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A memorial to black Civil War heroes may heal some lingering wounds.

The Healing of History


Under an iron rain of bullets, they charged uphill into a forest of bayonets. Many were killed that day, Sept. 29, 1864, in what became known as the Battle of New Market Heights in eastern Henrico County. Others came within inches of losing their lives. In the end, the 20,000 Union troops led by Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler overran the Confederate forces. The charge was led by 3,000 black soldiers who suffered 850 casualties. Fourteen received the Medal of Honor. Now their heroism will get some long-overdue recognition. And some hope it will begin to heal the divisions left from the Civil War. Richmond National Battlefield Park is starting a project to commemorate black participation in this bloody battle. President Clinton recently signed into law a bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. and Robert C. Scott, to designate a memorial to the United States Colored Troops who fought on that day. Rob Corcoran, national director of Hope in the Cities, a racial-reconciliation group based in Richmond, sees the memorial as a way to help unify Virginians. "It's very positive," Corcoran says. "Any time that a piece of history is brought to light and honored, it will be helpful to Richmond as a whole. The whole story of African-American involvement in the Civil War has not been told." Until the 1990s, Civil War history in Virginia had been a one-sided affair focusing on whites and Confederates. That ensured that the war has remained divisive, Corcoran says. "When everyone's story is told it will become a different thing," Corcoran adds. "People will start digging through their attics. Richmond had a large African-American population and a significant number of free blacks at the time of the Civil War." Local officials also hope that uncovering all sides of the story will bring more tourists as more people begin to realize that their ancestors played a major role in America's most devastating war. "It will bring people to Richmond from an economic-development standpoint," Corcoran says. "We have not done a good job of marketing history." Exactly what the memorial will look like and when it will be erected will be determined later. Congress has yet to appropriate the funds and then select an artist to design the monument. But Dave Ruth, an assistant superintendent at the Richmond National Battlefield Park, already has a few ideas on how to interpret the history. He points to the electric map of the battlefield at Gettysburg and wonders if Richmond couldn't do the same for the Battle of New Market Heights. At present, African-American involvement in the battle is interpreted at the Tredegar Visitors Center. But commemorating it in a national park with a monument designed to shed light on a neglected part of history will do even more to stir interest, Ruth says. "By being able to tell the story in a museum setting, we will be able to create pride in African-American involvement in the Civil War and understand the achievement of black soldiers," Ruth says. Capturing New Market Heights had been a part of the Union's plan for some time. The ultimate goal was to capture Richmond. But before the Confederacy's capital could be conquered, nearby defense lines had to be overrun. The Union never would have won if it had not been for the U. S. Colored Troops. Butler, an ardent abolitionist from Massachusetts, wanted them to lead the charge. So it was two USCT brigades that swept into the Confederates' well-fortified position. "In the last advance there was hand-to-hand fighting," says Battlefield Park Historian Mike Andrus. "The victory was fairly dramatic." Five Medal of Honor recipients were natives of Virginia. A Richmond native, 1st Sgt. Powhatan Beaty, earned his medal by leading his troops after all of the officers in his company had been killed or wounded. First Sgt. Edward Ratcliff, a 29-year-old native of James County, assumed command of his company after his commanding officer had been killed and was the first enlisted man to enter the enemy stronghold. Pvt. Charles Veal of Portsmouth was awarded the Medal of Honor for taking up the colors after two color bearers had been shot down. But the most heroic man of all might have been Cpl. Miles James of Princess Anne County. His arm was so mutilated that it required amputation, yet he loaded and fired his gun with one hand while urging his men forward. All of this occurred within 30 yards of the enemy. The behavior of these Medal of Honor recipients and numerous other black troops went a long way toward proving the value of black troops, according to Andrus. Prior to New Market the Union had used black soldiers mostly to cook and dig trenches. "This was a significant event because the black troops were designated as the people who would lead the assault," Andrus says. "It helped demonstrate black troops were quite competent as infantrymen, not just as laborers." Andrus is pleased to see more attention given to this important battle and the role African-Americans played in it. Outside of professional historians, few people know much about this crucial day of fighting. "It was something that unless you dug deep into the Civil War didn't come out," Andrus says. "A lot of late battles are not as romanticized." Black troops were so important later in the war because the Union found few new recruits to fight in a war that had quickly become a bloody, drawn-out struggle. Virginia Commonwealth University history professor Phil Schwarz says that following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 many blacks saw the war as a fight to end the institution of slavery. "They were very important at the time because there was big trouble with the draft," Schwarz says. "They knew the cost by 1863." The Emancipation Proclamation did not actually end slavery. The executive order simply abolished the institution in states that were not already under the control of Union. Slavery was finally abolished by the 13th Amendment on Dec. 6,

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