Sixth in an occasional series on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1 to 3.
A thick, misty fog embraced the blue columns of African American soldiers "like a mantle of death" as they marched through pre-dawn darkness toward the enemy earthworks outside Richmond, Va.
Spotted by Confederate pickets, members of the Sixth U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) quickly ran into a torrent of musket and artillery fire that cut through their ranks and shredded the national and regimental colors, snapping the flagpoles in two.
That chaotic moment - when Sgt. Maj. Thomas R. Hawkins, First Sgt. Alexander Kelly, and Lt. Nathan Edgerton rushed in to rescue the colors - has been captured for the Union League of Philadelphia in a newly commissioned oil painting by the renowned Civil War artist Don Troiani.
That day, Sept. 29, 1864, is arguably the most important in African American military history, historians say, because it displayed the prowess and determination of black soldiers against seemingly impossible odds. Hawkins, Kelly, and 12 others who fought at what became known as the Battle of New Market Heights each received the Medal of Honor, as did two white officers, including Edgerton.
The attack "was one of the bloodiest of the Civil War," Troiani said, with a 57 percent casualty rate. "They were slaughtered, crushed, and fell back, but the brigades behind them took" the enemy position.
Troiani's latest work, one of dozens of paintings on the war, will be unveiled June 24 at the league building on South Broad Street.
Every detail of it has been researched in period accounts, post-war depositions, and other records, down to the heights of soldiers, exact uniforms, and the role each played.
Hawkins grabs the blue regimental colors bearing the motto "Freedom for All" alongside Edgerton, who has just been shot. Nearby, Kelly clasps the staff of the bullet-ridden, tattered national colors.
"After the color guard was all either killed or wounded . . . we got orders to retire," Kelly recalled. Upon seeing the colors "being left I seized them and carried them to the rear where I rallied the few remaining men."
At the same time, with Hawkins coming to his aid, Edgerton noticed "my hand was covered in blood, and perfectly powerless, and the flag staff [was] lying in two pieces."
That a painting of that battle has a home now at the league is appropriate, officials said.
"It's important to acknowledge the league's part" in raising 11 black and nine white regiments, said James Mundy Jr., league director of education and programming. "In 1902, the league unveiled a bronze high-relief memorial to recognize the contributions of its white soldiers, and now it's recognizing the contributions of its black soldiers."
The league bucked popular opinion 150 years ago to establish Camp William Penn in what is now Cheltenham, where African American troops were trained.
The camp where they prepared for that deadly day was built on land owned by Union League member Edward M. Davis, son-in-law of the abolitionist Lucretia A. Mott, whose estate was a major stop on the Underground Railroad.
"You had this patriotic social society composed mostly of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant upper-class gentlemen who had political epiphanies about the role of race in America that included the ultimate awarding of citizenship to black Americans," Mundy said.
Black soldiers wanted to help fight off the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in the month leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg. Professor Octavius V. Catto raised a company of African Americans from his students at the Institute for Colored Youth who were turned away at Harrisburg "due to a bureaucratic blunder and misinterpretation" of orders, said historian and author Andy Waskie, a professor at Temple University.
"This company was promptly offered and quickly accepted by the government and mustered in on June 26, 1863, as Company A, Third Regiment, United States Colored Troops," said Waskie, a League member. It was "recognized to have been the first company of colored troops from Philadelphia enrolled in the U.S. Army."
Across the city, copies of a circular were distributed to raise more black units: "This is our golden moment. The government of the United States calls for every able-bodied colored man to enter the army for the three years' service, and join in fighting the battles of liberty and the Union. A new era is open to us."
Mundy had long wanted to remember the league's black soldiers. The painting project took shape with the support and financial help of league member Bob Andrews, a fire protection engineer and president of the Bob Andrews Group in San Antonio, Texas.
"I was getting a tour of the artwork at the league," Andrews said. "I saw the bronze relief to the league's white regiments but nothing for the black regiments.
"I blurted out, 'We need to do something about that,' " he said.
Choosing the right artist was easy, said John Meko, executive director of the Foundations at the Union League. "What was neat about this was the timing," Meko said. "It was the 150th [anniversary] of the founding of the U.S. Colored Troops and Camp William Penn."
The black troops who fought at New Market Heights were not the first African American soldiers to be trained in 1863, following President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. They also weren't the first to see combat or gain recognition.
The 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was widely acclaimed for its valor during its July 18, 1863, assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, S.C. Sgt. William H. Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for grabbing the U.S. flag as the colorbearer fell. He carried the flag to the Confederate ramparts and back, later saying, "Boys, the old flag never touched the ground."
"So much of this history has been in plain sight," said Rob Houston of Philadelphia, an USCT reenactor and Carney cousin three generations removed. "It gives me great pleasure to represent those who have gone before, all those that served in the Union Army and Navy."
Among those planning to attend the ceremony June 24 is Milton Dank, a member of the board of Citizens for the Restoration of Historical La Mott, which is seeking to build a museum honoring black Civil War soldiers in a former firehouse in the 1600 block of Willow Avenue in Cheltenham Township. La Mott is the community where Camp William Penn was located.
"New Market Heights is a salient point in the history of African Americans," said Dank, an author and combat glider pilot during World War II.
The oil painting re-creation of that desperate fight - called Three Medals of Honor - "is stunning," Andrews said. "It's important to tell history correctly."
gettysburg for more coverage, including videos, Inquirer Civil War front pages, and an interactive map of Civil War sites in Philadelphia.