African-American troops awarded the highest honor

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the medal of honorThe Union successes at New Market Heights and Fort Harrison on Sept. 29, 1864, resulted in a special tribute for a select group of African-American soldiers: the Medal of Honor.

Fourteen African-American soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their gallantry during the operation, and for taking charge of their units after several white officers had fallen during the battle.

It was a significant recognition, given only 16 African-American soldiers were bestowed the high distinction during the war.

Ronald S. Coddington, author of two books that profile common Union and Confederate soldiers, “Faces of the Civil War” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) and “Faces of the Confederacy” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), says that following the heroism displayed by African-American troops during the ill-fated attack on Fort Wagner, S.C., in 1863, the combat effort of African Americans serving in United States Colored Troops units at New Market Heights and Harrison produced a new appreciation for their fighting abilities and spirit.

“Fort Wagner proved that African-American soldiers could fight. Fort Harrison proved that they could win. I’d also add that at Fort Harrison they learned how to lead. Imagine, they have that experience like many other troops at many other battles of going up the rise, and as they get close most of their officers are down. They had to step up and lead. … That’s a watershed event for African-American troops.”

The Medal of Honor was presented to 11 soldiers on April 6, 1865. A 12th soldier, Sgt. Alfred B. Hinton, received a posthumous Medal of Honor, also on April 6. Hilton had died from severe wounds he suffered at New Market Heights, a month after the Fort Harrison attack. Two other soldiers were presented the Medal of Honor in 1870 and 1874.

Except for Hinton, all of the Medal of Honor recipients survived the war.

One recipient, Sgt. Maj. Milton M. Holland, was later promoted to captain by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler.

The War Department was hardly colorblind at the time, however, and refused Holland’s commission because of his race.

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African-American soldiers who received the Medal of Honor following the attack on Fort Harrison (Chaffin’s Farm):

— Pvt. William H. Barnes, Company C, 38th U.S. Colored Troops. Citation: “Among the first to enter the enemy’s works, although wounded.”

— First Sgt. Powhatan Beaty, Company G, 5th U.S. Colored Troops. Citation: “Took command of his company, all the officers having been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it.”

— First Sgt. James H. Bronson, Company D, 5th U.S. Colored Troops. Citation: “Took command of his company, all the officers having been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it.”

— Sgt. Maj. Christian A. Fleetwood, 4th U.S. Colored Troops. Citation: “Seized the colors, after two color bearers had been shot down, and bore them nobly through the fight.”

— Pvt. James Gardiner, Company I, 36th U.S. Colored Troops. Citation: “Rushed in advance of his brigade, shot a rebel officer who was on the parapet rallying his men, and then ran him through with his bayonet.”

— Sgt. James H. Harris, Company B, 38th U.S. Colored Troops. Citation: “Gallantry in the assault.”

— Sgt. Maj. Thomas R. Hawkins, 6th U.S. Colored Troops. Citation: “Rescue of regimental colors.”

— Sgt. Alfred B. Hilton, Company H, 4th U.S. Colored Troops. Citation: “When the regimental color bearer fell, this soldier seized the color and carried it forward, together with the national standard, until disabled at the enemy’s inner line.”

— Sgt. Maj. Milton M. Holland, 5th U.S. Colored Troops. Citation: “Took command of Company C, after all the officers had been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it.”

— Cpl. Miles James, Company B, 36th U.S. Colored Troops. Citation: “Having had his arm mutilated, making immediate amputation necessary, he loaded and discharged his piece with one hand and urged his men forward; this within 30 yards of the enemy’s works.”

— First Sgt. Alexander Kelly, Company F, 6th U.S. Colored Troops. Citation: “Gallantly seized the colors, which had fallen near the enemy’s lines of abatis, raised them and rallied the men at a time of confusion and in a place of the greatest danger.”

— First Sgt. Robert A. Pinn, Company I, 5th U.S. Colored Troops. Citation: “Took command of his company after all the officers had been killed or wounded and gallantly led it in battle.”

— First Sgt. Edward Ratcliff, Company C, 38th Colored Troops. Citation: “Commanded and gallantly led his company after the commanding had been killed; was the first enlisted man to enter the enemy’s works.”

— Pvt. Charles Veal, Company D, 4th U.S. Colored Troops. Citation: “Seized the national colors, after 2 color bearers had been shot down close to the enemy’s works, and bore them through the remainder of the battle.”

(c)2009 McClatchy-Tribune News Service.