Today is the anniversary of a historic event that has special significance to black history in Harford County.
It was on Sept. 29, 1864, during the Civil War, that the Union army for the first time deployed division-sized units of black soldiers in a victorious battle.
The engagement, the Battle of New Market Heights, Va., proved to doubters that black soldiers could fight just as well as whites.
Ablack soldier from Harford County, Sgt. Alfred B. Hilton, played a courageous role in the battle. His behavior that day earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was the only black soldier from Harford to earn that medal during the war. But the story has largely been forgotten.
Alfred B. Hilton was born near Level in northeastern Harford County, probably about 1842. Hilton enlisted in the Union Army on Aug. 11, 1863, as did his brother, Henry, several days later. Both became part of the 4th regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, or USCT. Alfredwas promoted to sergeant as a color bearer. This was an important job. In the midst of a noisy, confused battle, soldiers often could nothear orders. They knew what to do by looking to see if the flag was moving forward or backward.
In 1864, the 4th USCT was sent to Virginia to assist in the attempt by Ulysses S. Grant to capture the townof Petersburg. In the late summer, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, the commander of the Army of the James, came up with a scheme to quickly end the war.
Butler knew that the Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee, had transferred many Confederate troops from Richmond to Petersburg. Butler's plan called for a surprise attack across the James Riverand through Richmond's undermanned southeastern defenses. The Union troops would approach the city on the New Market Road. A bluff about 50 feet high overlooked a portion of the road. Trenches containing Confederate troops and artillery were located on this hill, called New Market Heights.
A black division that included the 4th USCT was assigned the job of assaulting the heights. The regiment that led the charge faced two lines of obstacles consisting of felled trees with sharpened branches facing the attackers.
The Confederates remained silent until the division was entangled in the first line of obstructions. Then they opened with musket and cannon.
Sgt. Maj. Christian A. Fleetwood of Baltimore, the regiment's highest-ranking black soldier, reported that early in the rush, one of the color-bearers went down. The other color-bearer sergeant, Hilton, caught the flag and pressed forward with both.
"It was a deadly hailstorm of bullets, sweeping men down as hailstones sweep leaves from the trees," Fleetwood wrote. Hilton was a conspicuous target -- a tall man, carrying two flags and leading the regiment.
Hilton made it as far as the second line of abatis, where he went down, shot through the right leg.
After 40 minutes, casualties exceeded 50 percent. "It was sheer madness," Fleetwood wrote later. "Those of us who were able had to get out asbest we could." Fleetwood rallied the survivors and retreated, taking out 85 enlisted men and three officers.
Other black regiments marched into position and resumed the attack. The Rebel commander had learned that Butler's men were conducting a simultaneous assault on a fort to the west. The capture of that fort threatened to cut off the heights. The Rebels retreated, leaving behind a small rear guard.
As the Union soldiers realized what had happened, they renewed the charge, overwhelming the defenders. Hilton was evacuated to a military hospital at Fort Monroe, Va. His right leg was amputated at the knee.The regiment's commander recommended Hilton for the Congressional Medal of Honor. Three weeks after the battle, Hilton died of complications. He was about 22 years old. He was buried at a military cemetery at Hampton, Va.
Today in Harford County there are no monuments to Alfred B. Hilton. No building or road is named in his honor. He is a hero whose memory has fallen through the cracks of history.
Only the grave of Alfred's brother, Henry S. Hilton, remains to link the name Hilton to the Civil War. Henry, who survived the Battle of New Market Heights, died in 1908. He is buried at the old black cemetery near the intersection of Old Level and Greenspring roads.