Editor’s note: The National Constitution Center celebrates African American History Month with a variety of programs and exhibits that spotlight the story of the African American experience and the struggle for equality, including a close look at the Center’s rare printing of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln.
Each summer, Historic Philadelphia, Inc. and its Once Upon A Nation storytelling program shares little known true stories with visitors from all over the world. Here is an adapted version of a story told at the National Constitution Center.
July 4, 1863. One day after the Union Army victory in Gettysburg, new recruits head toward Camp William Penn, located just outside Philadelphia. For two years, black men had tried to enlist in the US Army to help win the battle against slavery. At last they could, in the brand new United States Colored Troops.
On this first day, black recruits stream into camp and are formed into regiments by white officers. Relations are at times difficult, so to build morale, Frederick Douglass comes and addresses the men:
“The fortunes of the whole race for generations to come are bound up in the success of failure of the…colored troops from the North…That we can now make soldiers of these men, there can not be a doubt.”
Two months later, in September 1863, the Sixth Regiment, US Colored Troops is ready to show its military skills to the city of Philadelphia. Camp William Penn’s commander, Lewis Wagner, proudly leads the parade of USCT regiments. As the Sixth Regiment marches down Broad Street, cheering supporters wave from the steps of the Union League. The men stand tall in their blue uniforms, their rifles topped with gleaming bayonets. At the head of the Regiment a black soldier carries the regimental flag which depicts the Goddess of Liberty. She urges a freedman, a soldier, Do your duty! Beneath Liberty are words: Freedom For All.
Suddenly, a white man leaps out and grabs the flag, shocking the crowd. Is he a Copperhead who supports the South? Or, is he angry to see black men wear the uniform of the Union Army? Just as suddenly, the quick-thinking flag bearer knocks the white intruder down and rescues the flag. The crowd cheers as the Regiment resumes ranks and marches down Broad Street, first battle won, right on the streets of Philadelphia.
But a worse battle lies ahead. One year later, in September 1864, the Sixth Regiment is in Virginia. Confederate bullets fly through the air as the Sixth Regiment attacks a Rebel fort. Soldier after soldier falls. Then so does the regiment’s proud flag. It hits the earth.
But then, Lieutenant Frederick Meyer seizes the flag, and raises it. Bullets fly, then one pierces his heart. He dies instantly, his hands still clutching the flag, which again falls to the earth.
Lieutenant Nathan Edgerton then rushes to the scene. He pries open the dead man’s hands, seizes the flag, then rushes up a hill to lead another charge. Bullets fly, and more men fall, including Lieutenant Edgerton. He hits the ground, but quickly, he leaps to his feet, raising his sword in his right hand, while looking for the regimental flag. At last he spies the flagstaff which is broken. He reaches for the upper part which still holds the flag, he tries to grab it, but, he can’t, because his bloody left hand is shattered. So Lieutenant Edgerton sheathes his sword, and with his right hand, seizes the flag, and raises it, just as Sergeant Alexander Kelly arrives, carrying the American flag.
At that moment, the Sixth Regiment rallies around those two flags, and the white lieutenant and the black sergeant who carry them. As Edgerton and Kelly wave their flags, the Sixth Regiment again charges. More men fall, 209 by the end of that awful day. But eventually, the Union army prevails, and the commanding officer, General Benjamin Butler, declares, “…Better officers never led better men. A few such more such charges, and to command colored troops will be the post of honor to the American armies.”
Two of those better men are singled out for extraordinary heroism. One white. One black. Both proud members of the US Colored Troops, Sixth Regiment. For their service at Chaffin’s Farm, the United States awards Congressional Medals of Honor to Sergeant Alexander Kelly and Lieutenant Nathan Edgerton, the two brave men who rallied their troops around their flags.
Sandy Mackenzie Lloyd is a historian with Historic Philadelphia, Inc.