Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Black heroes of the Civil War still struggle for recognition

July 19, 1998

By Jonathan Tilove

RICHMOND, Va. — With his black skin and Union blue re-enactor’s fatigues, Kenneth Brown believes it the better part of valor not to trespass on the privately owned fields and forests that were once the Civil War battleground of New Market Heights.

But standing roadside, Brown surveys the hallowed grounds located just above and beyond the onetime capital of the Confederacy. Here in the early autumn of 1864, in little better than an hour, 14 black Union soldiers won Medals of Honor for wresting the Heights, amid terrible casualties, from some of the Confederacy’s toughest troops, and thereby proving to a doubting nation the mettle of their race.

As a new memorial is dedicated this week in Washington to the 200,000 black soldiers, and the 7,000 white officers, who were a part of the U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War, Brown knows all too well that if war is hell, remembrance can be a battle all its own with reverberations that simultaneously echo the racial politics of 134 years ago and today.

It was from among those 14 Medal of Honor winners that Brown, who grew to hate the Confederate hero worship of his hometown, discovered a hometown hero of his own in Powhatan Beaty.

Beaty, a Richmond-born black was, at 24, a first sergeant in the United States Colored Troops when his white officer was felled charging New Market Heights. Beaty, without hesitation, like others among the medal winners, took command of his company and helped lead them to victory.

It is a story, a history, that is a source of inspiration for Brown, a 40-year-old schoolteacher, and yet, because so few people know it, an equal cause for despair.

‘It’s kind of sad,’ laments Brown, standing aside the National Park Service road marker identifying the site. ‘I’d say 90 percent of the population of Richmond have no idea this battle took place, and that includes 90 percent of the African-American population of Richmond.’

By New Year’s Day 1865, according to historian Shelby Foote, blacks in the Union ranks well exceeded the total size of all the armies of the South. They represented some 10 percent of all Union forces. And yet, they have, to now, occupied an infinitesimal fraction of America’s contemplation and celebration of its most fascinating and horrific four years.

The African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, which will list the names of every person to have served in the United States Colored Troops, is a beginning to try to change that.

What is especially stunning about New Market Heights, though, is not just the heroism displayed there, but the raw racial politics that shaped its destiny.

The deployment of black troops in this engagement by Gen. Benjamin Butler was calculated to prove their worth. Their battle cry (‘Remember Fort Pillow,’ as recommended by Butler) recalled a previous massacre of black soldiers.

And then there was the extra enmity of the Confederates — who professed to take special aim, and executed black prisoners between sieges of the Heights.

And Brown and others believe that the story of New Market Heights continues to receive short shrift, at least in part, because of race today.

‘There is prejudice even today about this story,’ says Richard Groover, a white filmmaker who recently made a 30-minute documentary about the Medal of Honor winners, ‘The Forgotten Fourteen,’ based in large part on Brown’s research.

‘I had a lot of trouble getting white re-enactors to turn out for the filming but they would have been happy to be in a film about some other battle that some black guys had not won,’ says Groover, whose film does rely on what appears to be a rather depleted group of Confederate re-enactors.

William A. DeShields Jr., a black retired Army colonel who has started an institute in Maryland to study black military history, says it took years of effort by him and others to get even the road marker at the site, located in conservative Henrico County.

Park Service officials, whose wish list would include a New Market Heights battlefield site, acknowledge that local landowners are determinedly averse to that prospect. And DeShields, Brown and others believe that aversion is augmented by a lurking distaste thereabouts to creating a potential tourist shrine to black heroism.

Civil War historian Noah Andre Trudeau, author of ‘Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865,’ says New Market Heights also suffers a certain obscurity because, to military historians, it was part of an ultimately failed bid to seize Richmond six months before it ultimately fell.

But DeShields argues that from his perspective, no military encounter in American history better symbolizes the black soldiers’ ongoing struggle to prove themselves.

‘If you really wanted to find one significant rallying point for all the achievements of all the blacks in all the wars, this is the battle,’ says DeShields, though he acknowledges it has been the unhappy lot of black soldiers to have to prove their worth, once and for all time, in war after war.

But the 14 Medals of Honor bestowed upon the black veterans of New Market Heights (plus another two for their white officers) is stunning, considering that only two other black soldiers received the Medal throughout the war.

And while the movie ‘Glory’ told the heroic story of the doomed assault of the black soldiers and their white commanders of the 54th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on Fort Wagner in South Carolina a year earlier, the black troops prevailed at New Market Heights. (Brown is a re-enactor with the modern 54th, which helped to make ‘Glory’ and some of whom appear in ‘The Forgotten Fourteen.’)

But John Aliyetti, an amateur historian who wrote an article on the battle for Civil War Times, says as important as the question of why so many were honored for their service at New Market Heights, is ‘why so few,’ undoubtedly deserving, did not receive it elsewhere.

(Some 1,200 Medals of Honor, first created in the Civil War, were awarded to soldiers throughout the war.)

The simple answer is that they did not have a patron like Benjamin Butler.

Butler, a Massachusetts politician, entered the war an unlikely champion of black soldiers. He had, in fact, before the war, supported Jefferson Davis for the Democratic nomination for president. But over the course of the war, Butler became ever more eager to see blacks prove themselves on the battlefield, and the battle of New Market Heights was explicitly calculated to that end, an end which he felt was spectacularly fulfilled.

‘I felt in my heart that the capacity of the Negro race for soldiers had there been fully settled forever,’ he would write later.

Indeed, taking no chances, Butler had Tiffany create, at his own expense, a silver medal for 197 of his black troops.

Even some years later, speaking in Congress, where he would lead the impeachment effort against President Andrew Johnson, Butler would recall New Market Heights with raw emotion:

‘There, in a space not wider than the clerk’s desk, and three hundred yards long, lay the dead bodies of 543 of my colored comrades, slain in defense of their country, who had laid down their lives to uphold its flag and its honor, as a willing sacrifice.’

‘And as I rode along, guiding my horse this way and that, lest he should profane with his hoofs what seemed to me the sacred dead, and as I looked at their bronzed faces upturned in the shining sun, as if in mute appeal against the wrongs of the country for which they had given their lives, and whose flag had been to them a flag of stripes, in which no star of glory had ever shone for them . . . I swore to myself an oath: ‘May my right hand forget its cunning, and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if ever I fail to defend the rights of men who have given their blood for me and my country this day and for their race forever.’

But to Richard J. Sommers, a Civil War historian at the U.S. Army Military History Institute at the War College in Carlisle, Butler’s racial ambitions distorted his military judgment.

In his classic study, ‘Richmond Redeemed,’ Sommers contends that Butler’s strategizing at New Market Heights was infected with a ‘militarily irrelevant Negrophilia.’

‘His insistence on spearheading the attack with relatively inexperienced Negroes and his subsequent mooning over their corpses handicapped his attack and his perception of its results,’ writes Sommers.

But, says Sommers, Ulysses Grant, arriving at New Market Heights shortly after the battle ended, knew better.

Wondering about the dearth of Confederate dead and prisoners, Grant concluded, correctly, says Sommers, that the black troops had seized the Heights only when the crack Texas Brigade defending it withdrew to be deployed elsewhere.

‘There is no question of the fact that the blacks were very brave,’ says Sommers. But, he says, ‘as far as I’m concerned there is equally no question that it wasn’t until the Confederates voluntarily abandoned their position that the blacks were able to move forward and occupy it.’

Brown is vexed by the coldness of Sommers’ assessment.

‘It’s always, ‘They were brave but . . . ,’ says Brown. ‘With blacks there is always a ‘but.’ ‘

Even in his hometown, Beaty remains an unknown and unregarded.

It is not even known, for example, whether Beaty, born in Richmond in 1838 (some accounts differ by a year or two) was born slave or free. There was a sizable free black population in Richmond at that time, and, in any case, by 1849 he was living in Cincinnati.

In 1862, Beaty became part of what was the first black unit of the war with the formation of the Black Brigade of Cincinnati. It was organized to build fortifications for the city in wake of fears of Confederate attack. The men worked without arms or uniform, and after three weeks were disbanded.

When the chance came to join an actual military unit, Beaty enlisted with the 5th U.S. Colored Troops in 1863.

After the war, he worked for at least a time, according to the pension records, as a porter on a steamship between Vicksburg and St. Louis, but spent most of his days in Cincinnati, where he died in 1916 at the age of 78.

For Brown, the discovery of Beaty and of black soldiers’ true and proud place in the war, has helped him make his own peace with his hometown. With his own heroes, and his greater understanding of the war, he no longer feels it necessary to revile Robert E. Lee or J.E.B. Stuart as nothing but ‘people trying to preserve slavery.’

‘I became more open,’ he says.

But too many blacks, he says, are not open even to the proud truth of their own history. Too often they turn away from any mention of the Civil War, he says. ‘They have an embarrassment about slavery days. They don’t want to think about it.’

Dropping by one of the Park Service’s nearby Richmond battlefield sites, Brown notices a young black man eyeing a display on black soldiers in the Civil War.

‘Do you want to know more?’ Brown, still wearing his Union fatigues, asks the young man.

‘No,’ comes the quick reply with a shake of the head.

‘This is what I am up against,’ says Brown as he walks away, shaking his own head.


Written by jonathantilove

July 27, 2022 at 11:34 am

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