The 14 African American soldiers who earned the Medal of Honor for their heroic acts at the Battle of New Market Heights set a high standard for courage under fire. William H. Barnes, Powhatan Beaty, James H. Bronson, Christian A. Fleetwood, James Gardiner, James H. Harris, Thomas R. Hawkins, Alfred B. Hilton, Milton M. Holland, Miles James, Alexander Kelly, Robert A. Pinn, Edward Ratcliff, and Charles Veal, are all listed when internet search requests reveal information on New Market Heights medal recipients.
However, less well known, and often not named among the New Market Heights recipients are two white officers whose Medals of Honor also came through brave acts on September 29, 1864. Of the two, Lt. Nathan Edgerton, 6th USCI, has probably received more notice by being included in Civil War artist Don Troiani’s amazing painting, “Three Medals of Honor.” Edgerton is portrayed in the image protecting the national and regimental colors, along with fellow medal recipients, Thomas R. Hawkins and Alexander Kelly. The Medal of Honor recipient from New Market Heights that is most forgotten is Lt. (later Captain) William H. Appleton of the 4th USCI.
William Appleton was born in Chichester, Merrimack County, New Hampshire on March 24, 1843. Appleton appears in the 1860 census in his wheelwright father Samuel’s household. At age 19, in May 1861, Appleton enlisted in Company I, 2nd New Hampshire Infantry. They fought at First Manassas, the Peninsula Campaign, 2nd Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg before Appleton joined as Company H’s 2nd lieutenant in the 4th United States Colored Infantry when he officially joined the new unit in August 1863.
Appleton’s service records indicate he was a faithful soldier, as he always shows as present for duty. He must have performed quite well during the 4th USCI’s participation in the initial attacks on Petersburg’s defenses, as his Medal of Honor citation includes the following: “The first man of the Eighteenth Corps to enter the enemy’s works at Petersburg, Va. 15 June 1864.” That heroic action must have also helped him earn his promotion to first lieutenant, which he received the following month.
Although the 4th USCI led the charge at New Market, during the fight, Appleton somehow came through it unscathed. Several of the 4th’s other white officers were not as fortunate. Capt. Samuel W. Vannings of Company E was killed in action. Five other line officers were wounded: Capt. Wareham Hill, Lt. J. Murray Hoag, Lt. Thomas N. Price, Lt. Daniel W. Spicer, and Lt. W. Watson Gillingham. Appleton’s Medal of Honor citation also states, “Valiant service in a desperate assault at New Market Heights., Va., inspiring the Union troops by his example of steady courage.”
Appleton’s courage netted him not only the Medal of Honor; he also earned promotion to captain in Company E to fill the vacancy of the deceased Samuel Vannings. The 4th USCI transferred to North Carolina and participated in the fighting to capture Fort Fisher in January 1865, the capitulation of Wilmington, and the occupation of Goldsboro and Raleigh. They remained in North Carolina, being among the USCT units that did not have to go to do duty on the Texas-Mexico border. Appleton and the 4th USCI mustered out of service in May 1866.
William Appleton’s post-war life is unfortunately not easy to track. He received his Medal of Honor in 1891 and died at 69 years old in 1912. He was buried in his native Merrimack County, New Hampshire in Evergreen Cemetery. May he not be forgotten for his heroic part in preserving the Union, ending slavery, and his service in the United States Colored Troops.