SGM Christian Fleetwood’s Medal of Honor (Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History)
For some, earning our nation’s highest military award for selfless courage–the Medal of Honor– is a symbol of who they were at a moment in time. For others, it is a symbol of who they will be for the rest of their lives, the reflection not of a single battle but, instead, of the many battles they will continue to fight, and the harbinger of other courageous acts for which they will be recognized. For Baltimore’s Christian Fleetwood, it can be said that it proved his mettle of honor. Come join me as I take you on a journey of discovery that in answering one question served to redefine Christian Fleetwood’s historical significance in my eyes.
Caption: The building in which the Baltimore City Archives have their home.
While recently offering an intensive course in archival operations at Stevenson University, we were lucky enough to be hosted by the Baltimore City Archives. Located in non-descript commercial space in Baltimore’s Better Waverly neighborhood, the City Archives became our home for three weeks. Operated by a welcoming and highly professional staff, I’ve come to cherish the time my students and I can spend there. As so often happens in my life, from our visit sprang a totally unrelated research effort that made clear to me an important point as a historian. Determining an individual’s historical significance may not be as clear as you might think. The obvious may obscure the sublime.
As is so often the case, it all started over a cup of coffee in the break room of the Baltimore City Archives.
Caption: A portrait of Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood. Or is it? (Painting Baltimore City Archives, Provident Hospital Collection)
In one of the Archives’ side offices hangs a painting of Christian Fleetwood. An African American non-commissioned officer (sergeant) in the Civil War, Fleetwood–along with three other black Marylanders–earned the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm on September 29, 1864. He left the Army in 1866 having attained the highest enlisted rank anyone could in the Union Army: sergeant major. As I studied the painting, I was struck by an inconsistency that presented a problem.
Caption: In this photo Fleetwood wears his Medal of Honor, Butler Medal, and his appropriate rank: stripes of a sergeant major. (Photo: National Park Service)
If he left the Army with the top rank of sergeant major that meant he was never a commissioned officer. But, in the portrait he is wearing the epaulets (shoulder boards) of an officer. There were other questions as well. Others had questioned whether the medal in the portrait was the Medal of Honor (MoH). Could the medal he was wearing be that of the Union veterans group the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)? The GAR medal and the MoH looked remarkably alike in old photos. Similarly, there was a problem with the portrait’s cap insignia. Fleetwood had always been a member of the Infantry branch. In the portrait the insignia looked more like the crossed sabers of the Cavalry–not the Infantry. With rank, branch, and medal in question, was it possible the portrait we were looking at was not that of Christian Fleetwood? I was hooked.
There were three fundamental questions we set out to answer. Little did we know that in our endeavor to answer these relatively minor questions we would be redefining our understanding of the man himself. The questions impelling our research were:
- Why was Fleetwood wearing an officer’s uniform?
- What branch insignia was on his cap?
- Was he wearing a Medal of Honor or a GAR medal?
The easiest question to resolve was that of the medal in the portrait. For that, the National Park Service provided a handy online photo comparison of the GAR medal versus the Medal of Honor.
Caption: The Medal of Honor (L) and the GAR medal (R)
The key to identifying the two medals is the location of each medal’s eagle in relationship to the medal and its ribbon. The Medal of Honor’s eagle is located at the base of the Medal’s ribbon and just above the Medal. In the case of the GAR medal, the eagle is located at the top of the ribbon, separated by that ribbon from the medal itself. The first question was resolved–the portrait was of an African American officer wearing the Medal of Honor.
The next question involved the officer’s branch of service according to his cap badge. What were those crossed “things” on his cap? Were they crossed rifles (Infantry), crossed sabers (Cavalry), or crossed cannon barrels (Artillery)? That question might be resolved by studying all of Fleetwood’s online photos to see if he ever was pictured wearing branch brass other than infantry.
Caption: Photo of Christian A Fleetwood– no date. (Library of Congress)
An initial search of online resources uncovered the photo which must have served as the inspiration for the painted portrait. With regard to the medal, based on the location of the eagle with respect to the medal itself, it is clear Fleetwood is wearing his Medal of Honor. While the branch insignia of his cap badge is still unclear, there is a “7” atop the insignia. That would denote his affiliation with a 7th Battalion or 7th Regiment. His epaulets indeed are those of an officer, however we cannot see the rank That same search uncovered another photo of that helped further resolve the questions at hand.
Caption: Christian Fleetwood as an officer of the 7th Infantry wearing his Butler Medal (left), Medal of Honor (center), and an unidentified medal (right). (Photo: National Park Service)
In the photo above we see that Fleetwood is wearing the uniform of an officer in the 7th Infantry Battalion or 7th Infantry Regiment. This helps clarify the branch insignia present in the prior photos and the painting. The branch insignia on his hat is of the 7th Infantry. From Fleetwood’s military records available through Ancestry.com and Fold3 we discovered that he never served on active duty in any outfit other than the 4th Infantry US Colored Troops (USCT) of the US Army. If this were a photo reflecting his Civil War service, there should be a “4” atop the crossed rifles. The “7” was inconsistent with any of his history through the end of the Civil War.
Caption: Another photo showing Fleetwood with a cap badge affiliated with the 7th Infantry. (Library of Congress)
Along the way we discovered yet another photo of Fleetwood that affiliates him with the 7th Infantry. Having exhausted our photographic evidence available online, it was time to turn to textual materials. Our search took us to Newspapers.com through which we were able to access period newspapers from Baltimore wand Washington, DC. We struck pay dirt as we read about his life after the Civil War. However, context is everything, and it is important that you learn about Fleetwood’s life leading up to his time in Washington, D.C. after the Civil War. It is well worth the journey for it is remarkable.
Christian Abraham Fleetwood was born in Baltimore in 1840. His father, a free black man, was employed as a steward by John C. Brune in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon District. A wealthy merchant, Brune was associated with a successful sugar enterprise in the Baltimore area. Brune took a personal interest in Christian Fleetwood’s education early on and provided schooling within the household. Upon reaching adolescence, Fleetwood took a job as a clerk with the Maryland State Colonization Society that sought to return former slaves to Africa. By age 16, Fleetwood was traveling Africa as an employee of the Society.
Caption: A one dollar note used by colonists of the Colony of Maryland in Africa (1854-1857), now part of the nation of Liberia. Fleetwood would have recognized this money since it was in circulation at the time he was traveling in the area.
Experienced and educated, at age 17 Fleetwood gained admission to Pennsylvania’s Ashmun College. Our nation’s first degree granting college for Blacks, Ashmun was re-named Lincoln University in 1866. The oldest of our HSBCUs in the United States, Lincoln University still carries on its mission.
Caption: Ashmun College in Oxford, PA. Circa 1890.
Fleetwood graduated Ashmun College as valedictorian in 1860. A few years later, Fleetwood helped found The Lyceum Observer, one of the first, if not the first, Black newspapers south of the Mason-Dixon Line. He joined the Army in August 1863. Promoted to the top enlisted rank of sergeant major within nine days of enlisting, there was no higher rank Fleetwood could attain. All of the regiment’s officers were white. Compared to the experiences and achievements of other young African American men in the South at the time, Fleetwood’s were remarkable indeed.
Caption: Officers (white) ans senior non-commissioned officers (black) of the 4th USCT 1865. (Library of Congress)
On September 29, 1864, Fleetwood’s regiment was part of a much larger action near Petersburg, Virginia. Few generals in the Union Army trusted their black troops to fight hard and win battles. In the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, one Union officer, General Benjamin Butler, would challenge that idea. He clustered his USCT regiments together and had them attack at the heart of the Confederate defenses. Their task would pit them against four separate lines of defense manned by crack Confederate troops. While not able to attain their military objectives during the blistering attack, the USCT regiments certainly proved their bravery. Fleetwood was one of 14 African American soldiers who earned the Medal of Honor that day. His citation reads: “He seized the colors, after 2 color bearers had been shot down, and bore them nobly through the fight.
Caption: The colors carried by SGM Fleetwood that earned him the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Chaffin Heights, VA in September 1864. This specific flag is in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society.
At the end of the war Fleetwood resigned from the Army; he saw no future for exceptional men of color in that institution. From the time Fleetwood was born, he had experienced a reality that led him to believe he was equal to any man and that merit, not skin color, should rule one’s progress in life. The institutional racism of the Army during the Civil War was a tough reality to accept. Seemingly, in Fleetwood’s mind, it was something no Black man should accept.
Caption: Umble’s depiction of Fleetwood advancing the colors at Chaffin’s Farm in Sept 1864 (“Field of Honor “by Joseph Umble, © County of Henrico, Virginia.)
Upon leaving active duty, Fleetwood wrote to a former employer and explained his reasons for leaving the Army. Early in the letter he explains that throughout the war he had fought alongside and led black men, many of whom were exceptional. As the regimental sergeant major of the 4th USCT, Fleetwood and his men had excelled at what they had been asked to do, had sacrificed their lives and limbs, and had shown courage equal to any man in the Union Army. His personal bravery had been recognized when he earned the Medal of Honor. His intelligence was recognized when he graduated from college as its valedictorian. His leadership abilities were recognized by the fact that he was made regimental sergeant major–the top sergeant in the regiment. Acknowledged by every white officer in his regiment as a highly educated, brave, leader of men, Fleetwood was recommended for promotion to officer. That promotion never came.
To Fleetwood, the system was discriminatory and unfair. He observed: “A double purpose induced me and most others to enlist, to assist in abolishing slavery and to save the country from ruin. Something in furtherance of both objects we have certainly done, and now it strikes me that more could be done for our welfare in the pursuits of civil life. I think that a camp life would be decidedly an injury to our people. No matter how well and faithfully they may perform their duties they will shortly be considered as ‘lazy nigger sojers’-as drones in the great hive.” (National Park Service)
In those words Fleetwood explained that his personal commitment to advancing his race had impelled him to join the Army. That same commitment caused him to leave. As one examines his life leading up to his resignation from the Army in 1866, it becomes clear we are dealing with a man who who asks for little other than the opportunity to excel. But, having proven his abilities, his experience taught him he should be treated as an equal amongst his peers. The Army’s unwillingness to promote him to an officer’s rank–even as an officer in a segregated unit of men of color–stung him to the core. It is within that context that we should view the rest of his life as it unfolded in Washington, D.C.
Throughout the 1870s we are able to trace his activities within African American society in Washington, D.C. A highly successful choir master, the local newspapers were filled with reports of performances by his church choirs and other musical groups he led and managed. He was well known by many of the leaders in the Washington area–both White and Black–and was friends with luminaries like Frederick Douglas. He had married in 1869, and he seemed to be leading a good life. Employed by the Freedman’s Bureau and later by the War Department as a clerk, Fleetwood was always actively employed. In 1881, something happened that would have greater significance for his people than anything he achieved the day he earned the Medal of Honor.
Caption: Fleetwood elected Captain of the Washington Cadets (Evening Star, 5 January 1881)
In January 1881, a small notice in a local Washington newspaper observed the election of officers of a recently formed African American militia group. At the time, African American citizens of several East Coast cities had organized local militias. Para-military in nature, they purchased their own uniforms, weapons, and other supplies. They often mirrored existing militias made up of white citizens in the local area. The local militias marched in parades, competed against each other in marksmanship, and held marching competitions as well. Known for their stylish uniforms, picnics, and military balls, militias were an important portion of a city’s social fabric. Christian Fleetwood had been elected an officer by his men. He was now a captain.
This little article in a Washington newspaper provides the first evidence that might support Fleetwood’s wearing an officer’s uniform. We see that he was–at one time– an officer. However, this is faint evidence. Officers generally aren’t elected by their troops in the modern Army. Was Fleetwood’s wearing of the officer’s uniform simply a thin ploy to assuage his anger at the Army? What was the relationship of the Washington Cadets to the “real” Army?
Caption: Washington Cadets circa 1887. Fleetwood second from right rear with moustache, sash, Medal of Honor, and Butler Medal. (US National Guard)
By the late 1880s, the African American militia of the District of Columbia was a powerful force within the District. Newspaper articles appeared several times per month chronicling their activities, and the Washington Cadets were often in the forefront. Fleetwood became known as Captain or Major Fleetwood throughout the area. Fleetwood’s strategy was clear. Using the informal acceptance of militias by State governments, Fleetwood helped construct in the District of Columbia a quasi-military force that was highly respected, ever present, and increasingly professional. He realized that the people of the District, and by extension its officials, would see little difference between Fleetwood’s militia and the local National Guard as long as the militia performed as well as, if not better than, the Guard units themselves. His plan, as well as the plan of other Black luminaries in the Washington area, was to enter the Army through its back door– through the National Guard.
At this time the US Army’s black regiments were segregated, and as in the Civil War, commanded by white men. There existed no place within the active military that recognized the right of black men to earn commissions as officers in charge of combat troops. If Fleetwood’s plan was successful it could change the institution of the Army forever.
In 1887, the National Guard of the District of Columbia inducted the African American militias of the District into their force structure. The militias were now officially part of the National Guard of the United States. With little fanfare, the above newspaper clip announced a major change in policy: black men could now be officers in the District of Columbia National Guard (DCNG). The announcement was backed up by General Orders #5 from Headquarters DC National Guard appointing Major Fleetwood commander of the 6th Bn DCNG–formerly known as the Washington Cadets.
Caption: General Orders #5 Appointing Fleetwood Major in the DC National Guard (Courtesy of the DC National Guard: Maj. B. Coward)
Fleetwood had accomplished in 1887 that which could not be accomplished at the end of the Civil War. He was now officially an Army officer, a major of Infantry in the National Guard of the United States. He could legally and officially wear the uniform and insignia of an officer in the National Guard. This wasn’t just a victory for Fleetwood himself, instead, this was a victory he achieved for all men of color. He had achieved this change by working within the system and by proving that black men had the same qualities that qualified white men as officers.
We were almost at the end of our research. We have resolved that the medal he wore was the Medal of Honor. We discovered that his cap badge was for an infantry assignment. We have shown why he was wearing an officer’s uniform. The only mystery yet to be solved is why he had a “7” on his cap badge in his photos. The General Orders made him commander of the 6th Battalion not the 7th. Under these circumstances we would expect his cap insignia to be crossed rifles capped by a “6.” That was not the case. We find the answer in a newspaper clipping from 1889.
Caption: Major Fleetwood now commands the 7th Battalion of the DCNG.
Washington’s Evening Star during July 1889 printed the article above. It is a clipping from a much larger article entitled “The Deluged Camp” that describes the DC National Guard’s summer training camp experience that year. In it, a paragraph starts: “Major Fleetwood, commanding the 7th Battalion…”
Our journey is complete. We can now identify and corroborate the the painting in the Baltimore City Archives is of Major Christian Fleetwood, DC National Guard. It was inspired by a photo currently held by the Library of Congress that was probably taken some time after 1889.
Major Christian Abraham Fleetwood (DCNG, Ret) died September 28, 1914, a day short of the 50th anniversary of his actions at Chaffin’s Farm for which he earned the Medal of Honor. When the commander of the DCNG tried to muster out (remove from the rolls) the black battalions of the DCNG in 1891, Fleetwood brought the fight to have them retained directly to the President of the United States. The units were retained by the Guard.
If you had asked me before this research project why I felt Christian Fleetwood was historically significant, I would have simply responded by saying he was brave. He was a leader. He earned the Medal of Honor. Now, after the journey I have made, I would say something else. I would say that his earning the Medal of Honor was simply the first step in his helping to prove false the premises of institutional discrimination. Through his foresight, creativity, and singular genius, Christian Abraham Fleetwood was able to create situations that disclosed the evils of discrimination to those perpetrating discriminatory policies. His memory is important since his example was so great. The lessons he taught are still compelling and relevant today.
Where is a statue to his memory?