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Black men weren’t allowed guns in the early Civil War. He fired one anyway.

Lewis A. Bell, who fired a gun at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia in 1861, is believed to be the Union Army’s first Black combatant

A plaque dedicated to Lewis A. Bell, who may have been the first Black man to fire a gun on behalf of the Union Army during the Civil War at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff on Oct. 21, 1861, is unveiled in Leesburg, Va. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
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The battle was going poorly for the Union soldiers. Just a few hours after they had crossed the Potomac River into Virginia in October 1861, the Confederates pushed back, forcing them to scurry back down steep, 300-foot bluffs.

Lewis A. Bell had traveled alongside the Union troops as a camp worker — not an uncommon role for African Americans at this early point in the Civil War. But as the chaos unfolded around him during his side’s retreat, Bell did the extraordinary: He picked up a gun and fired it at the Confederates.

Black men were not allowed to have guns or participate in fights like this one, known as the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. The shots he sent into the air — the first ones fired for the Union by a Black man, in a state where other African Americans were still enslaved — were remarkable, historians said.

So remarkable that Loudoun County civic leaders honored him Saturday at Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park, a wooded swath of Leesburg where this little-known chapter in Civil War history took place.

“I can’t imagine what standing in his shoes felt like,” Pastor Michelle C. Thomas, president of the Loudoun NAACP, told a few dozen people huddled at the site of the park in near-freezing temperatures Saturday morning. “But I can tell you this: We’re all standing on his shoulders.”

Researchers have been able to uncover few other details about Bell, who likely enlisted with a regiment from south of Boston. Under a cloudless sky, Thomas and other local leaders unveiled a plaque honoring him that featured photos of other African American camp workers.

Still, a series of speakers Saturday emphasized how his contributions represented a bold, early effort from a Black man to take up arms in the Civil War.

“On this territory he’s considered chattel. … He’s got a choice to make,” said Cate Magennis Wyatt, chair of NOVA Parks, which manages the battlefield. “He’s got a choice to make: There are rifles, which if he picks up, he could be imprisoned in the North for using. And if he’s caught and tries to run, he could be lynched.”

Following President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, about 200,000 Black men enlisted in the Union Army and Navy to fight for the United States against slavery, including tens of thousands who were killed or died while serving.

Bell, whose life remains a historical mystery, may have very well been one of them.

Newspaper reports indicate that Bell was born into freedom in Washington, D.C., said Paul McCray, NOVA Parks’s historian. He had been working at the Union Army camp in Poolesville, Md., which was led in part by Col. Edward Baker, a prominent U.S. senator.

Free Black men like Bell, as well as formerly enslaved men who fled to Union lines, often served as camp workers at this early stage in the Civil War, McCray said.

Someone like Bell would have helped with food service and carried gear for a specific officer, often in uniform. It would not have been unusual for him to end up on the battlefield given his job responsibilities.

“He wasn’t there as a combatant. He wasn’t there to fight,” McCray said in an interview. “Circumstances led him to do just that.”

Before the battle on Oct. 21, 1861, Confederate troops were assembled in Leesburg, on the Virginia side of the river. Maryland, where Bell was camping out, had stayed in the Union but nonetheless still allowed slavery.

Two families — one black, one white — shared a harrowing history. Then they met.

A small Union patrol crossed the Potomac to scout the other side, mistaking a line of trees for an unguarded Confederate camp. Reinforcements were sent across to stage a demonstration, McCray said, that might try to push the Confederates out of their strategically important spot in Loudoun County.

It didn’t end up working out that way. The battle-hardened Confederates, fresh off a victory at the First Battle of Bull Run, ended up charging against the much less experienced Union troops, forcing them to scurry back down the bluffs to reach their boats and get back across to Poolesville.

“It really wasn’t an effective way to cross quickly, and later it was a terrible way to retreat quickly,” McCray said. Many soldiers, he noted, either drowned in the chaos or were shot in the river as they fled back across the Potomac.

It was then that Bell made history. Standing next to Union lieutenant J. Evarts Greene and Company F of the 15th Massachusetts Regiment as they defended retreating soldiers, he grabbed a gun and fired.

Bell “supplied himself with arms, and loaded and fired with great spirit,” Abijah Perkins Marvin wrote in “History of Worcester in the War of the Rebellion,” an 1880 account that included that regiment’s history.

Still, as the Union troops were retreating from Ball’s Bluff, Bell and the 15th regiment were captured. The Confederate troops took them to Richmond and held them in a prison, where African Americans like Bell were forced to work as kitchen attendants.

In February 1862, Bell and others were released back to Union forces in a prisoner exchange at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va. Little is known about what happened to him later.

Although five men named Lewis Bell enlisted in the Union Army following the Emancipation Proclamation, some are still working to match one of them to the Bell who fired a gun at Ball’s Bluff.

At Saturday morning’s ceremony, speakers said his contributions stood in stark contrast to those of other Civil War figures whose names have stuck around in this part of Loudoun County.

Thomas, of the Loudoun NAACP, noted that Thomas Ludwell Lee, a lawyer, politician and plantation owner who served as a camp worker on the Confederate side, was part of the family for whom Leesburg is named. A few yards away, small white gravestones were arranged in a circle to denote the remains of 54 Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff.

“All across this nation, African American history has been under attack,” she added. “When you’re able to codify history in the form of interpretive signs, we put the narrative right where it should be — right alongside our Civil War history.”