Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood Was One of 14 Black Soldiers Awarded the Medal of Honor for Action at the Battle of New Market Heights
In late September 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant made plans for a pair of simultaneous assaults against Confederate positions both north and south of the James River near Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. The Army of the Potomac would hit the Confederate lines near Petersburg while the Army of the James, under Major General Benjamin Butler, would attack near Richmond.
Under Butler’s battle plan, two divisions of Major General Edward O.C. Ord’s 18th Corps would attack Fort Harrison, while Major General David Birney’s 10th Corps, plus Brigadier General Charles J. Paine’s division from the 18th Corps, would assault the Confederate works at nearby New Market Heights. Paine’s division, consisting entirely of regiments of United States Colored Troops (USCT) was selected to lead the New Market Heights assault. The two attacks were set for September 29th.
Opposing the U.S. forces at New Market Heights were about 2900 Confederates, including Brigadier General John Gregg’s infantry brigade of Texas and Arkansas regiments, Brigadier General Martin W. Gary’s cavalry brigade, and artillery. There were also wooden impediments in front of the Confederate works, including downed trees and chavaux-de-frise—sharpened downed trees connected together with logs. Any advance across such ground would be costly to an attacking force.
Paine ordered his 3rd Brigade, commanded by Colonel Samuel A. Duncan, to make the assault. This brigade consisted of just two regiments, the 4th and 6th USCT, about 750 men. This outnumbered force deployed in a 200 yard long line, and at approximately 5:30 a.m., the brigade was ordered forward.
The brigade advanced through early morning fog. The Confederates sprang into action, concentrating as much fire as possible on the U.S. troops, even more so when they discovered they were fighting USCTs. Some managed to make it through the impediments and reached the Confederate works, but were killed or captured. Colonel Duncan was hit four times.
Among those making the assault was Sergeant Major Christian A. Fleetwood of the 4th USCT, who recalled the attack:
Our regiment lined up for the charge with eleven officers and 350 enlisted men…Our adjutant, George Allen, supervised the right, and I, as sergeant-major, the left. When the charge was started our color guard was complete. Only one of the twelve came off that field on his own feet. Most of the others are still there. Early in the rush one of the sergeants went down, a bullet cutting his flag staff in two and passing through his body. The other sergeant, Alfred B. Hilton of Company H, a magnificent specimen of manhood, over six feet tall and splendidly proportioned, caught up the other flag and pressed forward with them both.
It was a deadly hailstorm of bullets, sweeping men down as hailstones sweep the leaves from the trees, and it was not long before he also went down, shot through the leg. A he fell he held up the flags and shouted: “Boys, save the colors!”
Before they could touch the ground, Corporal Charles Veal, of Company D, had seized the blue flag, and I the American flag, which had been presented to us by the patriotic women of our home in Baltimore.
It was very evident that there was too much work cut out for our regiments. 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 proved that they knew how to shoot and largely outnumbered us. We struggled through the two lines of abatis, a few getting throught the palisades, but it was sheer madness, and those of us who were able had to get out as best we could. Reaching the line of our reserves and no commissioned officer being in sight, I rallied the survivors around the flag, rounding up at first eighty-five men and three commissioned officers. During the day about thirty more came along, all that was left.
Fleetwood, Veal, and Hilton of the 4th USCT would all be awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery at the Battle of New Market Heights. Lieutenant William Appleton, one of the 4th’s white officers, also was awarded a Medal of Honor. Sergeant Major Thomas Hawkins and Sergeant Alexander Kelly, plus Lieutenant Nathan H. Edgerton of the 6th USCT were awarded Medals of Honor for their actions as well. Duncan’s brigade suffered heavy casualties; The 4th USCT lost 27 men killed, 136 wounded, and 14 missing while the 6th USCT had 41 dead, 160 wounded and 8 missing.
With Duncan’s brigade driven back, Colonel Alonzo G. Draper’s 2nd Brigade of Paine’s division was ordered to assault the works. Draper’s command included the 5th, 36th, and 38th USCT regiments. Instead of spreading his men out like Duncan had done, Draper arranged his men in a column with the 5th in the front, and with the 36th and then the 38th behind each other. Draper’s brigade endured punishing Confederate fire for about a half hour before it tapered off as the Rebels were withdrawn to reinforce the line around Fort Harrison, which had fallen to Union forces, leaving Richmond threatened. Draper’s men charged forward and captured the works from the remaining rear guard.
Draper’s brigade also suffered a high number of casualties. The 5th USCT had 28 killed, 185 wounded, and 23 missing; the 36th lost 21 killed and 87 wounded and the 38th lost 17 killed and 94
wounded. Nine soldiers in Draper’s brigade were awarded Medals of Honor. Medals were awarded to Powhatan Beaty, James H. Bronson, Milton M. Holland, and Robert Pinn, all sergeants in the 5th USCT; Private James Gardiner and Corporal Miles James of the 36th USCT; and from the 38th USCT, Sergeants Edward Ratcliff and James A. Harris plus Private William H. Barnes. In all, 16 Medals of Honor were awarded for action at the Battle of New Market Heights, 14 to African American soldiers and two to white officers.
The Battle of New Market Heights by James S. Price
Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor, Volume I, by Walter F. Beyer, and Oscar F. Keydel
“Who Were These Heroes?” In The Negro History Bulletin, December 1959. Volume XXIII, No.3.
The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864-April 1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau
Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 42, Part 1
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