Sgt. Willam H. Barnes - MOH
Christmas Eve 1866 - Indianola, TX - As citizens of Indianola made final preparation for the arrival of Saint Nicholas, Sergeant William H. Barnes was in the City Hospital dying of tuberculosis.
Born in St. Mary's County, Maryland, Barnes was a 23 year old farmer when he enlisted in the Union Army on February 11, 1864. Only a few months after his enlistment, the morning of September 29th, 1864 found Private Barnes on the outskirts of Richmond, VA. His regiment, the 38th U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), along with the 4th, 5th, 6th and 36th USCT were about to lead an attack on seasoned and entrenched Confederate soldiers, including five infantry regiments from the Texas Brigade, led by Col. Frederick Bass.
The Battle of New Market Heights (a.k.a. Battle of Chaffin's Farm) would be the first major battle in Virginia where African American troops led an assault. It was a brutal morning for these men, and the last for many. After crossing hundreds of yards of rising ground, the 4th and 6th regiments neared the rebel lines and were killed in great numbers when their advance was stopped at the first line of barricades (abatis).
Sgt. Major Christian Fleetwood, 4th USCT, described the battle in his diary. "It was a deadly hailstorm of bullets sweeping men down as hail-stones sweep the leaves from trees. It was very evident that there was too much work cut out for our two regiments.We struggled through two lines of abatis, a few getting through the palisades, but it was sheer madness."
A second assault was ordered that included the 5th, 36th and 38th but the results were similar to what had occured to the 4th and 6th regiments.
Colonel Alonzo G. Draper, commander of the 2nd Brigade USCT, filed a report while recuperating from wounds sustained in the battle in which he described the assault, "After passing about 300 yards through young pines, always under fire, we emerged upon the open plain about 800 yards from the enemy's works. Within twenty or thirty yards of the rebel line we found a swamp which broke the charge. Our men were falling by the scores. All the officers were striving constantly to get the men forward."
Ultimately, the fire from the rebels began to lessen as they withdrew from their positions and the USCT continued to their objective and finally entered the confederate position after great loss of men killed outright or wounded. The battle of New Market Heights was considered a great success by the Union Army officers as it was determined they could count on African American soldiers to fight to the death if called upon. A soldier from the Texas Brigade, J.D. Pickens, summed up the fighting of the USCT they faced that day writing, "I want to say in this connection that, in my opinion, no troops up to that time had fought us with move bravery than did those Negroes."
On April 6, 1865, Private William Henry Barnes was awarded the Medal of Honor. His citation reads: "Among the first to enter the enemy's works, although wounded." Fourteen of the 16 recipients of the Medal of Honor awarded to black soldiers in the Civil War were for action at New Market Heights. Barnes and approximately 200 more members of the USCT would also be awarded the Butler Medal, created by Gen. Benjamin Butler to honor the USCT under his command.