‘A more complete story’: Push to honor black soldiers on Richmond’s Monument Avenue gathers steam

‘A more complete story’: Push to honor black soldiers on Richmond’s Monument Avenue gathers steam
Company E, of the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, is pictured at Fort Lincoln in Washington, D.C. The regiment fought at the Battle of New Market Heights outside of Richmond. (Source: Library of Congress)

Powhatan Beaty was born enslaved in Richmond. He fought for freedom just outside the city in the final days of the Civil War.

Soon he, along with other black Union soldiers, could be commemorated on Monument Avenue, in the former capital of the Confederacy, alongside statues of the slaveholders who lost.

Beaty is one of 14 African-American veterans who received the Medal of Honor for guiding and rallying their comrades, then known as the United States Colored Troops, in the Battle of New Market Heights. A group of politicians and historians are pushing to see them memorialized on a road that divides Richmond.

And as the city considers putting a new monument up, state legislators have moved to make it easier for localities to take others down.

On the foggy morning of Sept. 29, 1864, Beaty and his comrades crossed the James River and advanced uphill towards rebel fortifications that ran along what’s now Route 5 in Henrico County. The terrain was difficult and littered with trees the Confederates had cut down as obstacles for the Union troops. The relatively inexperienced USCTs were up against brigades of seasoned veterans.

“The slaughter from Confederate lines was just absolutely brutal,” said Michael Knight, a specialist in 19th century African American military history and archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Bodies fell fast, becoming yet another barrier to the bloodied field. But soldiers like Beaty, a sergeant, rallied their exhausted comrades — his Medal of Honor citation says he “took command of his company, all the officers having been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it” — and kept the flag flying. That was major in the 19th century, Knight said, because the colors functioned not only as a symbol but also as a transmitter, much like the radio that came decades later.

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