The National Park Service wants to spend $2.6 million to buy the site of the Civil War Battle of New Market Heights near Richmond where nine regiments of "United States Colored Troops" won a bloody engagement with the Confederacy.
A researcher now says the park serivce has its eye on the wrong land.
Irwin G. Rice, a research associate at Auburn University in Alabama who calls history his hobby, claims to have dedicated the last five years to researching the battle. He says the U.S. government has missed the actual battle ground by a mile.
The park service stands its ground. "There's not much likelihood of our making a mistake," said John Bond, the agency's associate regional director of planning and research preservation. t"We have been interested in this spot since 1964, and we used one of the foremost Civil War historians to find it."
As the dispute continues, a bill is before Congress to authorize expenditure of $2.6 million to buy the 201 acres in Henrico County, Va. where the park service is sure the battle took place.
The 3,000 assault troops in the Sept. 28, 1864, engagement were Union blacks led by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler. Their attack was part of the ultimately successful attempt to capture Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, but the soldiers were widely believed to be unfit for battle because of their race.
About 1,000 black men died; the Confederate fortifications at New Market Heights fell.
To commemorate the battle, Butler created the Army of the James (River) medal and presented it to 200 of his troops.
Rice, a partially disabled 37-year-old Vietnam veteran, ran across information about the battle and the medal nearly six years ago while rummaging through a history book during his lunch hour.
He said he was shocked to learn that the medal had never been officially recognized by the U.S. government.
Rice started a historical novel about Butler and began to campaign to win recognition for the medal, writing to the Veterans Administration, the Department of the Army, the White House and his congressman. The campaign has not succeeded; the Army says the medal was "one of many" for which "strict controls were not maintained."
During a trip to Richmond last December to research one of the last chapters for his novel, he learned of "a lookout place from the War of 1812," Rice recalled.
"I didn't know of anything that had happened in that area during that war, so I asked to see the spot. As soon as I got there, I knew just what it was."
Rice is sure the site was the Civil War battleground -- overgrown, but with a fort's dirt walls, a ditch and the location of a power magazine.
"I couldn't believe it -- that it's all just sitting there -- that there's no plaque, no marker, nothing, I think it's an outrage."
He came to Washington for a topographical map and that, combined with Butler's written account of the site plus relics including ammunition found at the spot he visited convinced him he has found the real-battleground just east of the site the park service has its eye on.
Banks of the park service insists Rice is wrong. Edward C. Bearss, a historian, visited the other site and showed "precisely where the soldiers were involved," Banks said.
The dispute is unresolved. Rice says he will persist.
"People might wonder why a white guy would get his whole life tangled up in what some might see essentially as a black cause," he said. "But I never looked at it that way. I'm not what you'd call a liberal or anything. It just seems to me that a big chunk of American history has been ignored and now that they're finally going to pay attention to it, it's going to go into the books all wrong."