3MOH - Three Medals of Honor, Battle of New Market Heights, September 29, 1864

3MOH - Three Medals of Honor, Battle of New Market Heights, September 29, 1864
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Available Format of Print:
350 Signed/Numbered (available)
Overall: 31.25" x 24.25"
Image: 27" x 20"

Artist Proof (available)
50 Signed/Numbered
Overall: 31.25" x 24.25"
Image: 27" x 20"

Canvas Giclee (printed as ordered)
15 Signed/Numbered
Overall: 33" x 25"

This haunting image by master historical artist Don Troiani depicts what is arguably the most important day in African American military history. The Battle of New Market Heights, fought on Thursday September 29, 1864 on the outskirts of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, showcased the fighting prowess of African American Union soldiers (known as United States Colored Troops) and saw the very first time in American history that the Congressional Medal of Honor was bestowed upon men of African descent. What makes New Market Heights even more remarkable is the sheer number of medals of honor awarded to these freedom fighters – a total of fourteen were awarded to black enlisted men and two were given to white officers who led them into battle. This haunting image captures a brief moment in time when three of those medals were won with fierce determination, heroism, and blood.

For the men of the 6th United States Colored Troops, New Market Heights would see their first sustained combat – and a horrific introduction to warfare it would be. Organized at Camp William Penn near Cheltenham, PA and part of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James, the 6th was a vital component in a series of battles that have come to be known as the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. Butler sent his legions in a two-pronged attack against the Confederate forces defending their capital – one would advance in the direction of Confederate Fort Harrison and the other would set its sights on the Rebel earthworks defending the New Market Road, an artery that ran straight into Richmond. Butler placed all of his US Colored Troops regiments in the vanguard of this assault, hoping that they would win a great victory that would settle once and for all the fighting prowess of the African American soldier. The 6th would be the tip of the spear, going into battle in the predawn darkness with fixed bayonets and musket loaded, but not capped.

At first, the advance went well – the morning mist enshrouded the attacking column and enveloped them “like a mantle of death” as their brigade commander recalled. Soon enough, however, the Confederate pickets were alerted and the concentrated rifle and artillery fire of veteran southern troops devastated the soldiers who had become entangled in the obstacles that the defenders had left in their path. As was the case in innumerable fights throughout the entire Civil War, the color guard was especially hard hit. The 6th USCT carried into battle that day the national colors and a blue regimental flag that was given to them in Pennsylvania bearing the motto, “Freedom for All.” Both flags, and the men who proudly carried them into the fight, went down within minutes.
Seeing the desperate situation from different vantage points, three men saw the plight of the color guard and pushed forward to help. Risking life and limb for the honor of their unit, Lt. Nathan Edgerton, Sgt. Maj. Thomas R. Hawkins, and Sergeant Alexander Kelly slogged their way to the colors as best they could.

The painting shows the moment when Edgerton and Hawkins arrived to bear away the regimental flag. Edgerton had recovered the flag from the dead body of another white officer and picked it up only to notice that he could not move freely. As he recalled after the battle, he looked down to see that “my hand was covered in blood, and perfectly powerless, and the flag staff [was] lying in two pieces.” Sgt. Maj. Hawkins, who had already distinguished himself as a natural leader of men, came to Edgerton’s assistance and helped carry the colors off, receiving serious wounds in the arm, hip, and foot.

Coming to the rescue of the national colors was First Sergeant Alexander Kelly.  He recalled that “after the color guard was all either killed or wounded …we got orders to retire.” Kelly weighed the risk and “seeing the flag was being left I seized them and carried them to rear where I rallied the few remaining men.”

As Kelly stated, the 6th was ordered to fall back due to the volume of Confederate fire and the fearful amount of casualties that they had rapidly taken. The 6th would sustain a 57% casualty rate at New Market Heights. The attack would be renewed later that morning and more black troops went into action. After suffering more fearful casualties, the Confederate troops were dislodged and the Battle of New Market Heights went into history as a resounding success for African American troops. Of the 18 Medals of Honor awarded to black soldiers during the entire Civil War, fourteen were earned by soldiers who fought at New Market Heights. In fact Gen. Butler was so inspired by the performance of his men that he personally paid for his own medal to be struck by Tiffany’s and given to the heroes of New Market Heights. On one side was a Latin inscription that summarizes the importance of this forgotten clash: Ferro iis libertas perveniet, meaning "Freedom will be theirs by the sword."

Jimmy Price is a Park Ranger at Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial and an adjunct professor of Civil War History at Germanna Community College. He received his Bachelor of Arts in History from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2005 and his Master of Arts in Military History from Norwich University in 2009. Since then he has sought to raise awareness of African American military participation in the Civil War by writing about different aspects of their service on his award-winning weblog, The Sable Arm: A Blog Dedicated to the United States Colored Troops of the Civil War Era. He is the author of the newly released  book The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs By The Sword (The History Press) which is the only book-length study of the battle yet published

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