Restoring Civil War's Missing History
Thursday, April 9, 2009
On Sept. 29, 1864, Union Sgt. Maj. Christian A. Fleetwood of the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry made a regular entry in his pocket diary: "Moved out & . . . charged with the 6th at daylight . . . got used up. Saved colors."
Fleetwood, 24, later a leading resident of the District, couldn't go into detail about the battle at New Market Heights, outside Richmond. There wasn't room to describe how the exhausted black soldiers charged in the face of heavy Confederate infantry fire or how they were cut down ("used up") in droves.
And there was no place to describe how, of the 12 men in the regiment's color guard, all but one were felled, or how Fleetwood bore the flag to safety, an action that earned him the Medal of Honor.
Although New Market Heights was not one of the grand battles of the Civil War, it was a place of death and valor for the soldiers who fought there. Fleetwood's medal was one of 14 Medals of Honor earned by black troops in the battle that day.
The scene of their heroism has been listed by the Civil War Preservation Trust as one of the 10 most-endangered battlefields in the country.
The site has one roadside marker describing the battle. Little of the land on which the fighting occurred is protected from development, officials from the trust said at a news conference last month.
"There is no land at New Market Heights that is owned or controlled by a preservation organization," said Mary Koik, a spokeswoman for the trust. Henrico County owns some of the land, she said, but of the property in private hands, "anything could happen to it at any time," she said.
She said some housing has been built on the site, and more development has been proposed.
Little attention was paid to the battle until the 1970s, said Mike Andrus, National Park Service supervisory ranger of the Richmond National Battlefield Park. He said the overall battlefield is about 1,000 acres.
"It's sad but true that what it comes down to is for a long time, [the work of black regiments] wasn't given the credence and credit it deserves," Koik said.
Now, she said, there is a push to recognize their deeds and preserve the sites where the black soldiers fought.
The Battle of New Market Heights, or Chaffin's Farm, as it also known, was a part of the Union Army's long-term strategy in 1864 to stretch and probe the Confederate forces around Richmond for a breakthrough in the closing months of the war.