Editor’s Note: This book review first appeared last Thursday at The Siege of Petersburg Online.
Price, James S.. The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword (The History Press, 2011). 128 pages, photos, maps, notes, bibliography. ISBN: 978-1-60949-038-6 $19.99 (Paperback).
When asked to name the most important fight in which African-Americans participated during the American Civil War, most people would likely give the nod to The Battle of Fort Wagner, the topic of the famous movie “Glory”. Most people would be wrong. On September 29, 1864, two brigades of Paine’s USCT Division attacked the famous Texas Brigade and accompanying cavalry and artillery on New Market Heights, successfully storming a position which Union troops had failed to take on several previous occasions. Fourteen medals of honor were awarded for that performance, proving beyond a doubt that Black soldiers would and could fight as well as White men. The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs By the Sword is the first book dedicated solely to this fight. Author Jimmy Price provides background on the United States Colored Troops regiments which fought at the battle, covers the fighting at the tactical level, delves into the resulting major controversies, and paints a grim and disturbing picture of modern day efforts to thwart preservation of the site.
Author James S. “Jimmy” Price is “a museum professional with a lifelong fascination with military history.” His blog The Sable Arm is dedicated to the study of United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments during and after the Civil War. He also has a First World War blog called Over There. The author spent over two years researching the Battle of New Market Heights prior to writing this book. This is Price’s first book, written for the History Press’ line of books commemorating the Civil War sesquicentennial.
Like the Battle of Glendale during the Seven Days, the fighting around Richmond and Petersburg on September 29, 1864 was oh so close to being a famous day in Civil War history. The Union armies surrounding the Confederate capital and its main supply hub stretched Lee’s men to the breaking point, but couldn’t quite break through. Benjamin Butler, widely denounced and scorned as a political general with no military skill, had produced a very solid plan of attack north of the James River. Two parallel columns were to advance on the Confederate lines southeast of Richmond, and one of the first obstacles for the right wing was New Market Heights. This high ground north of Deep bottom had stymied earlier Union assaults during the siege, so the United States Colored Troops assigned to the task were under no illusions about the difficulty of taking such a strong point. To make matters worse, the famous Texas Brigade held this advanced outpost of the Confederate works, accompanied by Gary’s cavalry brigade and the Rockbridge (VA) Artillery.
Paine’s USCT Division was composed of Black enlisted men and White officers. This Third Division, Eighteenth Corps, Butler’s Army of the James was determined to prove its worth in combat, and part of Butler’s plan of battle centered on giving the United States Colored Troops an opportunity to do just that.
Unfortunately the attack was poorly coordinated early in the action. Duncan’s small 3rd Brigade of only two USCT regiments was cut to pieces in an unsupported assault on the breastworks. At that point Draper’s slightly larger 3rd Brigade made its own assault, slightly better supported than the first had been. This assault was successful, penetrating the earthworks and driving back men of the Texas Brigade and Gary’s cavalry. These assaults cleared the way for the right wing to move on and attack Fort Gregg and Fort Gilmer along the Confederate outer line protecting Richmond.
Fourteen members of USCT regiments went on to receive Medals of Honor for their parts in the attack on New Market Heights. These men were the first Blacks to receive Medals of Honor for their role in a Civil War battle, though a Medal of Honor was awarded to a member of the 54th Massachusetts post-1900 for his role at Battery Wagner in 1863. However, there was and continues to be controversy over the validity of this honor.
Some have claimed that the Confederates along New Market Heights were withdrawing when Draper’s attack managed to break through. In other words, the assault would not have succeeded without this withdrawal. Naturally this is the position taken by many in the Confederate army, resentful of having faced former slaves in battle. No less a historian than Richard Sommers, who produced an exhaustive account of Grant’s Fifth Offensive against Petersburg, believes this was the case. Noah Andre Trudeau also appears to take this position. Others, especially Ben Butler and the members of the USCT regiments, tried to highlight the Battle of New Market Heights as a glorious USCT victory every chance they could get during and after the Civil War. The author takes this position as well. It appears from reading this book that there is simply not enough evidence as of this writing to truly know for sure the truth of the matter. It is an intriguing controversy and one which deserves further study.
The book ends with a look at the sad state of the modern battlefield. Efforts to prevent the preservation of the actual battlefield reflect poorly on some of those involved and differ greatly from some of the more successful battlefield preservation efforts of the past century and a half.
Author Jimmy Price has written an engaging account of an important and overlooked battle. The Battle of New Market Heights featured a full division of Black soldiers fighting against arguably the very best Confederate infantry brigade of the war. The United States Colored Troops did take New Market Heights, an achievement which cannot be denied regardless of the circumstances surrounding the fight, something earlier Union assaults had failed to do. This opening act of Grant’s Fifth Offensive helped pave the way for what could have resulted in the capture of Richmond six months early. The controversies surrounding the battle deserve further study, and Price provides a good launching pad for historians who are so inclined.
Steven Stanley’s maps provide readers with timely and informative looks at the important points in the action. Elevation lines and wooded areas are displayed clearly on the black and white maps. Units go down to regimental level, something which should not be taken for granted in a book on the Petersburg Campaign. By late 1864 many brigades were the size of early war regiments, and many men tended to associate as much or more with their brigade than their regiment. It would have been nice to see a more detailed map of the Confederate lines and how the New Market Heights line was positioned in relation to the fighting around Fort Harrison.
Price researched the Battle of New Market Heights for over two years, and his graceful use of sources shows, especially when discussing the many controversial elements of this battle. Archival sources are relied upon as heavily as any more modern works, something every author should strive for in his or her work. It would have been nice to see more newspaper accounts utilized in this work, but the History Press format may have prevented that level of detail.
As the first monograph dedicated solely to the fighting around New Market Heights, The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs By the Sword furthers readers’ understanding of an important event in the Siege of Petersburg. Like the Crater two months prior, the Battle of New Market Heights was an important step in proving African-Americans were the equals of White men as soldiers. Author Jimmy Price has provided a perfect stepping stone for further study of this overlooked and under appreciated battle. Those who enjoy detailed tactical histories of Civil War battles will find this to be a fine addition to their libraries. Students of the Petersburg Campaign will likewise want to own this book as it is yet another first time look at an individual battle of the siege. Those who want to understand the role of Black troops in the Union army should find this book to be an important piece of the puzzle. This book and this battle go beyond just the battlefield and point to important social and political fights as well. It is a fine addition to the Civil War literature on USCT regiments and the Siege of Petersburg.
I would like to thank author Jimmy Price and The History Press.
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