The USCT regiments who participated in the primary assaults at New Market Heights were the 4th, 5th, 6th, 36th, and 38th USCI. The 1st, 22nd, and 37th USCI, and 2nd US Colored Cavalry also supported the attack. Browsing through the service records of these regiments one comes across soldier after soldier who gave up his life or health by making that historic charge.
Private Richard Armstrong of the 38th USCI is one such soldier. Armstrong’s service records give us precious little information about his pre-war life. He was likely enslaved before the war. We do know that Armstrong was born in Norfolk County, Virginia, and later lived in Princes Anne County. His occupation is noted as “farmer,” and the army described him as five feet, six inches tall, with a “dark” complexion. Pvt. Armstrong’s age at his enlistment is given as 17. Other records later in 1864 indicate he was 19.
Richard Armstrong’s Civil War experience apparently began with his enlistment on January 11, 1864, in Norfolk. He formally mustered into Company A, 38th USCI on January 23. He signed up for three years, but would ultimately serve less than a year. Armstrong’s records show he was always present for duty until his September/October 1864 card. That one shows him as absent by reason of “wounded in action Sept. 29/’64. Sent to Hospital.”
Of course, September 29, 1864, marks the Battle of New Market Heights. Other information in Armstrong’s service records tell of the wounds he received on the battlefield. A hospital card from Summit House General Hospital in Philadelphia shows that Armstrong received wounds to his right hand and right thigh. The wound to his right thigh is described as a “compound fracture of femur,” caused by a minie ball.
It appears that after being wounded at New Market Heights, Armstrong initially received treatment at the vast hospital complex at City Point, Virginia. Perhaps due to the seriousness of the wound to his thigh, Armstrong transferred to Summit House hospital in Philadelphia. His hospital records do not indicate whether he endured an amputation, which was a common treatment for similar wounds that broke bones in the extremities. A hospital “Treatment” card only states that Armstrong received: “Cold water dressing and stimulants internally.”
Despite whatever treatments Armstrong did receive, they ultimately proved ineffective, as he died on October 31, 1864; just over a month after his wounding.
Pvt. Armstrong was buried the day after his death in Philadelphia’s Lebanon Cemetery, a predominately African American burial ground. Notable black individuals such as Octavius V. Catto and Absolom Jones were also buried in Lebanon Cemetery. Apparently, Lebanon was condemned in 1899 and the burials were reinterred in Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania. Armstrong apparently now rests in Eden among famous African Americans including Underground Railroad operative William Still and opera star Marian Anderson. If anyone happens to be in the area and is able to locate and photograph Armstrong’s grave (if it is marked), I would be happy if they would share a copy with me.
Young Pvt. Armstrong performed his enlistment commitment faithfully. He ended up giving his life serving a country that did not yet recognize him or people of his race as citizens. It was with the hope of citizenship, and being treated as an equal, that many black men risked their lives fighting in USCT regiments. Is a purer sacrifice possible for a soldier?