Interview: James S. Price, “The Battle of New Market Heights”

18 10 2011

Public historian and blogger James S. “Jimmy” Price is the author of the recently released The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will be Theirs by the Sword. I’ve never met Jimmy, but am acquainted with him via his blog and Facebook. So when I learned of this new study of a relatively little known engagement involving US Colored Troops I was intrigued and thought maybe some of you would be, too. So I shamelessly begged a copy, looked it over, and did my thing.

BR: Jimmy, we usually start off here with a little background information. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

JP: I had the great privilege of being born in the best sports town in America (and by that, of course, I mean Pittsburgh, PA). My family moved to Richmond when I was five years old, which was just in time for the 125th anniversary of the Civil War. History soon became my passion and I got involved with re-enacting at the age of 15. I was also fortunate enough to have wonderful parents who supported me while I made peanuts working at some local museums and battlefields. I was able to gain some great work experience at places like Petersburg National Battlefield and Richmond National Battlefield Park. This opened the door to doing more serious work at Pamplin Historical Park and The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. At the same time I was pursuing an academic career in history, completing my undergraduate work at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2005 and grad school at Norwich University in 2009. I currently live in Fredericksburg with my beautiful wife and our two kids and I’m working with John Hennessy and the fabulous staff at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park developing a web-based curriculum entitled “Community at War.”

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War as a line of study?

JP: My Dad taking me to the battlefields around Richmond initially spurred my interest. Shortly after that I got a free subscription to the Time Life Civil War series and managed to get my hands on a copy of the American Heritage History of the Civil War by Bruce Catton. After that it was game over, and I knew that I wanted to pursue Civil War history as a career. Over a decade later when I came to work for the County of Henrico, I had to spend a lot of time familiarizing myself with the battles that took place there, and it was then that I did my first real research into the Battle of New Market Heights (I had known about it since my days at Richmond National Battlefield, but hadn’t done any significant research). This prompted me to launch The Sable Arm: A Blog Dedicated to the United States Colored Troops of the Civil War Era as a means to force myself to learn more about USCTs and the battle that led to fourteen of them receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor.

BR: New Market Heights is not an action that pops to the top of most Civil War enthusiasts list of well-known engagements. What first got you interested in it?

JP:  The thing that really piqued my interest at first was the amount of Medals of Honor that were issued for just one action. Add the fact that they were issued to African-American troops and I started to think that this battle was at least as important as the more famous charge of the 54th Massachusetts at Battery Wagner that was immortalized in the motion picture Glory. To have United States Colored Troops attacking a position that was defended by some of Lee’s best troops within a few short miles of the Confederate capital seemed to be a story worthy of more exploration.

BR: Since some readers may not be familiar with the battle, how about a brief synopsis?

JP: New Market Heights was part of a larger two-day action known today as the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, fought on September 29-30, 1864. It took place during the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign of 1864-65. In late September of 1864, Grant prepared an offensive to strike at Petersburg, prevent Robert E. Lee from reinforcing his troops in the Shenandoah Valley, and – if possible – seize the city of Richmond. Grant planned a two-pronged assault with the Army of the Potomac striking at Petersburg while Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James struck north of the James River to threaten the rebel capital. Spearheading one prong of this attack would be Brig. Gen. Charles Paine’s Third Division of the XVIII Corps, a unit comprised entirely of United States Colored Troops. Their objective would be New Market Heights. Early on the morning of the 29th, Paine designated Col. Samuel A. Duncan’s 3rd Brigade to take New Market Heights. Duncan’s men deployed in a skirmish line 200 yards long and soon encountered obstacles that hampered their movement. A marshy stream called Four Mile Creek ran across their line of advance and slashing, abatis, and chevaux-de-frise blocked access to the Rebel entrenchments. Duncan’s men advanced into the thick fog and, in the words of one survivor, were “all cut to pieces.” Intense musket and artillery fire shredded the ranks of the oncoming Federals and soon Col. Duncan was down with four wounds. His brigade was forced to withdraw, losing 387 of its 750 effectives. Paine then sent in his 2nd Brigade under the command of Col. Alonzo G. Draper. As the sun began to rise, Draper’s men went in over the same ground that Duncan’s men had crossed and they were soon entangled in the slashing. For thirty brutal minutes, Draper’s men endured a barrage from the Confederate lines before the Confederates began to withdraw.  Draper would lose 447 out of his 1,300 men. They had taken New Market Heights, but as the day’s events played out, they would not capture Richmond. That being said, one former Confederate did write that “upon [the] 29th [of] September, Richmond came nearer being captured, and that, too, by negro troops, than it ever did during the whole war.”  While Butler met with only partial success that day, the fighting prowess of the African-American soldiers under his command was put on full display for all to see. Throughout the entire course of the war, only eighteen black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. Of that number, fourteen were awarded to the black troops who stormed New Market Heights.

BR: What did your research turn up that particularly surprised you?

JP: I was happy to find some unpublished accounts that backed up some of the more famous incidents that have been called into question. For instance, the story has always gone that Butler rode up to the men of Duncan’s brigade who were about to step off and exhorted them that their battle cry should be “Remember Fort Pillow!” People tend to doubt anything that Butler claims to have said or done, but I did find an account from a Texan who spoke about the attacking USCTs shouting “Remember Fort Pillow!” and how mad that made him. I was also happy to find an unpublished account from Alexander Kelly, who was a member of the 6th USCT and one of the Medal of Honor recipients. That, plus some great photographs from the collection of a gentleman named Rob Lyon that he graciously allowed me to reproduce in the book were very pleasant surprises.

BR: If your work impacts how the Battle of New Market Heights is remembered in one way, what would you hope that is?

JP: Well, the longstanding tradition about New Market Heights is that, while the USCTs displayed bravery and heroism during the assault, we shouldn’t read too much into the fact that there were 14 Medals of Honor awarded to those who fought there. Skeptics claim that the nefarious Beast Butler hatched up the idea of New Market Heights being a grand victory to further his political interests. I’ve read one author who referred to the idea of the black troops winning a legitimate victory at New Market Heights as being “hoopla” while another refers to this notion as “militarily irrelevant Negrophilia.” I hope that folks who read my book will view the battle in a more balanced light.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process?

JP: In terms of researching USCTs, Record Group 94 at the National Archives and Records Administration is a treasure trove of good information. Richmond National Battlefield had been compiling information on New Market Heights for over 20 years, and I was fortunate enough to be able to go through every scrap of paper they had concerning the battle. I was also astonished at how many good sources I could find through Google books and,, and Accessible Archives. I used the information gathered through these various sources to guide the rest of my research and then had to sift through what I could use and what I had to leave behind (keep in mind I was working with a 40,000 word limit).

BR: What’s next for you?

JP: Well, I have a few things cookin’ on my plate right now. I’ve had my first two experiences with Hollywood as of late. I had the privilege of serving as a historical consultant for the upcoming miniseries To Appomattox, which was a great experience. I reviewed the scenes having to do with USCTs and, from what I’ve seen of the script, this is going to be a fine production. I’m also working as one of the extras in the upcoming Lincoln film, which gives me the ability to brag that I’ve been in the same room as Steven Spielberg. And in other (breaking) news, I recently just signed a contract for my second book with The History Press! This time I will be examining the First Battle of Deep Bottom, fought from July 27-29, 1864, where Winfield Scott Hancock and Phillip H. Sheridan both failed to add any battlefield laurels to their respective careers. Life is busy!

It sounds busy! Pick up a copy of The Battle of New Market Heights. It’s a quick read at just over 100 pages, nicely illustrated with photos, drawings, and maps. Jimmy Price has helped bring this event into sharper focus.

Interview: Elizabeth Leonard, “Men of Color To Arms!”

22 11 2010

Men of Color To Arms!: Black Soldiers, Indian Wars, and the Quest for Equality is a new release from W. W. Norton by Elizabeth D. Leonard.  This study “restores black soldiers to their place in the arc of American History, from the Civil War and its promise of freedom until the dawn of the twentieth century and the full retrenchment of Jim Crow.”  While the focus is almost entirely on the period following the war, the story of African-American participation in the military if limited only to the Civil War is unsatisfyingly open-ended.  Leonard gives it the Paul Harvey treatment.  Elizabeth recently took time from her busy schedule to answer a few questions for Bull Runnings.

BR:  Elizabeth, can you tell  us a little about yourself?
EL:  I am a native of New York city, though I have lived in lots of other places, including Japan, the Netherlands, California, and, since 1992, Maine. In addition to teaching at Colby College, where I am the John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History and teach American history, I am the proud mother of two sons, Anthony (16) and Joseph (14).
BR:  What was it that got you interested in history, in the Civil War era, and in pursuing history as a career?
EL:  Back in the early 1980s, I became very interested in the nation’s political conflicts–including those surrounding the federal government’s policies in Central America. I began to wonder what sort of history lay behind those conflicts, and this question led me to graduate school at the University of California, Riverside (I was living not far from Riverside at the time). In the course of taking classes, I grew particularly interested in American history, and Civil War history in particular, perhaps because I had two great professors who taught about the Civil War era: Roger Ransom and Sterling Stuckey. I also was, for many years, a teaching assistant for a scholar of Great Britain named John Phillips, who was from Georgia and who had deep interest in the Civil War, which he communicated to me.
BR:  Your first two efforts (Yankee Women and All the Daring of a Soldier) dealt with women in the Civil War, and your third (Lincoln’s Avengers) expanded to Lincoln’s assassination.  Now you’ve moved on beyond those topics and the Civil War to Black soldiers in the Indian Wars.  Can you discuss that progression and how it led to Men of Color to Arms!?

EL:  Yankee Women is a much revised version of my dissertation, and examines the concrete contributions of women nurses, ladies’ aid activists, and one woman doctor to the Union’s cause, as well as how those women have been remembered. After I wrote Yankee Women, I decided that it would be interesting to look at the experiences and contributions of women during the war who had done things we would consider “less conventional”: as spies, resistance activists, soldiers, army women. It was my research about these women that became All the Daring of the Soldier. While I was writing that book, I became interested in the question of why it was that the federal government often failed to punish southern “she-rebels” very harshly, especially when I learned the story of Mary Surratt, who was executed in July 1865 after being convicted of being one of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators. Originally, I was going to write a book just about her, but as I studied the assassination and its aftermath more closely, I grew interested in the larger story and decided instead to write Lincoln’s Avengers, which deals with Mary Surratt and also with the whole question of how the government handled the assassination in the turbulent context of early Reconstruction. When I finished Lincoln’s Avengers, I wanted to write a full-scale biography of Joseph Holt, who as the judge advocate general of the army was instrumental in the prosecution of the Lincoln assassins. But I also got caught up in a question one of my sons asked me: he wanted to know what the Union army had done after the Civil War, and how its postwar activities were related (if at all) to its earlier role in emancipating the slaves. It is this question that I have tried to answer in Men of Color to Arms!

BR:  What were the surprises you uncovered in your research?  What conflicted with or confirmed any of the notions you held prior to starting it?

EL:  I don’t think I encountered any real surprises in writing this book, but I did have at least one great (if not entirely unanticipated) disappointment, and at least one (if not entirely unanticipated) happy revelation. The disappointment was that I guess I had hoped to be able to uncover evidence of more of the black soldiers having a sense of sympathy for the Native Americans whom they — like white soldiers — were sent West to “pacify.” As it turns out, from what I could see, black soldiers identified first and foremost as U. S. soldiers, and they took their job of “pacification” seriously, without spending much time thinking about the fact that they, too, were people of color whom white Americans had dominated for centuries. As for the “happy revelation” I mentioned: this was the discovery that there were whites connected with the army — Nelson Miles, Guy Henry, Benjamin Grierson, Richard Henry Pratt — who really thought hard about race issues during the latter half of the 19th Century, and tried to figure out ways for America to get beyond the bitter race relations that had been so central to the nation’s experience for so long. These thinkers were not always graceful, nor would they necessarily seem “progressive” or even “egalitarian” to us today, but they were trying, using the tools they had and the context they knew, and I was impressed.

And of course, the tremendous courage and determination of the black men I studied, to make their way to citizenship by doing the nation’s work, was no surprise, but it was nevertheless immensely inspiring.
BR:  How has the book been received so far?

EL:  From what I can tell so far, it’s been received very well, though one reviewer said I tried to do too much in the book, and another said my focus was too narrow. As we say here in Maine, “go figgah!”
BR:  What is your research/writing process?

EL:  I think that if anyone else observed my research and writing process they would wonder how I ever complete my projects, because from an outsider’s perspective, my process probably would seem chaotic and disorganized. But it isn’t really! It’s just that I am a voracious researcher, and I take tons and tons of notes about all of the materials I examine: archival materials, published and unpublished primary sources, and secondary sources, which I store in computer files that I do not put in any sort of predetermined order. The reason I do this is because I am anxious not to impose, in advance, a set “meaning” on the material I gather: I prefer to dive into the sources and then let them generate meaning for me as I think about them over and over and over, and read my notes over and over and over, sometimes in one sequence, sometimes in another. I also do a lot of writing while I’m still doing research: I write about “chunks” of my research. What do I know about a particular person? What issue is particularly salient in a particular context? etc. I then organize the “chunks” in the way that makes the most sense, as I have become more and more familiar with the material as a whole. This may sound crazy, but it works for me, and it allows me to make connections within and about the material I am working on that I might not otherwise make. Once I start writing the manuscript for real, I just write and write and write, hours every day, day after day, so that I can keep my train of thought running as smoothly as possible along the track. I do a tremendous amount of rewriting too, taking vigorous advantage of the brilliant editors it has been my good fortune over the years to work with. It’s a tiring, but extremely fulfilling process overall!

BR:  What’s next?

EL:  My biography of Joseph Holt (the first ever published) will appear with UNC Press in fall 2011. The title is Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky. And now I’m waiting for my other son to come up with a question for me, so I know where to turn my focus for my next project!

Nothing like putting pressure on the kid!  Holt is a fascinating if somewhat murky figure, and I’m sure many are now looking forward to Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally.  In the meantime, be sure to check out Men of Color To Arms!