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Powhatan Beaty

Powhatan Beaty

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Improbable.

That's what Powhatan Beaty might be thinking, if he were alive today were told his oversize visage - emblazoned on a mural 12 feet tall - had a place on Richmond's floodwall. Beaty was a Civil War hero.

A black hero.

A Union hero.

In the battle of New Market Heights in 1864 along New Market Road in Henrico County, Beaty was one of 14 black soldiers to earn the Medal of Honor for uncommon valor - the largest number of soldiers ever so honored in a single day's battle in American history. Beaty was one of four Virginia-born Union enlisted men and the only native Richmonder among the medal winners.

Powhatan Beaty was born in Richmond in 1839 but subsequently moved to Ohio before the outbreak of the Civil War and became a farmer.

On June 5, 1863, at the age of 24, Beaty enlisted as a Union soldier at Camp Delaware, Ohio. Two days later he was promoted to first sergeant of Company G, 5th U.S. Colored Troops.

Beaty was 5 feet 7 inches tall. A photograph of him in uniform shows a man with long dark hair, a high forehead, a mustache and goatee.

Details about Beaty's personal life are lost to history, as was the case with many soldiers of the time. Little is known about his life after the war. The date of his death is not known.

But the particulars of his heroism in September 1864 ring with clarity in various accounts.

A battered Confederacy was in its final months when Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler's Army of the James crossed the James River to assault the Richmond defenses north of the river in a series of battles Sept. 29-30 collectively known as the Battle of Chaffin's Farm.

Leading the assault during the Battle of New Market Heights would be Brig. Gen. Charles Paine's 3rd Division of the XVIII Corps, U.S. Colored Troops. Most of them were freedmen - slaves who had been set free -from Virginia, Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The Colored Troops were ordered to put away their percussion caps and charge with bayonets alone, to prevent accidental firing of their weapons as they maneuvered among sharpened tree limbs, stakes and other obstacles erected to repel them. They moved out at 5:30 a.m. on Sept. 29, and set out across 300 yards of rising plain to meet the Confederates.

Gen. John Gregg's Texas Brigade and the 24th Virginia Cavalry laid down a line of withering fire. Of the 683 men in the original attack, 365 lay dead.

Beaty's company apparently was in the second Union attack, which began shortly after 6 a.m.

According to his Medal of Honor citation, Beaty took command of his company, all the officers having been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it.

At the time, only white officers were permitted to command troops, including the Colored Troops, who comprised 180,000 blacks serving in 163 units.

When the last shot was fired in the two-day engagement, 1,302 of the 3,000 black troops thrown into battle had been killed or wounded, or were missing. Overall, the two days of attacks and counterattacks produced an estimated 5,000 casualties on both sides.

And Powhatan Beaty, an Ohio farmer and Richmond native, earned a place in history and - improbably - a place on the Richmond floodwall.

Sources: National Park Service, Richmond National Battlefield Park,  The Battle of New Market Heights by Chaplain (Col.) John Brinsfield, The Negro as a Soldier by Christian a. Fleetwood

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