By John E. Carey
Medal of Honor winner Sgt. Maj. Christian A. Fleetwood, 4th U.S. Colored Troops, wrote in his diary every day during 1864. His unit participated in several engagements in the vicinity of Richmond.
What is most striking about the diary, though, is the rich texture of camp life and army routine that Fleetwood left for us.
Christian A. Fleetwood was a man of letters. His writing is clear and concise, yet much more alive than many might expect.
He used a pre-printed diary book as a journal during 1864. Only about 4 inches of blank paper appeared beneath each printed date, so Fleetwood had to be brief. He routinely organized each entry in an exact format.
First he commented upon his paperwork and posting of troops. Then he typically mentioned the most important activity of the day. As an example: “Johnny Reb attacked. Repulsed.”
For almost every day, he reported whether mail arrived, and frequently he mentioned to whom he wrote. At the bottom of each entry, on the left, Fleetwood recorded that day’s weather.
Space and time constraints made it necessary to keep the entries brief.
Yet Fleetwood artfully described some events. Showing his pride in his unit’s performance, for instance, he wrote on June 10: “Rebels handsomely repulsed.” Engagements with the enemy were reported routinely and without embellishment: “Johnny Reb woke us with a few shells. Got his answer and left. Green wounded.” On May 18, he recorded, “Fell on the enemy and drove them back a mile.”
“Ordered to move on Petersburg eve and take with bayonet,” he wrote on May 31. “Ready. Order cancelled.”
Fleetwood frequently commented on the supply situation, a subject of some importance for the unit’s sergeant major. On June 3: “Recd. Cartridges at last.” On June 4, “Fresh beef today.”
Another key part of his duties involved paperwork. April 12: “Reports in [Adjutant’s] office. Oh Lord! The details.” On May 21 he wrote, “Commenced discipline book.” Sunday entries usually record church services and slower, more restful days. “Prepared for church and attended. Good sermon.”
Another Sunday entry is: “Lay around loose all day,” and on another day of rest, “Turned in for a snooze.”
The page for Sept. 29 and 30 recounts the action for which Fleetwood would receive his Medal of Honor: “Line formed. Moved out & we charged with the 6th at daylight and got used up. Saved colors. Remnants of the two gathered and maneuvering under Col. Ames of 6th U.S.C.T. Marching in line & flank all day. Saw Gen. Grant and staff” and other “stars.” (At this point, the entry seems to reflect the events of Friday the 30th, but Fleetwood, for once, runs the two days together.) “Recd. In morning 193 recruits. Drilled a squad in morning. Rebels charged our line three times. Repulsed. Lying in ravine. One man killed. Moved in eve. Threw up entrenchments to protect flanks of position. First night’s sleep since 27th. Weather changed to the bad.”
Then, succinctly, he wrote, “Saved colors.” With those two words, Sgt. Maj. Christian Fleetwood recounted the single most memorable activity or event of his life. The simplicity is striking.
Fleetwood served his country courageously and in an unflinching, professional manner. He certainly was a hero who contributed manifestly to Lincoln’s groundbreaking decision to recruit black troops and get them into battle.
Christian A. Fleetwood’s 221-page 1864 diary is available online at the Library of Congress site (http://loc.gov). Click on American Memory, and on that page, go to search, using Fleetwood as the keyword. The diary is the third item.
* John E. Carey is a writer and historian in Arlington, Va.