At a Civil War Roundtable of DC meeting last week, Emmanuel Dabney presented about the Petersburg Campaign from June 1864 to April 1865. As a historian and National Park Service ranger, Dabney is steeped in the ins and outs of the places, the people, and the battles large and small.
The "siege," as it is known, spanned almost 500 days and involved many of the well-known generals, including Grant and Lee, as well as thousands of soldiers and civilians. For more detail, read many of the written accounts or do as I plan to do now--put the Petersburg National Battlefield on your short list of places to visit.
Here, I focus on a person and an incident that Dabney highlighted. The person: Sergeant Major (the highest enlisted rank, not an officer) Christian Fleetwood, Company G, 4th Regiment USCT. The incident: The Battle of New Market Heights on September 29, 1864.
Christian Fleetwood and His Accounts
Christian Fleetwood was born free in Baltimore in 1840 and publishing a newspaper called the Lyceum Observer at the time of the war. He enlisted in 1863. He left a diary--one of the few first-person USCT diaries known.
Parts of the diary have been transcribed and annotated through the National Humanities Center. After Dabney's talk, I went to this transcription to read about Fleetwood's accounts and to scans of the diary at the Library of Congress (under African American Odyssey).
As happened in war, the mundane was punctuated by the jaw-dropping. For example:
June 21, 1864
...Division moved toward Pburg. Stopped in woods. Slept like a Dormouse. Woke and snacked. President Lincoln & Gen. Grant passed our bivouac and were cheered.
He marked his 24th birthday on July 21, wrote letters and reports, drilled and waited. A week later, was the Battle of the Crater, which Fleetwood saw but did not fight in:
July 30, 1864
Waked early and sent to get Regt. up. Returned & lay down till the Mine was exploded on Reservoir Hill. Got up and saw the columns of attack pitching in. Fearful cannonading proportionate small marketig [?]. Col & Div. of 9th Corps charged or attempted broke and run!
Through poor planning, the Battle of the Crater exposed Union troops, including USCT regiments, to slaughter.
The battle that involved Fleetwood's men most directly took place almost two months later.
September 27, 28, 29, 1864 [Note: in the original, the entry spans across all three pre-printed dates]
...Awaked at 11 1⁄2 to Hd Qrs. Got out the Regt and after much tribulations and several unsuccessful attempts to catch a nap we embarked on board a gunboat and debarked at Jones Landing. Marched up to works. Bivouacked at Deep Bottom...
Stirred up Regt. and, Knap[s]acks C. G. E. packed away Coffe boiled and line formed. Moved out & on. Charged with the 6th at daylight and got used up. Saved colors. Remnants of the two gathered and Maneuvering under Col Ames of 6th USCT. Marching in line & flank all day saw Gen. Grant & Staff, both Birneys [brother generals] and other “Stars." Retired at night. stacked arms & moved three times ending at a captured stronghold where we spent the remainder of the darkness with the usual diversions of moving Rec [Received ]in morning 193 recruits, Drilled a squad in morning. Rebels charged our line three times repulsed. Lying in ravine. one man killed. Moved in eve. Threw up entrenchments to protect flanks of position. First nights sleep since 27th
I bold-faced "saved colors" above. His medal of honor citation (the medal itself was donated to the Smithsonian by his daughter) reads: "Seized the colors, after 2 color bearers had been shot down, and bore them nobly through the fight." Thirteen other USCT were recognized for other acts of valor.
Finally, on April 2, the Union Army entered Petersburg. The next day, Richmond fell, too.
As for Fleetwood, supporters attempted to garner a promotion into the officers' ranks for him that went nowhere. He left the military in 1866 although he worked for the War Department and joined the District of Columbia National Guard. In 1895, he wrote his own account, The Negro as a Soldier, which was introduced at the Cotton Exposition in Altanta. He died in 1914 and is buried in Landover, MD.