United States Colored Troops led the way on September 29, 1864, when Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James attacked Confederate fortifications southeast of Richmond. A Confederate artillery position north of New Market Road, atop New Market Heights, dominated the approach to Fort Harrison, a stronghold located to the west in the main Confederate defensive line. In front of the heights, the USCTs confronted trenches along the road, with two lines of abatis (felled trees with their intertwined branches facing south, as effective as barbed wire became in later wars) as well as a swamp. The USCTs had to fight their way through these defenses, climb the Heights, and capture the artillery to help protect other troops attacking Fort Harrison.
The USCTs started their attack just after dawn, hampered by a thick ground fog. Struggling through the swamp and abatis, many in the leading regiments were cut down as the fog lifted. When their white officers were killed or wounded, USCT sergeants took command of companies, and the men retreated, reformed, and tried again. By the time they reached the Heights, most of the Confederates had fled, and the USCTs secured it with little opposition. The next day, Confederate counterattacks failed, and the Federals held their positions. Fourteen USCT soldiers, and two white officers, were awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor.
Sgt. Christian Fleetwood, as well as Sgt. Alfred B. Hilton and Pvt. Charles Veale, all in the 4th USCT, received Medals of Honor for rallying their comrades with the national colors. Sgt. Powhatan Beaty, shown here wearing the Medal of Honor he received on April 6, 1865, had enlisted on June 7, 1863, and became first sergeant in Co. G, 5th USCT. At New Market Heights, when the officers were killed and the company decimated at the abatis, he took command of the remaining fifteen soldiers and led them forward. Beaty was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1837. By 1849, he was living in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he became a wood-turner and part-time actor. He returned to Cincinnati after the war and resumed acting, performing in 1884 at Ford’s Theatre to an audience that included Frederick Douglass. Beaty died on December 6, 1916.
Today, portions of the New Market Heights battlefield are protected by the National Park Service, Henrico County, and the American Battlefield Trust.
USCT soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor after New Market Heights