×

Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Uncommon Valor: A Story of Race, Patriotism, and Glory in the Final Battles of the Civil War
     

Uncommon Valor: A Story of Race, Patriotism, and Glory in the Final Battles of the Civil War

by Melvin Claxton, Mark Puls
 

"With the air of intimacy that only comes from intensive research, Uncommon Valor vividly shows us the contributions made by escaped slaves, ex-slaves, and freemen to the Union cause."
—Gene Smith, author of Lee and Grant

Christian Fleetwood had mixed feelings about America, and America had mixed feelings about him. As a free twenty-three-year-old black

Overview

"With the air of intimacy that only comes from intensive research, Uncommon Valor vividly shows us the contributions made by escaped slaves, ex-slaves, and freemen to the Union cause."
—Gene Smith, author of Lee and Grant

Christian Fleetwood had mixed feelings about America, and America had mixed feelings about him. As a free twenty-three-year-old black man living in Baltimore, with the Civil War raging, he understood well all that was worrisome and all that was inspiring in his war-torn country. A few days after Gettysburg, as his hometown was flooded with horribly wounded soldiers, Fleetwood made a momentous and patriotic decision. He enlisted.

Uncommon Valor tells the powerful story of how Sergeant Fleetwood and his fellow "colored" troops overcame oppression, suspicion, derision, and a ceaseless torrent of Confederate gunfire to overrun a heavily fortified rebel position against impossible odds. For outstanding bravery and devotion beyond the call of duty, Fleetwood and thirteen of his comrades were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Based on personal diaries, letters, and other firsthand accounts, this riveting tale takes you deep into the heat of battle and beyond, as these heroic soldiers are forced to fight two wars at once—one against the enemy, the other against their own white commanders and fellow troops.

The Civil War produced hundreds of heroes and thousands of thrilling accounts of their brave and glorious deeds. None is more moving, compelling, or inspiring than Uncommon Valor.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The terrible, but ultimately victorious, 1864 assault on New Market Heights, a vital outpost in the defense of Richmond, VA, forms the centerpiece of Claxton and Puls's Civil War history, which highlights the bravery and sacrifice of African-American troops. The battle hastened the end of the war and retired most of the prejudices that initially kept black troops out of combat. It also earned the book's chief protagonist, Christian Fleetwood, a Baltimore resident who enlisted while slavery was still legal in Maryland, a medal of honor for his bravery. Claxton and Puls's account suffers from its paucity of primary black voices, and it's too short to be definitive. The authors' decision to focus on only a few months of the war hampers narrative tension, though it does illustrate the fact that soldiering is nine parts tedium for every part horror. And the authors, both investigative reporters with the Detroit News, do capture the important themes: how blacks were long denied the fight against the South, how their courage was ever in question and how, after serving their country honorably, full citizenship in the postwar nation was not their reward. (Jan.) (Publishers Weekly, November 14, 2005)
Publishers Weekly
The terrible, but ultimately victorious, 1864 assault on New Market Heights, a vital outpost in the defense of Richmond, Va., forms the centerpiece of Claxton and Puls's Civil War history, which highlights the bravery and sacrifice of African-American troops. The battle hastened the end of the war and retired most of the prejudices that initially kept black troops out of combat. It also earned the book's chief protagonist, Christian Fleetwood, a Baltimore resident who enlisted while slavery was still legal in Maryland, a medal of honor for his bravery. Claxton and Puls's account suffers from its paucity of primary black voices, and it's too short to be definitive. The authors' decision to focus on only a few months of the war hampers narrative tension, though it does illustrate the fact that soldiering is nine parts tedium for every part horror. And the authors, both investigative reporters with the Detroit News, do capture the important themes: how blacks were long denied the fight against the South, how their courage was ever in question and how, after serving their country honorably, full citizenship in the postwar nation was not their reward. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Seeing their race's future hanging in the balance, nearly 200,000 black men like Christian A. Fleetwood of Baltimore shouldered arms on the Union side during the Civil War. Detroit News investigative reporters Claxton (a Pulitzer Prize winner) and Puls relate Fleetwood's service in the U.S. Colored Volunteer Infantry from Gettysburg's aftermath in July 1863 through his unit's desperate fight in September 1864 at New Market Heights, VA. The 24-year-old Fleetwood and 13 comrades there earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Working from firsthand accounts such as diaries and letters, the authors re-create the suffering and sacrifice of black men battling not only rebel enemies but abusive racism from officers and soldiers on their own side. More the story of a unit than of a man, the narrative encompasses a full range of black Civil War service. This is a riveting read for general audiences that contributes a personal face to scholarly treatments available from Ira Berlin, John David Smith, and Noah Andr Trudeau, to name a few. Recommended for black, Civil War, and military collections.-Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780471468233
Publisher:
Wiley
Publication date:
12/16/2005
Pages:
240
Product dimensions:
0.69(w) x 5.50(h) x 8.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Uncommon Valor


By Melvin Claxton

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-46823-1


Chapter One

THE BELL TOLLS A Call for Black Troops

On July 6, 1863, three days after the terrible fighting at Gettysburg, Christian Fleetwood saw the gaunt, soiled faces of the defeated, walking as shattered men through his hometown of Baltimore. About nineteen thousand rebel prisoners were marched through the city's narrow cobblestone streets that day, the pain and horror of the war reflected in their drawn faces and unseeing eyes.

Horse-drawn ambulances carrying the wounded, some crying in pain, descended upon the town along with hundreds of grim-faced Union soldiers, many still in a state of shock. The ugly aftermath of the battle was evident everywhere as a dark gloom wrapped the city.

For Fleetwood and others in Baltimore, the war that once seemed so distant was suddenly too close to ignore. 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. The faces of the vanquished and victors held no sign of glory, only the vestiges of a brutal struggle that left them somehow less human.

Gettysburg, like some grim reaper, had exacted its toll. The numbers were staggering. The Union army lost twenty-three thousand soldiers killed, wounded, or missing in the three days of fighting, the South another twenty thousand. News from the battlefront dominated the newspapers. War correspondents from all over the country were in Baltimore that day, relaying dispatches back to editors. They told their stories in bars and taverns. People strained to listen.

The reporters told of a mad, daring charge across an open plain by the Confederate army on the third and final day of the battle. They told of how Union soldiers waited until the enemy drew near, then unleashed deadly cannon and musket fire. Hundreds of the helpless rebels fell as the air filled with smoke, the acrid smell of gunpowder, and cries of death. But the fractured rebel lines kept charging, finally reaching the outer fringe of the Union army.

One eyewitness recounted the battle: "Men fire into each other's faces, not five feet apart. There are bayonet-thrusts, saber-strokes, pistol-shots ... men going down on their hands and knees, spinning round like tops, throwing out their arms, gulping up blood, falling; legless, armless, headless. There are ghastly heaps of men."

The brutality of the slaughter, which ended with the retreat of Southern troops, was never equaled in the war. The North claimed victory, but there was hardly celebration.

As a clerk, Fleetwood knew what the loss of so many soldiers would ultimately mean. The ledgers would demand that the North put out a call for more troops to replace those who lay dead or wounded in Pennsylvania. The very complexion of the war was changing. It was no longer a white man's fight about states' rights. The death rolls reached into every town and village, and now an invitation to join the carnage was being extended to black recruits. After two years of spurning black soldiers, the Union, Fleetwood knew, could no longer afford to turn them away.

Throughout that July day, the sobering news of Gettysburg was on everyone's lips in the city of 212,000. Residents stood stoically in line for broadsheets listing the dead. Shrieks of anguish reverberated through the shuttered streets as the names of loved ones were recognized, augmenting the pervasive air of sadness and melancholy that settled on the city. With no decisive victory for Union forces, the battle that so many in the North hoped would end the war merely made it more unbearable.

With Lee's army escaping south to the Potomac River en route to Virginia, it was clear the war was far from over. Now the gluttonous, unending conflict would demand more troops to replace the fallen.

Federal recruiters seeking to enlist blacks arrived in Fleetwood's hometown on July 6, the very day the wounded began arriving from Gettysburg. Strange as it would have seemed just a year earlier, the recruiters offered freedom to slaves, honor to free persons of color, and the possibility of limited advancement in the ranks of the Union army for all blacks.

But Fleetwood wasn't a slave; he never worked on a plantation or as a servant. He wasn't convinced that this was his fight. Besides, at five feet four inches and 125 pounds, the well-read, articulate, and cultured Fleetwood was an unlikely candidate for the rigors of military life. He had plans to travel to Liberia in the fall to join a colony of blacks who wanted to live free of racial prejudice. These plans had been given a new sense of urgency by President Lincoln's decision earlier in the year to normalize diplomatic relations with Liberia and encourage blacks to migrate to the African country.

At twenty-three, Fleetwood had a comfortable job as a clerk in a Baltimore shipyard. His circle of friends included influential, progressive-thinking blacks in Baltimore, the city where former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass had grown up a generation earlier. Fleetwood was a founding member of the first black journal in the Maryland region, the Lyceum Observer, a forum for black interests, including the advancement of black rights. He was also a regular contributor to the Christian Recorder, a newspaper published by the Episcopal Church.

Fleetwood and his friends had rigorous, heated debates-often into the wee hours of the morning-about religion, politics, physics, literature, civil rights, and the war. He felt at ease in intellectual circles. A musician, choirmaster, and singer in the church, he often dotted his letters with the French expressions and Latin phrases of the well educated. Soft-spoken and friendly, with curious eyes that lit up when he smiled, Fleetwood possessed a combination of affable traits that appealed to a wide circle of friends as well as his superiors and leaders in Baltimore. Clergy of the Episcopal Church in town considered him a leading candidate for a rectory.

But always, Fleetwood was reminded that the seeming normalcy of his life was an illusion. He was black, and that fact alone relegated him to a prison without walls that offered a confinement as sure as any four-by-four cell.

Fleetwood's driving ambition made it difficult for him to accept the stifling limitations of life for blacks in America. He had traveled abroad and was painfully aware that another world existed outside America where things were different. With each new racial insult, his sense of disillusionment with his homeland was heightened, as was his interest in moving to Africa.

His education began at the home of a wealthy sugar merchant, John C. Burns, and his wife, who were particularly fond of the engaging young man. It continued at the office of the secretary of the Maryland Colonization Society, an organization dedicated to ending slavery by repatriating blacks to Africa. At sixteen, Fleetwood had traveled to Liberia and Sierra Leone. In 1860, he graduated from the all-black Ashman Institute, later renamed Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania. As a black, he was automatically denied admission to most colleges in the state. Once again, Fleetwood experienced the keen impress of prejudice, standing by while far less talented whites entered universities whose doors remained firmly shut in his face.

He understood injustice in the intimate, personal way of the discriminated against. And while he struggled with his role in the war, there was no debate in his heart about the need to break through the barriers that not only prevented blacks from advancing, but kept many in physical bondage. This was especially true in his hometown of Baltimore.

Baltimore was a slave-owning town rife with prejudice. Sympathies lay as much with the South as the North. On April 19, 1861, in the opening days of the war, a large group of pro-Southern townsmen-some carrying Confederate flags-provoked an exchange of gunfire with the 6th Massachusetts Volunteers as they passed through the city on their way to Washington, D.C.

The ugly mob, throwing bricks, bottles, stones, and just about anything they could get their hands on, stormed the railway cars carrying the troops. Nine cars escaped, but the tenth was pushed off the tracks. With the situation becoming more explosive by the moment, the soldiers in the derailed car tried marching to the next station. The seething mob followed, pressing closer. Suddenly, several people in the crowd opened fire, and within minutes four Union soldiers lay dead in the streets of Baltimore, another thirty-nine wounded. That evening, Fleetwood could see the billowing smoke and amber glow of fires around the city as residents burned bridges to prevent more soldiers from going through their town to Washington. A day later, President Lincoln suspended all troop movements through Baltimore. The 6th Massachusetts returned a few days later and occupied Federal Hill overlooking the city.

Now, two years after the riot, little had changed in Fleetwood's hometown, where residents were still as likely to cheer for the Confederate army as for the Union. Faced with this reality, Union troops treated Baltimore as an occupied city for the duration of the war.

With Baltimore now the site of active recruitment of blacks, one of the foremost questions on Fleetwood's mind was the role blacks would play in the Union army. One thing was clear: they would fight under white commanders. But would they be considered expendable and thrown into the heaviest fire?

Fleetwood, like other blacks, had been unable to enlist for much of the war. He had watched from the sidelines, wondering how the conflict would affect life for black Americans. Many blacks viewed the struggle with intellectual indifference, believing it had little to do with them. Indeed, until the conflict began to take a heavy toll in lives, the abolition of slavery was an underlying but not primary issue.

Nine months before Gettysburg, President Lincoln stated unequivocally that the war was not about the slavery issue. "My paramount aim in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery," the president wrote in an open letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. "If I could either save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

Fleetwood was among those who cheered when Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the rebel states in January 1863. But his heart sank when that freedom wasn't extended to the states under Lincoln's and the Union's control. Maryland remained a slave state-Lincoln didn't dare offend pro-Union slave states by setting blacks free in their territories. Fleetwood, seeing the shackles of his brethren in his own town, questioned why should he fight to preserve a union that would not guarantee the freedom of all blacks. Finding no suitable answer, the military seemed an illogical vocation. With a heavy heart, his thoughts remained fixed on Liberia.

To attract blacks the military began placing recruitment posters in Baltimore and other cities. The large, bold print was disturbingly reminiscent of notices for slave auctions: "Men of Color, To Arms! To Arms! Now or Never. Three Year's Service. Battles of Liberty and the Union. Fail Now & Our Race is Doomed."

With a number of slaves enlisting in hopes of obtaining their freedom, some posters addressed free blacks with a nagging question: "Are Freemen less Brave than Slaves?"

Fleetwood felt that doubts and disparaging comments about the courage of blacks were unfair. Blacks had shown a willingness to fight, but were rebuffed by the stubbornness of the Union to accept black soldiers. Fleetwood would later tell friends, "The North came slowly and reluctantly to recognize the Negro as a factor for good in the war. 'This is a white man's war' met the Negroes at every step of their first efforts to gain admission to the armies of the Union."

The willingness of blacks to fight was evidenced early in the war. But it was the South, not the North, that first enlisted them, a fact that deeply disturbed Fleetwood. Although the Confederacy enlisted blacks for support detail, not as armed combatants, the irony was not wasted on him.

Two weeks after the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, at the very start of the war, the Charleston Mercury had reported the passing through Augusta, Georgia, of several companies of rebel troops, including the 3rd and 4th Georgia regiments, fifteen other white companies, and one Negro company from Nashville, Tennessee. And a telegram from New Orleans dated November 23, 1861, noted the review by Governor Thomas Moore of more than 28,000 troops, including one regiment comprised of "1,400 colored men." Some Southern newspapers even praised the black soldiers. The New Orleans Picayune, referring to a military review held February 9, 1862, stated, "We must also pay a deserved compliment to the companies of free colored men, all very well drilled and comfortably equipped."

Yet it did not escape Fleetwood that during the evacuation of New Orleans two months later, all of the Southern troops succeeded in getting away except the black troops. "They got left," he noted sarcastically.

The attitude toward enlisting blacks was rapidly changing in the North. Just days after Gettysburg, at a recruiting station in Baltimore, Union major general Robert Schenck received a dispatch from Washington ordering him to start recruiting blacks. The notice, from Secretary of War Edward M. Stanton, read, "The chief of Bureau for Organizing Colored Troops will issue an order for organizing a regiment in your department, and Colonel Birney has been directed to report to you immediately for that duty. The chief of the Bureau will furnish instructions."

The Union's decision to enlist blacks raised a critical question: should runaway slaves from the South be allowed to join Union forces?

In the early months of the war, the Union leaders wanted to turn away escaped slaves. General Benjamin Butler, fighting near Fort Monroe in Virginia, disagreed. He believed the Union should deprive the South of any manpower at its disposal, including slaves. The Confederate commander opposing Butler's troops was using slaves to help build fortifications. Butler wrote President Lincoln that escaped slaves should be treated the same as any other property taken from the Confederate army.

"Twelve of these Negroes have escaped from the erection of batteries on Sewall's point, which this morning fired upon my expedition as it passed by out of range. As a means of offense therefore in the enemy's hands these Negroes are of importance. Without them, the batteries could not have been erected at least for many weeks. It would seem to be a measure of necessity to deprive their masters of their services."

Butler declared escaped slaves as "contrabands of war," or riches over which slave owners lost claim when they rebelled. Lincoln approved of this policy, maintaining that it was not a policy toward abolition but a tactic of war to save lives of Northern soldiers.

Frederick Douglass, a former slave himself, objected to the term as bitterly distasteful. "Contraband sounds more like a pistol than a human being." But the policy changed the underlying meaning of the war. Suddenly the fight was helping thousands of blacks gain freedom. Escaped slaves began showing up at Union camps referring to themselves as "contraband."

Butler's decision aside, no man in Fleetwood's eyes was more responsible for changing public opinion in the North about black troops than Union general David Hunter. Hunter's effort to form a black regiment in South Carolina in the spring of 1862 was well-known.

Hunter's arming of blacks, many of them runaway slaves, sent political shock waves through the North, especially in Congress, where critics of the general's policy existed on both sides of the aisle. The Lincoln administration, Fleetwood noted, stayed out of the fray and let the general handle his critics. He proved quite capable.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Uncommon Valor by Melvin Claxton Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"With the air of intimacy that only comes from intensive research, Uncommon Valor vividly shows us the contributions made by escaped slaves, ex-slaves, and freemen to the Union cause."
—Gene Smith, author of Lee And Grant

Meet the Author

MELVIN CLAXTON is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter with the Nashville Tennessean.

MARK PULS is a former award-winning investigative reporter with the Detroit News.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews