With Black History Month once again upon us, the usual crop of naysayers has sprung up. The naysayers contend that there should be no Black History Month, that black people would go ballistic if whites celebrated a White History Month.
But there are whites who see the need for the study of black history. Some of them show up in the darndest places. Like a meeting of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, where a week ago two white guys shook my hand and proudly showed me a memorial plaque named after Sgt. Maj. Christian Fleetwood.
Peter Johnston, commander of the James A. Garfield camp of the Sons of Union Veterans, and his father, Ed Johnston, who serves as the camp chaplain, said they and other camp members decided to give an annual award to a high school junior ROTC cadet. Fleetwood was a Baltimore native who served in the Union army during the Civil War and was awarded a Medal of Honor for his part in the battle of Chaffin's Farm outside Richmond, Va.
"During our Memorial Day ceremony," Peter Johnston said, the idea came up of honoring young people who want to continue the military tradition. We decided to name the award after an enlisted man. And what better enlisted man than a Medal of Honor winner from Baltimore?"
Fleetwood was one of the nearly 9,000 black troops from Maryland to serve in Union forces during the Civil War. He was born to free black parents in 1840, worked as a bookkeeper in Liberia and Sierra Leone for Baltimore sugar merchant John Brune's company at age 16 and graduated at the top of his class from Pennsylvania's Lincoln University, which was known in Fleetwood's day as Ashmun Institute. Just before joining the army in 1863, Fleetwood worked as a clerk.
"I've phrased the criteria for the award as academic achievement, devotion to duty and displayed leadership ability," Johnston said. All of these are embodied in Christian Fleetwood."
On Sept. 29, 1864, Gen. Benjamin Butler included nine black regiments in the forces he hurled against Fort Harrison, which was near Chaffin's Farm southeast of Richmond. The 4th Regiment's color guard, carrying the regiment flag and the U.S. flag, fell under a barrage of Confederate fire. A sergeant with the last name of Hilton picked up the colors. He too was cut down.
Fleetwood then picked up the colors and carried them through the rest of the battle. His life must have been charmed. He escaped with a bullet hole in his pants, burned hair and damaged hearing. But not a bullet touched him. His saving the colors and charging through murderous Confederate fire earned him the Medal of Honor. But in his speech accepting the medal, Johnston said, Fleetwood downplayed his courage. Johnston read an excerpt from Fleetwood's speech.
"On Sept. 29, of 12 men of the 4th U.S. Colored Troops only one came off on his feet. The brave Sgt. Hilton went down and said, 'Boys, save the colors!' And they were saved."
Fleetwood made no mention that he was the only one who came off on his feet, or that it was he who saved the colors. Johnston said such modesty was typical of Fleetwood, who joined the Union forces for the benefit of his race and his country."
Johnston stumbled upon Fleetwood's name while studying monuments at Loudoun Park Cemetery on Frederick Road. After learning that Fleetwood was a Medal of Honor recipient, Johnston noticed something that piqued his interest: Of 4,000 Union troops buried at Loudoun, about 1,000 - 25 percent - were black.
"These guys were not only fighting for their country, they were fighting for their citizenship," Johnston observed. They weren't obligated to fight, but they did anyway."
The Garfield camp will present its first award named for Christian Fleetwood on March 7 in the 5th Regiment Armory. The recipient's name will be inscribed in one of 15 rectangular spaces on the memorial plaque.
"About 15 years from now, we may have to start another plaque," Johnston quipped. He's assuming that 15 years from now this worthy tradition begun by the Garfield camp of the Sons of Union Veterans will still exist.
We should all hope it should.
Pub Date: 2/25/98