More than 180,000 Black troops served in the Civil War—comprising 10% of the Union’s forces. In and around Richmond, Black Union soldiers distinguished themselves in battle and service. They fought for what white Americans received at birth: the right to be called Americans.
In September of 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant sent Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James to attack Confederate defenses east of Richmond. If successful, the campaign would make the capture of the Confederate capital possible. Of the 20,000 Union troops under Butler’s command, 3,000 were U.S. Colored Troops (USCT).
President Lincoln had authorized the use of Black soldiers nearly two years before. But, despite many acts of heroism in previous battles, white commanders remained skeptical of their capabilities. The Union did not grant Black troops commanding roles or commissions—as such, they could not give orders. Thus, USCT officers were always white. General Butler, however, believed that Black troops could fight just as well as whites. And he wanted to prove it, so he ordered that a USCT division lead one of the battles. On the morning of September 29, 1864, the Black troops—some of them native Virginians—charged the Confederate earthworks at New Market Heights, just eleven miles outside of Richmond. The fighting was brutal. And though the division suffered 800 casualties in just one hour, their endurance and bravery compelled them through the enemy line to victory.
Butler had been more than right. Given the opportunity to prove their patriotism, heroism and skill, the USCTs did not disappoint. In fact, several of them did take on commanding positions during the battle after their white officers had been killed. Their performance amidst the chaos of the Battle of New Market Heights impressed the Union superior officers, who awarded fourteen Medals of Honor to the USCTs. Among the recipients were these native Virginians:
Only sixteen Medals of Honor were awarded to Black troops during the entirety of the Civil War. Of those sixteen, fourteen of those medals were awarded to the USCTs at New Market Heights.
The Black troops who so bravely fought to penetrate Richmond’s defenses were subsequently garrisoned at nearby Fort Harrison, also captured during Butler’s campaign. The fort, now a unit of Richmond National Battlefield Park, lay just eight miles from Richmond.
|Authors||Valentine Museum Staff|
|Work Title||Black Troops at New Market|
|Published||November 12, 2020|
|Updated||November 14, 2023|
|Copyright||© 2023 The Valentine Museum|