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The Battlefield Where Black Troops Earned Glory


After spending a sleepless Saturday evening in a sketchy Richmond resort, I drive surprisingly uncongested highways to the unheralded New Market Heights battlefield, the place U.S. Colored Troops made historical past. Promptly at 8:30 a.m., I arrive on the already crowded Four Mile Creek Park parking zone, situated behind a snake-rail fence astride New Market Road. All my deep-weeds battlefield stroll necessities are accounted for: bug spray, lengthy pants, mountain climbing boots, water, snacks, a cellphone and backpack, and curiosity.

Days earlier, Tim Talbott—my New Market Heights information—had messaged me a warning: “It’s supposed to be as hot as blue blazes.” His forecast proves spot-on. Virginia in late July is hell with the lid off. But I determine Talbott—the 52-year-old Central Virginia Battlefields Trust chief administrative officer—received’t thoughts.

“It’s always an honor to be on that ground,” he messaged me in a follow-up to his climate report.

In the parking zone in Henrico, 10 miles southeast of downtown Richmond, Talbott and I change pleasantries. This is our first assembly in particular person, though we’ve made dozens of Civil War–associated connections on-line. Talbott wears blue denims, an olive ballcap with the CVBT emblem, and a maroon T-shirt. Strands of grey seem within the soft-spoken Tennessee native’s black goatee. He lives in Fredericksburg, Va., a 70-mile drive north on beastly Interstate 95.

Talbott has secured permission from Henrico County for us to stroll the core New Market Heights battlefield, the place, on September 29, 1864, 14 U.S. Colored Troops troopers and two of their white officers earned the Medal of Honor. The county owns an important swath of the battlefield, now blanketed by a forest of pine, holly, gum, and oak.

Our battlefield stroll begins at a big rubbish dumpster, behind a Dairy Queen on the alternative aspect of New Market Road. Three feral cats—two black, one grey—scatter as we stroll towards them and disappear into the woods.

New Market Heights has been stiff-armed within the historical past books, however it’s Talbott’s favourite battlefield. Armchair historians typically confuse it with the Battle of New Market, fought within the Shenandoah Valley in mid-May 1864. Talbott’s curiosity within the battle stems from a chat given by knowledgeable historian almost 20 years in the past.

“The way he told the story made it come alive,” he says whereas brushing away pine branches alongside our slim path by the woods.

My curiosity in New Market Heights stems from a gathering at close by Fort Harrison weeks earlier with Damon Radcliffe, the great-great-grandson of Edward Ratcliff. A former slave, Edward served within the thirty eighth U.S. Colored Troops and obtained a kind of 14 Medals of Honor. Damon and I couldn’t stroll the battlefield that day, however I vowed to return. My mantra: If you need to perceive a battle, it’s essential to stroll the bottom.

Fifteen minutes into our stroll, we attain a piece of woods the place the earth undulates, like a haphazardly tossed brown blanket. We have arrived on the stays of earthworks created by the famed Texas Brigade.

“Used to be chest high,” Talbott says of defenses, now solely as excessive as three toes in locations.

Piles of brown leaves, in addition to gnarly tree roots, scattered damaged twigs, tree branches and limbs, carpet the forest flooring. Mayflies make pests of themselves whereas cicadas buzz and click on. About a half-mile away, visitors hums on six lanes of Interstate 295, which slices by the battlefield like a bayonet by the center.

In a cost about dawn towards the earthworks, Black troops shouted: “Remember Fort Pillow! No quarter for the Rebels.Nearly six months earlier, troops commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest had massacred USCT at Fort Pillow in Tennessee.

On that bleak, foggy morning at New Market Heights, Black troopers have been out for revenge and an opportunity to show their mettle. With one nice push by the Union Army, USCT troopers may quickly be marching into the capital of the Confederacy.

Behind earthworks, the Texas Brigade, some 2,000-strong, fired 1000’s of rounds into the oncoming USCT troopers they despised. Meanwhile, Rebel artillery, positioned at reverse ends of the heights behind the brigade, poured iron into the USCT.

Fifty to 75 yards in entrance of their earthworks, the Rebels had positioned abatis—sharpened tree branches—and picket chevaux de fries, the distant cousin of barbed wire. Gaps within the defenses funneled the Black troopers right into a kill zone.

“The Texans,” a Georgia officer wrote, “killed niggers galore.”

Confederate troopers sometimes superior past their earthworks to strip the lifeless of footwear, weapons, and ammunition. They murdered not less than one captured USCT soldier behind their traces.

Talbott and I enterprise deeper into the woods, to get a USCT soldier’s perspective of the battlefield.

Don Troiani’s ‘Three Medals of Honor’ depicts the second within the Battle of New Market Heights when Lieutenant Nathan Edgerton, Sgt. Maj. Thomas R. Hawkins, and Sergeant Alexander Kelly of the sixth USCT save their regimental flag.
(©Don Troiani. All Rights Reserved 2022/Bridgeman Images)

Perspiration pours down my arm, soaking my reporter’s pocket book and blurring my scribbled phrases. I’ve by no means sweat a lot on a battlefield—even in Resaca, Ga., throughout a reenactment on a blistering mid-May afternoon.

Soon, the drone of interstate visitors turns into a reminiscence. The floor slopes gently up towards the Texas Brigade’s earthworks, which stretched for roughly ¾ of a mile. But the tree-covered panorama—largely open floor in 1864—makes New Market Heights largely a battlefield of the thoughts.

To create a path by the woods, Talbott makes use of an extended stick with swat away holly branches and spider webs. Neither of us desires to take dwelling a blood-sucking tick as a reminiscence of this expertise.

“Is this remote enough for you?” Talbott asks.

Eighty yards or so past Rebel earthworks, we cease on the fringe of a 50-acre rock quarry crammed with water—a nasty Twentieth-century scar on hallowed floor.

“A friend of mine jokes that you could only give kayak tours here now,” Talbott says. 

In Talbott’s good world, the quarry can be emptied and stuffed in. The battlefield the place a whole bunch of Black troopers and their White officers shed blood can be restored to its 1864 look and interpreted. Soldiers equivalent to Corporal Miles James of the thirty sixth USCT, among the many 14 Medal of Honor recipients from this battle, can be not less than as well-known as Benjamin Butler—the Army of the James common who commanded them.

Born in Princess Anne County, Va., James had enlisted in Norfolk in November 1863. A 34-year-old farmer, he most likely was enslaved earlier than the conflict. He stood 5 toes 7 with black eyes and hair.

Within 30 yards of Texas Brigade defenses, a bullet burrowed into James’ higher left arm, shattering bone. Somehow the corporal continued to load and fireplace his weapon together with his good arm, urging on comrades because the battle swirled. James endured the amputation of his ineffective limb on the battlefield. Later, the corporal obtained remedy at Fort Monroe, 75 miles east within the Virginia coast, and a promotion to sergeant.

Despite shedding an arm—a golden ticket out of the service if he wished it—James refused to go away the military. In February 1865, Colonel Alonzo Draper—who commanded James’ brigade at New Market Heights—wrote Fort Monroe’s chief surgeon:

“He is one of the bravest men I ever saw; and is in every respect a model soldier. He is worth more with his single arm, than half a dozen ordinary men.”

James served within the U.S. Army till a incapacity discharge in October 1865. Hundreds of different Black troopers like him, almost all of them former slaves, fought in addition to James at New Market Heights.

“Unbelievable bravery,” Talbott says of the USCT.

At Four Mile Creek, which snakes its means by the battlefield earlier than dumping into the James River, Talbott and I speak in regards to the white officers on horseback who turned prime targets of the Rebels.

“This is where the Rebels thought the USCT would become nothing but rabble after the officers fell,” Talbott says. The creek itself turned a devilish obstacle to USCT troopers beneath withering fireplace.

Four Mile Creek, Virginia
As they rushed towards New Market Heights, the attacking USCT troopers needed to battle throughout boggy Four Mile Creek. Some of their white mounted officers fell at this location, however the Black males surged on and up the ridge.
(Photo by John Banks)

At creekside, I be taught extra about Talbott, too.

He grew up in Madison, Ind., a cease on the Underground Railroad—the community escaped slaves used to flee to free states and Canada. At his 1,000-student highschool, he performed soccer (“not very well”) and grew to get pleasure from rap and hip-hop—which a few of his white friends thought unusual.

Talbott’s highschool historical past instructor—“a 1960s hippie”—uncovered him to “all the cultural stuff,” together with the Civil Rights period and two of its main personalities, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. For the previous 30 years, he has immersed himself within the experiences of Black individuals in the course of the Civil War.

On his cellphone, Talbott shows wallpaper of Frederick Douglass—the well-known Black orator, abolitionist, author, and reformer. The copy of the portray on his maroon T-shirt, now drenched with sweat, is of a one-legged USCT soldier on crutches. Talbott goals of a monument at Four Mile Creek Park to honor the USCT, who pressured the Texas Brigade to fall again to a secondary line. The Black troops in the end entered Richmond, however not till after the capital’s fall in April 1865.

As we stroll by the Virginia forest, Talbott and I ponder why this battle—and this battlefield—have been consigned to the shadows of historical past. Racism? Indifference? Ignorance? In the late Nineteen Eighties and early Nineteen Nineties, an effort failed by a Black navy historical past group to have the battlefield named a National Historic Landmark.

Thankfully, a whole bunch of acres of the New Market Heights battlefield have been saved by the American Battlefield Trust and different preservation teams. But a lot has been misplaced eternally due to fashionable improvement.

Two hours after our stroll started, sweaty and soiled, we depart the woods and September 1864 behind. On a pathway alongside New Market Road to the Four Mile Creek Park parking zone, Talbott and I speak in regards to the battle, preservation, and Civil War reminiscence.

“Many people say they love history, but what they really love is nostalgia,” he says. “I love messy history. That’s where the good stuff is.”

Messy historical past—that’s an ideal encapsulation of the Battle of New Market Heights.

John Banks, writer of two Civil War books, has one other one coming in 2023. Check out A Civil War Road Trip of a Lifetime (Gettysburg Publishing) for extra on this story. For extra on New Market Heights, together with soldier tales, go to battleofnewmarketheights.org

this text first appeared in civil conflict instances journal

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