Following Union victory at Antietam, President Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation making African American men eligible for entry into the U.S. Army. The United States Colored Troops - the USCT as they came to be known - came from all states and enlisted as cavalry and infantry men as well as artillerists and engineers. The USCT were commanded by white officers and advancement in rank was limited, but they did receive equal pay.

The USCT fought valiantly at The Crater and Petersburg Breakthrough and shattered the Confederate defenses around Richmond during the battles of Chaffins Farm and New Market Heights. They were among the first troops to enter Richmond after its fall as the capital of the Confederacy. Eighteen USCT were awarded the Medal of Honor by the President of the United States for acts of valor during the Civil War. Thirteen of these medals where given to USCT who fought at Chaffins Farm and New Market Heights and the Confederate defenses around Richmond. After the War, the USCT would go west to fight the Indian Wars during westward expansion and famously became known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

The 35-mile line of Confederate defenses built south of Richmond blocked entrance to the city from the James River. The forts were built by Confederate soldiers and enslaved men and were designed to be unassailable, warding off approaching enemies with abatis and land mines made of artillery shells rigged to explode on a footstep. At Fort Gilmer the USCT dove into the ditch and stormed the parapet under heavy Confederate fire. At the Battle New Market Heights east of the Confederate defenses the USCT took possession of a hill fort blocking the approach to Richmond. The USCT also fought at the Battle of Chaffin's Farm located near Fort Harrison, the largest fortification of the Confederate defenses.

The historic Confederate forts and scenes of USCT battle actions can be seen along the Richmond National Battlefield Park Driving Tour. The tour begins at the intersection of Rt. 5 and Battlefield Park Road in Varina, Virginia. The 8-stop driving tour features six well-preserved Confederate forts and two batteries along with interpretive signs and exhibits. The Fort Harrison stop features a splendid hiking trail through the fort as well as an artillery display and a visitor center that is open seasonally. Fort Brady also features a pleasant hiking trail with interpretive signs. The scenic park road is a favorite of cyclists.

Pictured at the top, guarding the James River approach to Richmond, Fort Harrison was held by the USCT, who were among the first troops to enter Richmond after its fall as the capital of the Confederacy.

richmond national battlefield park fort brady trail

The 127th USCT assisted the 1st New York engineers in building Fort Brady.

Historical Photos

Dutch Gap, Virginia. Picket station of Colored troops near Dutch Gap canal, 1864. (Library of Congress)

[Christian A. Fleetwood, full, standing, in dress uniform, facing slightly right, awarded the CMH for gallantry in action at Chaffin's Farm, near Richmond, on Sept. 29, 1864] (Library of Congress)