops and seeing their bodies strewn on the battlefield, he later claimed he swore “an oath, which I hope and believe I have kept sacredly, that they and their race should be cared for and protected by me to the extent of my power so long as I lived.”
Serving in Congress after war, Butler cited black troops’ sacrifices at New Market Heights to his colleagues during their furious debate over his bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The legislation guaranteed that everyone, regardless of race, color or previous servitude, was entitled to equal treatment in “public accommodations” such as inns, theaters, recreation halls and transportation.
In 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional, saying individuals weren’t barred from engaging in discrimination. Many of the 1875 Act’s provisions were later enacted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act.
With all of that historical baggage, it’s remarkable that this Virginia battle remained relatively obscure until recently.
Price is accustomed to it. “You say ‘New Market Heights,’ and people scratch their heads,” he said. “You say ‘Gettysburg,’ and they know what you’re talking about.”
It may have been the most successful assault on Richmond’s defenses of the war, but it was a complex operation without a neat ending. And people, Price said, like their history and battles to be simple and clear-cut, like Gettysburg.
He’s already at work on his second book, about the Richmond-area Battle of First Deep Bottom, and hoping that his first work will spur efforts to preserve and interpret what’s left of the New Market Heights battlefield. The landscape was named one of the nation’s 10 most endangered Civil War sites by the Civil War Trust in 2009.
ON THE NET:
The book: bit.ly/u4YIlr
The battle: bit.ly/sKj4MO
Interview on Civil War Talk Radio: bit.ly/cwtalk808
AT A GLANCE
BATTLE OF NEW MARKET HEIGHTS
At Chaffin’s Farm, east of Richmond Sept. 29–30, 1864
The night of Sept. 28–29, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James crosses the James River to assault Richmond defenses north of the river. The columns attack at dawn. After initial Union successes at New Market Heights and Fort Harrison, the Confederates rally and contain the breakthrough. Confederate commander Robert E. Lee reinforces his lines north of the James and, on Sept. 30, counterattacks unsuccessfully. The Federals entrench, and the Confederates erect a new line of works cutting off the captured forts. Union Gen. Hiram Burnham is killed. As Gen. Ulysses S. Grant anticipated, Lee shifts troops to meet the threat against Richmond, weakening his lines at Petersburg.
—Civil War Trust summary
More at Past Is Prologue blog: bit.ly/pip57
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029