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A little-told tale of Civil War bravery gets deserved attention

Uncommon Valor: A Story of Race, Patriotism, and Glory in the Final Battles of the Civil War, Melvin Claxton and Mark Puls, John Wiley & Sons Inc., 231 pp., $24.95

Whether or not slaves were emancipated , Christian Fleetwood didn't think he'd get a chance to make a difference in the Civil War -- or ever get a fair shake in the supposed Land of the Free.

A 23-year-old writer, choirmaster, and shipping clerk in Baltimore, Fleetwood was disgusted by the North's initial reluctance to accept black soldiers to fight the South. Its reticence reinforced Fleetwood's ambition: to emigrate to the African nation of Liberia. `` `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," Fleetwood wrote.

All that changed in 1863 after staggering Union losses at Gettysburg. A desperate Washington openly recruited Fleetwood and his fellow African-Americans into the Northern ranks, though at unequal pay and with inferior provisions and assignments. In ``Uncommon Valor," Melvin Claxton and Mark Puls follow Fleetwood and his colleagues as they buttress Northern ranks for the war's grinding late offensives. The authors trace the recruits through a year in which they endure slights, earn respect, and emerge, eventually, with battlefield distinctions.

The capstone is the Sept. 29, 1864, battle of New Market Heights, outside Richmond. Though scarcely mentioned in the coffee table Civil War anthologies of Bruce Catton or of Geoffrey C. Ward, Ric Burns, and Ken Burns, New Market Heights is a signal event in African-American history -- 14 of the 16 blacks awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in the war (out of 200,000 who served) were decorated for their actions in this bloody engagement.

What made the triumph so striking was that it followed a disastrous assault in which 365 of the black soldiers taking part were killed or wounded. A half-hour after that failed first attempt, a battle cry spread among Fleetwood's decimated regiment, and the remaining soldiers regrouped -- and advanced, directly into the enemy's line of fire. Years later, an admiring white commander, General Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts, wrote: ``With a cheer and a yell which I can almost hear now, they dashed upon the fort. But before they reached even the ditch . . . the enemy ran away and did not stop until they had run four miles."

Fleetwood seized the fallen flag of his unit as he helped rally the troops that day . His diary, one of many primary sources quoted by the authors, began the day with a matter- of- fact notation: ``Coffee boiled and the line formed." Before the entry was completed, Fleetwood would tell of seeing General Ulysses S. Grant and would list, in almost clinical fashion, the colleagues who had been killed or wounded.

The battle was a breakthrough for the North ern forces, whose soldiers rushed the void nearly to the outskirts of Richmond before General Robert E. Lee's soldiers, stretched thin against superior Union numbers, could regroup. Within seven months, Lee would surrender.

``Uncommon Valor" shows how the African-American recruits turned their white army commanders into allies. Butler once called the slaves freed by Northern soldiers ``contrabands of war," a turn of phrase condemned by abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass as sounding ``more like a pistol than a human being." Another white commander, Lieutenant Samuel Watson Vannuys, initially refused to lead an all-black unit and relented only after he was promised a fast-track promotion. Within weeks, Vannuys had moved from prejudice to pride, championing the soldiers he once derided. In a letter to his father, the lieutenant bragged: ``In point of size and intelligence my company is equal to any in the regiment."

Claxton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, and Puls, his onetime investigative partner at the Detroit News, tread on issues shared by other all-black units, such as the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, which was commemorated in the popular film ``Glory."

Claxton and Puls don't end with Lee's surrender. They follow the postwar maneuverings to honor the fighters and, by extension, the black soldiers who by 1865 made up 10 percent of the Union army. Butler, later a Massachusetts congressman, spoke of the courage shown at New Market Heights in an 1874 oration on Capitol Hill proposing civil rights for blacks. The measure was approved a year later, only to be struck down by the Supreme Court and put on hold for generations.

When the war ended, Fleetwood hoped for equality in an emancipated America. He put Liberia aside to aim for a US Army career, b ut race came into play and he was denied an officer's rank.

However, Fleetwood's words and accomplishments endure, from his diary (in the Library of Congress) and his 1895 pamphlet, ``The Negro as a Soldier," to the pages of this overdue history.

David Beard can be reached at

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