Black, Blue and Gray: The Other Civil War; African-American Soldiers, Sailors and Spies Were the Unsung Heroes

Article excerpt

FAR OFF to the east, far out over the Atlantic Ocean, the first faint glow of the sun tinged the blue-black sky (*). In a ravine near Richmond, Va., Black men in blue hugged the ground and watched the blotch of red widen and glow. Shells howled and burst over their heads, bullets whined and whacked into the trees.

The men waited, watched, listened.

A general came and said it was necessary to capture the Confederate redoubt over the hill and that they--the Third Division of the Eighteenth Corps of the Army of the James--had to do it. The men fixed their bayonets and listened to the words and the heavy beating of their hearts.

The land before the troops sloped down to a swamp and a shallow brook, then rose sharply to the crest of a hill commanded by a Confederate redoubt and some 1,000 troops. The Confederates, noticing the Black troops on the opposite hill, gave a wild whoop and urged the soldiers on. On they came, getting mired in the much of the swamp, splashing across the brook with their guns held over their heads, faltering, reforming and moving up the hill, one man falling and another man replacing him in line, the whole column swept by grape shot and canister, the ground wet with the blood, the entrails and the brains of the dead.

After what seemed like an eternity of minute-hours, the troops reached the first barricade. By now most of the White officers were wounded or dead, and Black sergeants and corporals were commanding companies and platoons. Cursing, pleading, threatening, they drove the men on. On they went, stepping over the wounded, to the Conferate redoubt. A rebel officer jumped on the parapet, waved his sword and shouted, "Hurrah, my brave men." Pvt. James Gardiner rushed forward, shot the officer and ran him through with his bayonet. the Confederate soldiers then abandoned their posts and ran up the road to Richmond. With a resounding cheer, the Black men in blue clambered over the parapet of the dearly purchased real estate on New Market Heights. Behind them on the hill running down to the swamp lay 543 of their comrades.

It had been a bloody 30 minutes' work. But on this day and largely in these 30 minutes, 12 Blacks, including Pvt. Gardiner, won Congressional Medals of Honor.

With the New Market Road secured, the Union troops pressed on toward Richmond, but the advance ground to a halt outside Richmond. The next day Robert E. Lee sent 10 of the South's finest brigades against the Union soldiers. The first charge and the second charge were neatly repulsed. And then someone--was it Lee?--had a bright idea. The rebel soldiers came back again, but this time the charge was against the Black New Market veterans. The long gray lines swept forward, came to the very edge of the earthwork, and Black and rebel soldiers fought hand to hand.

For an agonizing moment the issue hung in dispute. Then the Confederates broke in disorder, a witness said, "while the Union Troops shouted themselves hoarse with delight."

It was a bitter moment for the South. Robert E. Lee had failed to retake an important position within sight of the steeples of the Confederate capital. Lt. R.B. Prescott, a White Union soldier, stood cheering on the parapet of Fort Harrison and he believed he could see "the beginning of the end."

THAT Black soldiers should play an important role in this action seems somehow poetic. For in the beginning, in the middle and in the ending of the Civil War, the Black American--as soldier and civilian--was central.

In the beginning, people tried hard to get around this fact. In the first blast of emotion that followed the fall of Fort Sumter, even Abraham Lincoln tried to get around it. For when Black volunteers thronged the recruiting stations, eager for a chance to fight for Black freedom, the Lincoln administration sent them home with an understanding that the war was a "White man's war. …