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‘To command colored troops will be the post of honor in American armies’

Ned Jilton II • Feb 6, 2019 at 7:00 PM

“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his buttons, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.” — Frederick Douglass, 1863

In September 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had a plan to shorten the siege at Richmond.

In a dual offensive, Grant would order Gen. Benjamin Butler to attack near Richmond, forcing Gen. Robert E. Lee to send troops and reinforce that area, while Grant would send cavalry along with four divisions of infantry the other way around Petersburg to cut supply lines and railroads.

If the name Benjamin Butler sounds familiar, it’s because he is the general who convinced President Abraham Lincoln to stop enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act. Instead of returning runaway slaves to the South, Butler persuaded Lincoln to declare them contraband of war and keep them in the North.

Now Butler, commanding the Army of the James, would attack an area known as Chaffin’s Farm, sending the 18th Corps to attack Fort Harrison on the Confederate right while sending the 10th Corps to attack the Confederate center, which was dug in on New Market Heights.

A unique thing about Butler’s Army of the James was that it was somewhat integrated, having divisions of United States Colored Troops as well as divisions of white soldiers.

When the 10th Corps assaulted the heights on Sept. 29, a division of black soldiers, under the command of white officers, would lead the attack. And five men from Virginia, at least two of whom had been born slaves, would add weight to Douglass’ words.

The positions the USCT were attacking was formidable. Two lines were made up of abatis, chevaux-de-frise and entanglements, behind which stood the Confederate breastworks manned by the Texas Brigade under the command of Gen. John Gregg. On the heights behind them were the Rockbridge Artillery and the Richmond Howitzers.

Around 5 a.m., Butler rode through the colored division getting ready to attack and urged the men to “remember Fort Pillow” when they charged the enemy.

When the lead elements of USCT began to cut their way through the first line of abatis, the Confederates on the heights opened up on them with the full fury of musket and cannon. Quickly, the front ranks were decimated and driven back.

As the soldiers fell back, Sgt. Powhatan Beaty, from Richmond, with Company G of the 5th Regiment USCT, saw that his colorbearer had been killed. Beaty quickly turned around and ran back through enemy fire and retrieved the flag.

When Beaty returned to his lines with the flag, he discovered that all the officers of his company were dead or wounded. Taking command and joined by reinforcing USCT, he rallied the men to make a second charge and, carrying the flag, led the way.

Again they came under heavy fire as they cut through the Confederate defenses. Cpl. Miles James from Norfolk, of Company B, 36th Regiment USCT, had his arm mutilated by rifle and cannon fire as he made his way through the second line of abatis. Using only his good arm, he continued to load and fire his muzzleloading rifle and direct his men in the attack, all within 30 yards of the Rebel works.

In another part of the line, Virginian 1st Sgt. Edward Ratcliff had taken command of Company C, 38th Regiment USCT, when the commanding officer was killed. Leading his men in a charge on the works, Ratcliff is credited in some records for being the first enlisted man to enter the Rebel works.

Time and again along the lines as colorbearers and white officers were cut down, black soldiers stepped up and took command. Charles Veal, from Portsmouth, Virginia, of Company D, 4th Regiment USCT, grabbed the regimental colors from the wounded colorbearer and, holding them aloft, led the company through enemy fire. Another soldier, James Daniel Gardner from Gloucester, Virginia, actually ran ahead of his company and “shot a rebel officer who was on the parapet rallying his men, and then ran him through with his bayonet.”

The USCT successfully drove the Confederates from New Market Heights and won the day.

The Union forces suffered 3,372 casualties in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. That includes 391 killed. Fifty percent of the men in the black division were casualties.

After the battle, Beaty was commended on the field by Butler.

James had his mutilated arm amputated. After the procedure, he requested permission to stay in the Army. His commanding officer supported the request, writing, “He is one of the bravest men I ever saw. ... He is worth more with his single arm, than a half-dozen ordinary men.” Sadly, he was discharged for disability a month later.

Ratcliff, Veal and Gardner amazingly all survived the battle without a scratch.

For their heroic actions on that day, these five men were among the 14 black soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor. Veal would later earn the Butler Medal, an award created by the general to recognize valor by USCT soldiers.

About the charge of the black division at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, Butler would later write, “Better men were never led, better officers never led better men. … A few more such gallant charges and to command colored troops will be the post of honor in the American armies. The colored soldiers by coolness, steadiness and determined courage and dash have silenced every cavil of the doubters of their soldierly capacity and drawn tokens of admiration from their enemies; have brought their late masters even to the consideration of the question whether they will not employ as soldier the hitherto despised race. Be it so; this war is ended when a musket is in the hands of every able bodied negro who wishes to use one.”

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected] timesnews.net .

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