Sept. 29, 2022

The Battle of New Market Heights

The Battle of New Market Heights

September 29, 1864. During the American Civil War, the Battle of New Market Heights sees 14 African American soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor for their gallantry under fire.


Cold Open

It’s early evening on September 2nd, 1862, in Cincinnati, Ohio, one year into the American Civil War.

Powhatan Beaty sighs as he hears a knocking at his front door. He hopes he can get rid of the visitor as quickly as possible. The 35-year-old African American cabinet maker finally finished work for the day and wants nothing more than a hearty meal and a good night’s sleep. But as he opens his door, Powhatan’s dream of a quiet evening disappears.

On his doorstep, a grim-faced policeman stands with his gun drawn. Powhatan looks over the officer’s shoulder and spots dozens more officers banging on every door in the street. For a moment, Powhatan wonders whether the city is being evacuated. He's heard rumors that the Confederates are planning an attack.

Before he can ask, the policeman grabs Powhatan’s collar and roughly pulls him into the street.

Powhatan stumbles and falls to the ground…

The policeman points his gun and orders Powhatan to get back to his feet.

As he stands up. Powhatan is forced along the road at gunpoint, with other neighbors being dragged out of their houses. The police officers seem to be seizing every black man of working age they can find.

Soon, Powhatan is ordered to stop. And he and his neighbors are herded together and marched to a nearby camp. 

When they arrive, policemen hand the men shovels and gruffly order them to start digging rifle pits and trenches. But as the men next to him pick up their shovels, Powhatan hesitates. He was born a slave but gained his freedom years ago. And even though he’s willing to support the Union, he doesn’t want to be treated like a slave again.

But with armed officers all around him, he realizes he has little choice today. So with a sigh, Powhatan picks up his shovel and begins to dig.

After a decisive Confederate victory in nearby Kentucky, the authorities in Cincinnati began to panic. No Union troops stood in the way of the Confederate army, only 100 miles to the south. So, in a desperate and controversial attempt to protect the city, Mayor George Hatch ordered the Cincinnati police to detain 400 free black men and force them to build fortifications.

After two days, the men were allowed to return home and a call for volunteers will be put out instead. But the result will shock authorities. Powhatan Beaty and 700 other black men will answer the call again– 300 more than the police had forced into labor. The Cincinnati Black Brigade, as the volunteer detachment will come to be known, will become the first unit of African Americans employed for military duty in the Civil War. 

As the Union Army gradually integrates black men into its ranks, Powhatan Beaty will move from the Cincinnati Black Brigade into the wider Northern forces. And just two years after digging trenches in Cincinnati, he will head to the Confederate capital where the process of military integration will culminate Powhatan and 13 other black soldiers winning the Medal of Honor at the Battle of New Market Heights on September 29th, 1864.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is September 29th, 1864: The Battle of New Market Heights.

Act One

It’s October 26th, 1862, in Missouri, two years before the Battle of New Market Heights.

A 22-year-old black man named George Washington keeps time as he marches through the prairie of Bates County. He is in the company of more than 200 fellow black men of the First Kansas Colored Volunteers, each wearing a blue uniform and carrying a rifle. They have orders to clear a group of Confederate bushwhackers in Missouri, a border state that has remained in the Union, but has many slave owners and Confederate sympathizers.

For George, this state is familiar ground. He was born a slave in Missouri. And it was just last year that he managed to escape, and flee to the free state of Kansas. There, he decided to make use of his newfound liberty to fight for the freedom of other slaves still trapped across the South.

The federal army still does not accept black recruits due to popular doubts about their courage and obedience. But George was able to sign up to an all-African American regiment in the Kansas militia instead. Black volunteers like George had to pay for their own uniforms and rifles, but they considered it a small price for a chance to serve. And now, George is happy to return to Missouri no longer a fugitive slave, but a proud Union soldier.

Three days after entering hostile territory, George raises his hand to volunteer for a 20-man patrol of the region where the bushwhackers are active. He walks through a gap in the reinforced fence of a homestead the regiment has commandeered as a base. The owners of the homestead claim there are hundreds of Confederate sympathizers in the area, and the constant guerilla attacks from skirmishers on horseback seem to prove them correct.

George and his fellow soldiers walk into a smokey haze that soon shields the homestead from view. The bushwhackers have set fire to the tall grass all around it. But George and his men continue away from the farm, keeping their eyes peeled for their enemy.

As the smoke clears, George finds himself in an open prairie. He still can’t see the Confederates, but he’s sure they can see him. He stays alert. Soon he hears a soft drumming sound. As it gets louder, he realizes it's the sound of horses. And in the distance, he spots more than 100 mounted bushwhackers emerging from the trees and charging toward them.

George and his men run back the way they came, scrambling to crest a hill and set up defensive line.

Panting and shoulder to shoulder with his compatriots, George frantically loads his rifle. Then raises it to his shoulder. He fixes his sight on the first bushwhacker he sees and fires. The Confederate falls from the saddle, nearly trampled by his own horse but many more follow, galloping up the hill, their faces twisted in fury at the sight of black soldiers fighting in uniform.

As they ride up on George's unit the bushwhackers fire back and an anguished cry splits the air as George's lieutenant falls to the ground. But there's no time to assist him, another bushwhacker dismounts and shoots the lieutenant a second time as the fighting gets into close course.

Soon, the battle descends into a hand-to-hand melee. One black soldier darts from the line and bayonets the bushwhacker who shot the lieutenant. George swings the butt of his rifle, hitting a man who tries to slash him with a saber. Bushwhackers and Union soldiers alike fire their guns at point-blank range.

Then George hears more gunshots but coming from behind. He panics, fearing the bushwhackers have surrounded them, but a row of reinforcements in Union blue uniforms emerge from the smoke, drawn by the sound of the skirmish. The bushwhackers sense the tide turning and gallop away, slinking back to the forest.

When the smoke finally clears, George counts the bodies of eight of his compatriots. Eleven more are wounded. But George knows the Confederate ambush has failed. Around them, 30 bushwhackers lay dead, nearly four times their casualties.

After the skirmish, the bravery of soldiers like George will no longer be in question. Impressed by their courage and commitment to the Union, Abraham Lincoln will start accepting black troops into the federal army. And soon, the First Kansas Colored Volunteers will join other African American regiments on the battlefield giving the Union an unassailable advantage in manpower and allowing its generals to tighten the squeeze on  Confederates.

Act Two

It’s July 18th, 1863 in South Carolina, 14 months before the Battle of New Market Heights.

Inside a tent at a Union camp, Captain John Appleton finishes a letter to his wife, signing it off with: “We will meet in Heaven if not on Earth.” John knows it may be the last letter he ever sends. He and his soldiers are about to lead a twilight attack against Fort Wagner, a well-defended Confederate position on an island in Charleston Harbor. The assignment is daunting, but John hopes it will be an opportunity for his African American soldiers to prove their bravery as part of the federal Union Army.

John’s regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, is one of the first African American units to enter service in the federal army. Like John, all the officers commanding the regiment are white, but they were hand-picked for their attitudes toward black enrollment. Every officer in the 54th Massachusetts is a staunch believer in the right of black soldiers to fight for the Union. And John is personally grateful to have them by his side as he heads to Fort Wagner.

Together, they march toward the Confederate fort along a narrow strip of sand, hemmed in by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and impassable marshes on the other. As they draw near, the cannons in Fort Wagner open fire. Though the shells fly overhead, John sees a few worried faces. An earlier daytime bombardment by the Union artillery hasn’t seem to have done much damage to the Confederate defenses.

John tells his soldiers to lie down in the sand until the time to attack comes.  As his men settle down for a long and tense wait. He notices the soldiers talking, telling each other where to find the last letters written to relatives back home, asking them to be posted if they don’t return from the fight. 

John touches the pocket where his own letter is safely tucked and thinks of his wife and child. But then he is roused from his thoughts by an order shouted down the line. The time to attack has come. John and his men rise, fix bayonets and walk toward the imposing ramparts of the fort. Enemy fire starts almost immediately—not just from Fort Wagner, but from Confederate batteries surrounding the harbor. When John is within 100 yards of the fort palisade, he shouts an order for his men to run. He leaps over rifle pits, jumping over the heads of shocked Confederates.

As he reaches the earth and works defenses of the fort and runs up a bank. Upon reaching the top of the parapet, he looks down into the fort which is crammed with Confederate soldiers, dug in, and determined. A mass of sharp bayonets rippling below him. 

John and his men struggle to make a hole in the line of defenders. After a few minutes of fierce fighting, John looks around and finds he is the last man standing. He drops back down the rampart to a ditch where some soldiers of the 54th are hunkered down. He searches for a rifle from one of the fallen soldiers. But many of the weapons are useless, too clogged with sand to fire.

But next to him, the soldiers of the 54th fight on without fuss. They fire at any Confederate foolish enough to show his face above the parapet. John is impressed by the determination of one particular soldier. Despite a broken arm hanging uselessly by his side, the man still helps his compatriots by supplying them with fresh cartridges.

Amid the fighting, John feels somebody tugging at his uniform. He turns to see one of the soldiers of his company, a man with bullet wounds in both shoulders. Hesitantly, the man requests John’s permission to go back to the rear for treatment. John grants it immediately, amazed by the soldier’s reluctance to leave the fight.

But just as that wounded soldier makes his way to safety in the rear, Confederate defenders start firing into John’s ditch from the side. It looks like the remnants of the 54th Massachusetts risk being surrounded. And John agrees with the remaining officers that he needs to go back and ask for reinforcements. He stumbles away from the fort to the beach, tripping over the bodies of his fallen compatriots and running a gauntlet of Confederate shells.

Finally, John locates a senior officer and requests more men, offering to guide them back to where his troops are pinned down. But the officer insists that John instead goes to the hospital tent to have his wounds addressed. John shakes his head pleading for backup. The African Americans in the 54th Massachusetts have fought with a ferocity he has never seen before. And John does not want their sacrifice to be in vain.

Eventually, John’s request for reinforcements will be granted. More troops will follow the 54th Massachusetts. They will also fail to breach the Confederate ramparts. In the end, the assault will be a disaster. And Fort Wagner will remain in Confederate hands at the cost of more than 1,500 Union casualties. But the ferocious attack by the 54th Massachusetts will be reported in the Northern press as a glorious failure. Soon, Fort Wagner will become a rallying cry for more black men to join the army and help lead the Union to victory.

Act Three

It’s the morning of September 29th, 1864 just south of Richmond, Virginia, one year after the assault on Fort Wagner.

First Sergeant Powhatan Beaty ducks as a bullet whistles over his head.

A lot has changed since the day Powhatan was forced from his house at gunpoint to build defenses around Cincinnati. After President Lincoln began accepting black troops into the federal army, Powhatan joined the 5th Colored Infantry Regiment of the Union Army. 

And recently, they were ordered to lead an attack on some high ground close to the Confederate capital regiment known as New Market Heights. But when they tried to seize the area today, Powhatan and his fellow soldiers got bogged down in swampy wetland in front of the Confederate positions. Now, just a mere 30 meters from enemy lines, Powhatan and his men have become sitting ducks.

For half an hour, enemy fire pins them down. Until Powhatan finally hears the signal to retreat. He rises from a prone position, fires his rifle, then retreats a few meters before dropping back down. Powhatan realizes he can’t run back to Union lines. The ground is too soggy. So, he reloads his rifle and repeats the pattern: rise up, fire, retreat a few yards, duck down, and reload.

Eventually, Powhatan feels the ground firm up beneath his feet. He is far enough away that Confederate bullets can’t reach him accurately. But when he looks back toward the Confederate defenses, he catches a glimpse of red, white, and blue on the ground. The sight stops him in his tracks. His stomach sinks as he realizes it is the company’s color flag.

Without thinking of the danger, Powhatan runs back across the marshy ground toward the Confederate lines. He reaches the flag and takes it from the dead hands of the color bearer. Then, he turns and retreats again, remembering to keep his head low as bullets whistle through the air.

Powhatan hears the remnants of his company cheer as he reaches them with the flag in his grasp. The survivors are few, and they look exhausted. But, as the most senior soldier left, Powhatan must take command.

He rouses his men, brandishing the color flag and appealing to their sense of duty. Quickly, they struggle to their feet and resume the attack. Together, Powhatan and his men join the ranks of the next regiment to charge, determined to remove the entrenched Confederates before the day is out. This time they succeed.

After the Battle of New Market Heights, as this conflict will come to be known, four soldiers from the 5th Colored Infantry will be awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the attack. Among them will be First Sergeant Powhatan Beaty, commended for gallantly leading his company after all its officers were killed or wounded. Ten more black soldiers from other regiments will also be awarded Medals of Honor.

For many, the bravery and heroism of the black soldiers will further justify the decision to integrate the army. By its end, more than 180,000 black men will serve the Union in the Civil War. But the courage and resilience of the regiments at New Market Heights will remain a high point of African American military contribution long after their valiant effort to penetrate Richmond’s defenses on September 29th, 1864. 


Next on History Daily. September 30th, 1520. Suleiman the Magnificent becomes Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and sets his sights on conquering Europe.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham. 

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.