Friday, November 11, 2011

For Gallant and Meritorious Service

On September 29, 1864, Samuel Augustus Duncan, Dartmouth '58, then a Lieutenant Colonel in command of the Color Troops of the 4th Brigade of the 3rd Division of the XVIII Corps, led his men on a heroic and tragic charge up New Market Heights.

New Market Heights is a hill about 8 miles south east of Richmond, Virginia. On that morning in 1864 the top of the hill was fortified and held by General John Gregg of the Confederate Army. Gregg’s 2,000 men were part of a set of strategic fortifications put in place by General Robert E. Lee to keep the Union Army from reaching Richmond. These fortifications had been frustrating attempts by General Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac to push the confederates southward.

Colonel Duncan’s brigade in conjunction with the 6th Brigade, both under the command of General Paine, was to spearhead the attack. The African American soldiers were chosen for this task because General Butler, an advocate for the use of Colored Troops, wanted to prove to the world that they would and could fight.

The confederate forces were well aware of the, supposed, surprise attack on their stronghold. They waited until Duncan and his men, who had made their way to the hill over swampy ground in the dark, were well entangled in the abates (sharpened sticks driven into the ground as a defense) before opening fire. The officers and color bearers were quickly eliminated as they made easy targets. Duncan himself was wounded four times. His men suffered 452 casualties including 63 killed. After two days of fighting the Union troops finally drove the Confederate forces from the hill.

In a letter home to his mother from the hospital on October 6, 1864, Duncan describes his wounds and recovery. But he also speaks proudly of his men, "You will see that they all [the New York papers]—the Herald even—praise the Colored Troops of Genl. Paine’s command for what they did on the 29th."

Duncan was honored for "gallant and meritorious service." He went on to become a patent lawyer after the war. Samuel A. Duncan died in 1895 at the age of 69.

Ask for the Samuel Duncan papers, MS-541.

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