RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — By the side of a bike path paralleling New Market Road in rural Henrico County, drivers might catch a quick glimpse of a historical marker commemorating the battle of New Market Heights — one of just two in existence that tell the story of a battle that proved the bravery of the Union’s Black soldiers and lead to the fall of Richmond.

The battlefield itself is now a checkerboard of different owners, with the fields and forests between the banks of the James and the heights themselves divided between private landowners, the National Battlefield Trust, county lands and the Capital Region Land Conservancy (CRLC).

Now, with a series of new land donations and a grant to study the site of the battle from the National Park Service, the CRLC hopes to shed light on the overlooked history of the battlefield and the troops who fought and died there.

Under Cover of Night

The Battle of New Market Heights was an offensive by the Union Army, designed by General Ulysses S. Grant to pressure the confederate defenders North of the James while his troops South of Richmond stormed the confederate defenses in Petersburg.

According to Jimmy Price of the New Market Heights Memorial & Education Association, a brigade made up entirely of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) was chosen to lead the assault in the North. At the time, the Union Army, though it allowed Black Americans to serve, was still segregated.

Soldiers of Company E, 4th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops, a regiment that fought in the Battle of New Market Heights. (Library of Congress)

Parker Agelasto, executive director of the CRLC, said the Union army made its move early in the morning, long before sunrise.

“The assault that the Union army made, they had to cross the James River, they had to come across under cover of night around 3 a.m. on a pontoon footbridge that they put down with straw and manure to silence the sound of boots.”

View of Deep Bottom, where Union soldiers forded the James River and began their assault on the confederate positions. (Photo: Jakob Cordes/WRIC)

Once they had crossed the James, the soldiers began to advance towards the confederate lines.

“The first assault was west of here,” Agelasto said, pointing towards a line of trees beyond fields of soybeans. “And was repelled by the confederates.”

The USCT had to cross four-mile stream and advance through dense brush in the pre-dawn hours, facing heavy fire from the confederate forces ahead. Part of the challenge were ‘slashing’ defenses used by the confederate army, which consisted of trees that had been cut down but not stripped of their branches, left to lie on their sides and forming makeshift barriers.

The first brigade that charged the confederate lines suffered 350 killed and wounded out of 700 men, but their assault was not in vain.

“The second assault of the colored troops also occurred in that general area,” Ageslasto said. “But we’re not sure of the exact line.”

That’s one aspect of the battle the CRLC hopes to illuminate by conducting an archeological study. Eventually, though they sustained heavy losses, the USCTs emerged victorious, driving the confederates from their defensive positions.

“In about an hour’s time, 800 U.S. Colored Troops were killed or wounded,” Agelasto said. “That’s part of what makes this battle rather sacred. It was a very deadly battle, and at the same time the USCT continued their assault and overcame the confederate earthworks.”

After the battle, 14 Black soldiers would be awarded the medal of honor — making up the vast majority of the 16 total awarded to USCTs during the Civil War. One unique aspect of the battle was the opportunity it presented for Black troops to rise — however temporarily — into leadership roles.

“Black troops were not allowed to rise to become officers,” Agelasto said. “But the white officers had basically fallen, and so Black troops were essentially rising to leadership roles and continuing the assaults.”

“They knew that it was life or death. The morning of New Market Heights, the battle cry of the troops was ‘Remember Fort Pillow’.”

The cry was a reference to the battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee, where victorious confederates, on capturing a fortress from union forces, slaughtered Black soldiers who surrendered.

When the fighting was over, General Ulysses S. Grant, then in command of the Union forces encircling Richmond, sent a telegram to President Abraham Lincoln that read:

“Genl Birney advanced at the same time from Deep Bottom & carried the New Market road and entrenchments and scattered the enemy in every direction though he captured but few — He is now marching on towards Richmond — I left Genl Birney where the Mill road intersects the New Market and Richmond road — This whole country is filled with field fortifications this far.”

An annotation included by the Library of Congress adds that Birney’s advance was halted later that evening outside the city limits.

A telegram sent by General Ulysses S. Grant to President Abraham Lincoln. (Library of Congress)

Depictions of the battle were used as a recruitment tool for the USCT in Philadelphia, with one poster showing a black soldier bayoneting a confederate with the words ‘sic semper tyrannis’ appearing overhead. The poster is headed with a slogan of the USCT, “Never in field or tent scorn a black regiment.”

Stories of the battle were used to recruit Black soldiers, as shown in this poster displayed in Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)

The victory at New Market Heights lead confederate general Robert E. Lee to move forces from Petersburg to reinforce Richmond’s eastern flank. That loss of manpower contributed to Grant’s capture of Petersburg and, eventually, the fall of Richmond itself.

Telling Their Story

Four-mile Creek Farm has been in the Eberly family for over 130 years, and now 28 acres have been gifted to the CRLC for “protection and future public access.”

The CRLC plans to use a $172,900 grant from the National Park Service to learn more about the battle, and hopefully clear up a muddled historical record of where, exactly, the action took place.

“So much of the primary resources of the battle are vague in their depiction of where things were happening,” Agelasto said.

To begin, the foundation will sponsor a “phase 1” archeological study to get an idea of what they’ll find on closer examination.

“It would be metal detecting on the entire property,” Agelasto said. “It will also do shovel-testing on the entire property at fifty foot intervals.”

Shovel testing would mean digging 1 square foot by 2 feet deep holes every fifty feet and checking to see if any artifacts are discovered. Where they do turn up, archeologists would then expand the exploration in that area.

Based on previous studies on nearby sites, Agelasto said they expect to encounter far more than just Civil War artifacts.

“We found quite a bit of artifacts that are pre-historic. We have also seen that there is a lot of revolutionary, colonial era artifacts.”

They also hope to find evidence of building foundations in the area, which could be compared with historical records to help line up first-hand accounts with the modern terrain.

“The archeological study will help us tell where and how to best interpret,” Agelasto said. “And also where’s best to just kind of keep people away.”

That’s because they could encounter cemeteries or other human remains that have gone unnoticed, and want to ensure that the sites are treated with dignity and respect.

Eventually, Agelasto said he hopes they’ll be able to connect the site at Four-mile Creek to the CRLC’s other land at Deep Bottom, as well as nearby sites owned by Henrico County and the National Battlefield Trust.

“We’d like to think that there could be some trail connectivity,” he said. “That would allow people to experience the troops arriving across a pontoon bridge and assembling at Deep Bottom, and then coming up to the battlefield and being able to see where the earthworks were and where the front-line was.”

Until then, the site of this historic battle lies hidden under tilled fields and overgrown woods, waiting to be uncovered.