Sgt. Willam H. Barnes - MOH

38th USCT
by Gary Ralston

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.

After the end of the Civil War in May 1865, Barnes came to Texas with his 38th USCT after it was assigned to assist in Reconstruction as part of the 25th Corp. On July 1, 1865, William Barnes was promoted to Sergeant. This was the highest rank that he could achieve as a soldier in the Union Army.
The service of the 38th USCT in Texas would include Brownsville and various points on the Rio Grande, Brazos Santiago Island, Galveston and finally Indianola. While the number of African American troops in Texas eventually became the majority of all Federal troops in the state, numbering close to 26,000, they began to withdraw in the fall of 1865 with the last leaving in 1867.
On Christmas eve of 1866, Sgt. Barnes died in the City Hospital and was buried at Indianola. He had been ill since July 1866 with turberculosis or "consumption" as it is described as the cause of death in his service records.
After the Civil War, soldiers that had died at, or near, Indianola, were disinterred and reinterred in the San Antonio National Cemetery in a common grave. A marker was erected at the San Antonio National Cemetery in memory of William H. Barnes. From this marker, the group burial site where Barnes is interred can be seen.
In 2013, a Texas Historical Marker in honor of Sgt. William H. Barnes was placed at the Indianola Cemetery.
Battle of New Market Heights- By Gordon Berg
The Butler Medal
Map of the Battle - Civil
Battle of New Market -
United States Colored Troops During Reconstruction 1865-1867 - by Dr. David Work
Reconstruction - The Handbook of Texas Online

After the Civil War, many soldiers from the USCT became "Buffalo Soldiers" and fearlessly fought to protect western settlers from Plains Indians and bandits. (Painting by Brian Norwood and more of Brian's work can be seen at Marker "in memory of" William H. Barnes at the San Antonio National Cemetery at San Antonio, Texas is a Cenotaph, i.e. placed there in his honor.

"Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States." Frederick Douglass
"I had the fullest reports made to me of the acts of individual bravery of colored men on that occasion, and I had done for the negro soldiers, by my own order, what the government has never done for its white soldiers ­ I had a medal struck of like size, weight, quality, fabrication, and intrinsic value with those which Queen Victoria gave with her own hand to her distinguished private soldiers of the Crimea. These I gave with my own hand, save where the recipient was in a distant hospital wounded, and by the commander of the colored corps after it was removed from my command, and I record with pride that in that single action there were so many deserving that it called for a presentation of nearly two hundred." - Benjamin Franklin Butler



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