Black soldiers, unsung heroes

Though they played a key role during the Civil War, their efforts seldom receive the recognition they deserve.

February 14, 1999|By JONATHAN TILOVE | JONATHAN TILOVE,NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

RICHMOND, Va. - With his black skin and Union blue re-enactor's fatigues, Kenneth Brown thinks 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 beside the road last summer, Brown surveyed the hallowed grounds just above and beyond the one-time 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 was dedicated 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 knew 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 135 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 school teacher, and yet, because so few people know it, an equal cause for despair.

``It's kind of sad,'' lamented 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 occupied a small fraction of America's contemplation and celebration of its most fascinating and horrific four years.

The African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, which lists 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 massacre of black soldiers. And then there was the extra enmity of the Confederates - who professed to take special aim at blacks, and executed black prisoners between sieges of the Heights.

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

``There is prejudice even today about this story,'' says Richard Groover, a white filmmaker who 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 relies 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 in conservative Henrico County.

Aversion to site

Park Service officials, whose wish list would include a New Market Heights battlefield site, acknowledge that local landowners are determinedly averse to that prospect. 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 fell.

But DeShields argues that from his perspective, no military encounter in American history better symbolizes black soldiers' 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, in war after war.

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