MEMORIAL DAY 2024 : 26 Black Medal of Honor winners and nobody’s asking ‘why’?

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Sgt. William H. Carney, 54th Massachusetts. First African American to win Medal of Honor. July 18, 1863. Battle of Fort Wagner.

James Price was an intern with the Richmond National Battlefield Park in 1994 when he first learned of the Battle of New Market Heights that occurred September 29-30, 1864. This battle is also known as the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. Actually, these are two prongs of a many-sided battle that included engagements at nearby Laurel Hill, and at Forts Harrison, Johnson, and Gilmer, all important outposts prepared to defend all the approaches to Richmond, which was less than 20 miles from the field of action. All these battle sites were linked directly or indirectly to the lengthy Siege of Peterburg.

Price had a problem understanding why there was so little attention given to the amazing feats and acts of valor of the Black troops that fought at Petersburg, Chaffin’s Farm, and New Market Heights. 

“Why (wasn’t) a battle in which fourteen African Americans had received the Medal of Honor being talked about?” he wanted to know. “In order to force myself to learn as much about the battle and the United States Colored Troops as possible, I began writing a blog entitled ‘The Sable Arm’ which ‘took off’ much quicker than I had anticipated. It was through the blog that I was approached by The History Press to write the Sesquicentennial history of the battle.”

And on Sept. 15, 2011, Price became the proud, published author of  “The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword,” published by The History Press.

In his book, Price tells of how Union Commanding Gen. Ulysses Grant was engaged against Lee in the Overland Campaign of 1864. But by late May the two were at a standstill after the battles of Cold Harbor and Spotsylvania Courthouse. Grant began thinking about seizing all the railroads that were supplying Richmond. Petersburg was the connecting point of four different railroads that supplied the Confederate capital, that lay 24 miles to the north.


Grant, with his Army then on the north side of the James River, explains in his Personal Memoirs how he decided to focus on capturing Petersburg. 

“On the 14th (of June),” he wrote, “I took a steamer and ran up to Bermuda Hundred to see General (Benjamin F.) Butler for the purpose of directing a movement against Petersburg, while our troops of the Army of the Potomac were crossing.”

The capture of Petersburg became one of the main objectives of the Union leader. Beginning in mid-June, 1864, the Siege of Petersburg would last until March 25, 1865.

Between Petersburg and Richmond, however, lay a number of well-fortified outposts that were established to defend the Confederate capital at all costs. 

General Butler, noted for his declaration of liberated Black men and women as “contrabands of war,” had approached Grant requesting an opportunity to fight his way into Richmond. Although Grant was skeptical that Butler could achieve that objective, he nevertheless gave him permission in mid-September to proceed because it would pull some Confederate troops out of the trenches in Petersburg. Butler’s plan called for a two-pronged assault against the right and center of the Confederate lines east of Richmond. General Charles Birney’s reinforced X Corps would strike the Confederate right, while Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord’s XVIII Corps would assault the center. Gen. Kautz’s Cavalry division was to accompany them to exploit any successes.

Butler’s willingness to enlist Black men into his command before Washington adopted the policy of deploying an “African Brigade” was widely known and tolerated by the President.  The men who made up Butler’s USCT units came from all over, and while many were former slaves, many were also free men who had enlisted to fight for freedom and equality. 

Among Butler’s legitimate USCT fighters were Sgt. Maj. Christian A. Fleetwood of the 4th USCT, a freeborn college graduate who had traveled to Liberia and was active in the American Colonization Society before the war; former slave Richard Etheridge of the 36th USCT, who won the Coast Guard’s Gold Life-Saving Medal for rescuing an entire ship’s crew in 1896.

 Powhatan Beaty of the 5th USCT was born a slave near Richmond, won the Medal of Honor at New Market Heights, and later became known as an accomplished Shakespearean actor.  


Early in the morning of September 29, 1864, 14,000 Union soldiers stood alongside a bend of the James River known as Deep Bottom prepared to move north towards Richmond. But nearly 9,000 Confederate troops stood ready at Chaffin’s Bluff and New Market Heights to block them and push them back south and into the James River, if possible.

A brigade of Colored troops – USCT – attacked New Market Heights but was repulsed. Christian Fleetwood, serving in the attacking brigade, was awarded a Medal of Honor for his bravery in this early assault. Brig. General William Birney, brother of Gen. Charles Birney, led a brigade of U.S. Colored troops against Fort Gregg just south of Fort Gilmer, but they too were repulsed by the well-armed Confederates.   

Brigadier General Charles Paine stormed the Rebel defense on New Market Heights with his Black troops while the rest of the X Corps stood by in reserve. The first attack began at dawn in a heavy fog with the 4th and 6th U.S.C.T. regiments leading the assault. 

With scattershot actions being attempted from several directions during the two days of battles, the fighting was intense and severe enough so that when it was over – a disappointing failure, no less – 14 African American troops would be awarded Medals of Honor while proving to their commanding Gen. Butler that they could and had performed above and beyond the call of duty.

 Throughout the entire course of the Civil War, only 18 Black soldiers and 8 sailors were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, for a total of 26. Why would 14 of that number be awarded to the Black troops who stormed New Market Heights?


In his 1892 autobiography, simply titled “Butler’s Book”, the general explained why he had pushed so hard to see that the Black troops should be awarded for their valor at New Market Heights and Chaffin’s Farm.

Butler was aware of the difficulty the Black troops would have in gaining praise and rewards equal to those of the white troops. The Army began enlisting Black troops in May 1863. But Blacks were forbidden from gaining officer commissions. All Black regiments, 175 during the course of the Civil War, had white officers. But Butler wanted to instill in his men, Black and white, a sense of pride and feeling of appreciation for their work as soldiers. 

“My white regiments were always nervous when standing in line flanked by Colored troops, lest the Colored regiments should give way and they (the whites) be flanked,” Butler wrote. “This fear was a deep-seated one and spread far and wide, and the Negro had no sufficient opportunity to demonstrate his valor and his staying qualities of a soldier. And the further cry was that the Negro never struck a good blow for their own freedom. Therefore, I determined to put them in position, to demonstrate the fact of the value of the Negro as a soldier coute qui coute (cost what it may) and that the experiment should be one of which no man should doubt, if it attained success. Hence the attack by the Negro column on New Market Heights.”

After New Market Heights, he said, the Black regiments were looked upon as the safest flanking regiments in the theater of action.

“I had the fullest reports made to me of the acts of individual bravery of Colored men on the occasion and I had it done for the Negro soldiers, by my own order, what the government has never done for its white soldiers – I had a medal struck of like size, weight, quality, fabrication, and intrinsic value with those which Queen Victoria gave with her own hand to her distinguished private soldiers in the Crimea,” Butler said. “I have caused an engraving of that medal to be printed in this book in honor of the Colored soldiers and of myself.”


On April 6, 1865, the War Department announced the recipients of the Medal of Honor for heroism at New Market Heights. In addition to Fleetwood and Beaty mentioned above, 12 others completed the list of Medal of Honor winners at New Market Heights and Chaffin’s Farm: William H. Barnes, James H. Bronson, James Gardiner, James H. Harris, Thomas R. Hawkins, Alfred B. Hilton, Milton M. Holland, Miles James, Alexander Kelly, Robert A. Pinn, Edward Ratcliff, and Charles Veal. All were members of either the 5th or 6th USCT regiments.

Two additional Black Medal of Honors winners from the Navy and the famous 54th Massachusetts regiment must be included in this list of heroes. 

Sgt. William Carney of the 54th Massachusetts was the first African American to be awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery under fire at the Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. Carney, though wounded twice, was recognized for  “recovering and returning the unit’s U.S. Flag to Union lines.” 

Navy Landsman Wilson Brown, a native of Natchez, while serving aboard the ship The Hartsford on August 5, 1864, during the Battle of Mobile Bay, was blown through a hatch and landed unconscious on the deck below. One other survivor, John Lawson, was thrown against a bulkhead, refused medical treatment, and returned to work though wounded in one leg. Both Brown and Lawson were awarded the Medal of Honor on December 31, 1864.

Maj. Gen. Butler genuinely wanted to reward the Black soldiers who had shown extraordinary valor at Chaffin’s Farm. He could not promote the Black sergeants to lieutenants because they were not allowed to become commissioned officers. Instead, he decided to use the Medal of Honor, which had been established in 1862. At that time, the requirements for the Medal of Honor were less stringent than modern standards, yet it was still an award of great distinction. Morris Chester, a Black reporter with the Philadelphia Press, reported with pride about the achievements of all the troops of Paine’s division. 

“The division,” he said, “had covered itself with glory and wiped out effectively the imputation against the fighting qualities of Colored troops.”


Memorial Day is the proper and fitting time to remember the heroes and dedicated fighting men and women who gave their all so that the future generations should have the peace and comfort that the committed warriors hardly knew. 

General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization of Union veterans) selected May 30, 1868, as “a national day of remembrance for Civil War dead.” The Memorial Day tradition was a cherished holiday for Black Mississippians for more than a century dating from the first Memorial Day celebration in 1868. It has become less of a celebratory event in the last 50 years or so.

“Memorial Day is a sacred occasion when we pay tribute to all the military men and women who have died in service to the United States,” Theodore R. Johnson III wrote in a special tribute published in The Root on May 25, 1015. “It is also an observance that owes its creation to Blacks. This tradition began when newly freed slaves decorated the grave sites of Civil War soldiers as a way to honor those who had fought for their freedom. But Blacks were not just passive bystanders. Many of them volunteered to serve in the military, ensuring they were active in reshaping the United States to be truer to its founding principles.”

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MEMORIAL DAY 2024 : 26 Black Medal of Honor winners and nobody’s asking ‘why’?

By Earnest McBride
May 28, 2024