By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
About dawn on the day of the attack, Fleetwood and about 300 other men in his regiment assaulted the well-entrenched rebels who were also protected by palisades and lines of makeshift obstructions called abatis.
"It was a deadly hailstorm of bullets sweeping men down as hail-stones sweep the leaves from trees," Fleetwood wrote after the war.
"It was very evident that there was too much work cut out for our two regiments," he wrote. "Strong earthworks, protected in front by two lines of abatis, and one line of palisades, and in the rear by a lot of men who evidently knew how to shoot, and largely outnumbered us.
"We struggled through the two lines of abatis, a few got through the palisades, but it was sheer madness, and those of us who were able, had to get out as best we could," he wrote.
"When the charge was started, our Color guard was full; two sergeants (carrying the Colors,) and ten corporals. Only one of the twelve came off that field on his own feet. Most of them are there still."
Fleetwood recounted that after the battle, he was able to gather only about 115 comrades from his regiment. Andrus said that of the roughly 700 men in the two black regiments, 387 were casualties.
During the Civil War, Fleetwood's rank of sergeant major was the highest rank a black soldier could attain in the U.S. Army, the National Park Service said.
After the war, Fleetwood, a native of Baltimore, moved to the District and worked in the War Department and Freedmen's Bank. He helped organize and lead local high school cadet corps and African American elements of the D.C. National Guard, and was a fierce guardian of the legacy of the role black soldiers played in the Civil War and previous conflicts.
"After each war," he wrote in a speech in 1895, "history repeats itself in the absolute effacement of remembrance of the gallant deeds done for the country by its brave black defenders. . . .
"History further repeats itself in the fact that in every war so far known to this country, the first blood, and, in some cases, the last also, has been shed" by black soldiers. "And this in spite of all the years of bondage and oppression, and of wrongs unspeakable."
Fleetwood died Sept. 28, 1914, the day before the 50th anniversary of the Battle of New Market Heights.
In 1948, his daughter Edith donated his Medal of Honor to the Smithsonian Institution.