"In enlisting in the Union army, Fleetwood and other black troops knew they ran the risk of being tortured and hanged if captured by the Confederates.
"But by mid-September 1864 the rebels had devised a harsh new punishment for captured back soldiers. They made them slaves …. many of these soldiers had never been slaves and withered under the loss of their freedom."
—"Uncommon Valor: A Story of Race, Patriotism and Glory in the Final Battles of the Civil War" by Melvin Claxton and Mark Puls
On black history
The excerpt from Melvin Claxton and Mark Puls' recently published book on what Claxton calls "the most glorious day in the history of African-Americans in battle" provides insight into what "Uncommon Valor" reveals about blacks' struggles for freedom in America.
The book debunks the notion that freedom from slavery was somehow handed to black Americans.
Out of one battle at New Market Heights, toward the end of the Civil War, came 14 medals of honor for black soldiers — more than black soldiers ever received on any one day, in any war.
In talking about what made him decide to write about this battle, Claxton, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Reporting in 1995 for work he did when he was at the V.I. Daily News, said, "What intrigued me about this story was that 14 of 16 medals of honor that went to black soldiers [during the Civil War] were for this battle."
Claxton got the idea for the book when he was working on a story about Native Americans with co-author Puls.
"We were making a long drive to a reservation and got talking about a story Mark had done ten years earlier," he said. It was a Black History Month article about black medal of honor winners, which included the story of New Market Heights, which was never published in history books. "It was a 140-year-old scoop," Claxton said in a recent interview. "A story that's never been told."
The book is about more than the one battle, however. It is about a 100-year battle that only began during the Civil War. The prologue to the book describes the debate going on in Congress in 1874 over a civil rights bill that Claxton says differs little from the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The battle of New Market Heights figured strongly in the debate that took place 10 years after the war because of the part black soldiers had played in winning the New Market Heights battle.
Then-congressman Benjamin Butler, a white general who led thousands of black troops into battle during the war, gave an impassioned speech on the floor of the House of Representatives in support of the bill.
"There in a space not wider than the clerk's desk," Butler said, "lay the dead bodies of 543 of my colored comrades, slain in the defense of their country.
"As I rode along … I looked at their bronzed faces upturned in the shining sun, as if in mute appeal against the wrongs of the country for which they had given their lives, and whose flag had been to them a flag of stripes, in which no star of glory had ever shone for them … I swore myself a solemn oath: 'May my right hand forget its cunning, and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if ever I fail to defend the rights of the men who have given their blood for me and my country this day and for their race forever.'"
Butler and the bill prevailed, at least for eight years until the Supreme Court ruled the bill unconstitutional.
"You really wonder if the Supreme Court had decided otherwise, where America would be with race relations today," Claxton said.
For blacks who were moving from the South to freedom in the North, the sight of black soldiers was "overwhelming," Claxton said.
"It was a great emotional moment when slaves saw black soldiers," Claxton said. "It offered hope for them that they would be able to make a life for themselves," in the North. But for the soldiers, Claxton says, there was a certain amount of ambivalence.
"They joined to fight for their freedom," but Claxton noted, "If a master showed up — you could be put back in shackles." Christian Fleetwood, a black soldier and medal of honor winner whose diaries were critical in the writing of "Uncommon Valor," expressed that ambivalence.
"For months, Fleetwood weighed the decision of whether to join the fight; now that decision would be tempered by the stark reality of the scene unfolding before his eyes. Gone were any romantic notions of the war," Claxton and Puls wrote of Fleetwood's observation from his home in Baltimore as he watched the "gaunt, soiled faces of the defeated, walking as shattered men through his hometown."
Claxton says Fleetwood's decision to enlist in the Union army had to be weighed against reality — Fleetwood lived in a state that allowed slavery.
The book took more than two years to write and another year in production. And doing the research wasn't easy.
Because black soldiers were not commissioned officers, and therefore not required to write reports, and also because many who fought were former slaves who couldn't write, black soldiers generally didn't leave behind a written record. "There was very little left in their own voices," Claxton said. However, he says writing the book would have been much more difficult 20 years ago.
Thanks to the Internet, conducting the research was much easier. "Fleetwood's diaries were available online," Claxton said, "and a lot information was available through the Library of Congress. Claxton said historians of the past would have to have holed up in the National Archives to complete such a work.
Writing a book as compared to writing news stories holds some differences for Claxton, too.
"The wonderful thing about writing a book is you have complete control; if you don't like what the copy editor does you can tell him to go jump in a lake."
A movie could come out of the book, Claxton says, but it's too early to tell. The story of black soldiers who fought in the battle at Ft. Wagner was made into the Oscar-winning film, "Glory."
But Claxton feels the "Uncommon Valor" holds even more importance in the history of black fighting men, in part because of the number of medals of honor handed out for the actions of the black troops, but also because "they won the battle" at New Market Heights.
He said, "I am very proud of the book, and it's had very, very good reviews." But Claxton also said the most important thing to him is, "I am really glad that it is about something that is hugely important. Blacks did fight," says Claxton, "and did suffer major losses to gain their freedom."
"Uncommon Valor" was initially available at Dockside Bookshop on St. Thomas but sold out immediately and has been reordered. The book is also available at amazon.com.
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