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Update: Developer cancels plan to put homes on part of Civil War battlefield

Mallory Noe-Payne
Damon Radcliffe (left) and Parker Agelasto (right) stand in a field new the battle site of New Market Heights.

Update, April 8th: Since initial publication of this story on April 6th, a developer has canceled plans to build a subdivision through the historical site. The story has been updated to reflect the latest news.

Today, in this corn field east of Richmond, it’s gray, windy, and cars and bikes rush past. But turn your back to the road and in front of you is a landscape that has remained largely unchanged for more than 150 years.

Farmland leads to overgrown woods, sloping down to a steeply-banked creek. During the Civil War Union troops coming up from the coast, met Confederate defenses right here.

Virginia is filled with Civil War battle sites, that’s nothing new. But this specific location has historical significance in African-American military history. In the Civil War 16 Black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their service, and almost every single one of those medals was given to men who fought in the Battle of New Market Heights in Virginia.

Now preservationists are working to make sure that history is protected.

Standing in that field today Parker Agelasto, Executive Director of the Capital Region Land Conservancy, explains the lay of the land during the Civil War.

“And (the Union troops) are trying to break through the outer defenses of Richmond here on New Market Road, Route 5,” describes Agelasto. “And in that effort they had numerous assaults.”

One of those assaults was on a September morning in 1864. In the predawn fog, units of U.S. Colored Troops were sent forward first. As Agelasto describes it they went through tree cover before coming out into the debris purposefully left behind by Confederates.

“So you’re having to climb over, crawl under, basically navigate through a whole bunch of broken limbs,” he imagines.

That first push ended in failure and death. A second effort took a different path through wetlands.

“And there was a period of the second assault where the U.S. Colored Troops were pinned down for 30 minutes,” Agelasto says. “Basically it was gunfire, gunfire, gunfire gunfire.”

Eventually the gunfire halted for a brief opening. As one group pushed directly into the Confederate line, another approached from the left. They eventually broke through, securing a win for the Union army.

“I would say that New Market Heights still ranks as the greatest victory of any African American troop under U.S. flag,” says Agelasto.

A victory that came at great expense. In just a single hour of the battle, about 800 men died. That was a loss of 1 in 3 soldiers.

Starting in 1862, the U.S. government allowed Black men to enlist, although in segregated troops and not as commanding officers. They stepped up in large numbers. According to the African American Civil War Museum, Black men made up over ten-percent of the Union army, even though less than one percent of the Northern population was Black.

Many who enlisted were from the South, like Damon Radcliffe’s great great-grandfather. He was born enslaved in James City County on a farm that’s still there today.

“Once Emancipation came he walked down to Yorktown, once the Union army took Yorktown, and he joined the Union Army,” Radcliffe says. He describes the family story as he stands on the battlefield site where his ancestor, Edward Ratcliff, once fought for his freedom alongside others.

Edward was one of the men who earned a Medal of Honor for his service at the Battle of New Market Heights. The historical record shows Edward led the company after their commander was killed, and that he was the first enlisted man to breach the Confederate defenses.

That story, and spirit, has been passed down in Ratcliff’s family for generations.

“I think that was where we get our service from,” Damon Radcliffe says. “All of us have done something in service. I’m a local law enforcement officer, my brother serves in the United States marine corps. My cousin retired from the United States Army. Someone in our family has always done something in service since that time.”

That the U.S. Colored Troops went headfirst into the battle of New Market Heights is made all the more astounding when considering the history of Fort Pillow.

Shortly before the fighting in Virginia, the Union forces had lost a battle at Fort Pillow in Tennessee. Confederates had captured Black soldiers there. Though the men had surrendered and were wounded the Confederates - under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest - massacred the defeated men. Damon imagines this story was fresh in his ancestor’s head as he fought at New Market Heights.

“Because he was in a uniform he’s probably going to be killed,” Damon speculates. “So they had no other choice but to win.”

The Capital Region Land Conservancy is now trying to acquire the land to help protect it from development. Though they’ve had success in purchasing more than 300 acres so far, the effort is still patchwork.

The most immediate threat was a planned subdivision that would cut straight through the battlefield. But the developer behind those plans recently backed out, after being told by federal regulators that they had not met the requirements of a permit.

“We need to work hard to preserve that because there are families in my position - not just in the United States Colored Troops but any part of history - that played a significant part in the creation of the country as we know today,” says Radcliffe. “And if you don’t know where you came from, we don’t really know where we’re going to go from there.

While local preservationists are celebrating the win, they're also advocating for Henrico County, state, and federal officials to work together and provide more permanent - cohesive - protection from future development as well.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief. She's covered policy and politics from the state capital since 2016. She was a 2020-2021 recipient of the Fulbright Young Journalist Award. She spent a year in Munich, Germany researching memory, justice, and how a society can collectively confront its sins. Her Virginia-based coverage of home healthcare workers, voting rights, and Richmond’s Slave Trail have won national news awards.