Reference Entry

Fleetwood, Christian (1840 - 1914), Choral Director, Union Army Officer, Pamphleteer, Soldier

Michael Frank Knight

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Fleetwood, Christian (1840 - 1914), Choral Director, Union Army Officer, Pamphleteer, Soldier

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29 and 30 September 1864. He was one of only sixteen African American soldiers to receive the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.Christian Fleetwood's remarkable story begins in the home of the prominent Baltimore businessman John C. Brune. Fleetwood's father served for a long time as the majordomo in the Brune household, and-it was there that Christian received his early education in reading and writing. He was given full access to Brune's extensive library and read widely in classical literature, history, philosophy, contemporary fiction, and world travel. By Fleetwood's own account his education by John Brune was not merely an act of kindness but also an effort to groom him for a position in Brune's sugar-refining business. John Brune invested heavily in sugarcane production in Liberia and felt that Fleetwood's strong intelligence and talent for calculations would serve him well as the Brune company's representative in Africa. Accordingly John Brune financed a trip for Fleetwood to Liberia in 1856. Upon his return to America in 1857 Fleetwood was enrolled by John Brune in the Ashmun Institute of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (renamed Lincoln University in 1866 in honor of President Lincoln), and three years later he received his college degree.Christian Fleetwood, in military uniform with his Medal of Honor. (Library of Congress/Daniel Murray Collection.)Upon returning to Baltimore in 1860 Fleetwood continued his practical education with a three-year apprenticeship at a local shipping and trading firm conducting business between the Port of Baltimore and Liberia. Despite his duties as clerk and accountant for this firm, Fleetwood still cofounded and edited a weekly newspaper called the Lyceum Observer and taught Sunday school at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Baltimore.On 1 January 1863 President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation took effect. Though often cited as the legal death of the institution of slavery in rebelling states throughout the South, the Emancipation Proclamation was equally important for its call to black soldiers to serve in Negro regiments, designated the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and commanded by white officers. For the first time in the Civil War, African Americans were now afforded an opportunity to strike their own blows toward the end of slavery. Early in spring 1864 Colonel William Birney was authorized to raise a colored infantry regiment in the state of Maryland. Realizing that he would have to look beyond the relatively small pool of freeborn black males in the Baltimore area for recruits, Birney embarked on a series of unusual schemes to fill out the ranks of his new regiment. In one of his first acts as commander of the newly designated Fourth United States Colored Troops, Birney took his new recruits and fellow officers on a raid to the city jail on Baltimore's Pratt Street. Slave owners who feared that their slaves would run away if given the opportunity would work the slaves by day and then have the city jailer lock them up by night. Breaking into the jail, Birney, it is alleged, offered freedom from lockup to any slave who would sign enlistment papers.In another scheme Birney hired a transport and loaded it with a barrel of rum and a band and sailed it down the Chesapeake, stopping at night at Maryland plantations with large slave populations. Birney's recruiters would pull into shore, drop the plank, and with band playing entice slaves to enlist in the Fourth USCT. The recruiters were always quick to pull back into the middle of the bay with their new recruits before the slave patrols could interfere. For this stunt the governor of Maryland protested directly to President Lincoln that Birney should be dismissed from the service and his recruiting practices discontinued.One freeborn African American who answered the call to join the Fourth USCT was Christian Fleetwood. Years later he acknowledged that he could have remained in his isolated, privileged world, sailing for Liberia to take up the position of agent for a powerful trading firm. But Fleetwood was inspired by the new recruits filling the training camps, and he could not resist his chance to contribute to the end of slavery. He-enlisted on 11 August 1863, and his education was quickly recognized by the officers of the Fourth USCT. On 19 August 1863 he was promoted from private to sergeant major by Regimental Special Orders Number 17. The regiment was organizing and training at Camp Birney just outside Baltimore, and Fleetwood was put in charge of keeping the regimental books and filing all correspondence and reports due at headquarters. The Fourth USCT was given little time to learn the skills of soldiering; on 25 September the regiment was ordered to Fort Monroe for duty.In early October, Christian Fleetwood and the Fourth USCT saw their first action while on patrol in Mathews County, Virginia, searching for guerrillas, smugglers, and Confederate coastguards. The regiment first saw major action in the summer of 1864 when it was attached to the Army of the James, Eighteenth Corps, and participated in the campaign against Confederate forces in Petersburg, Virginia, beginning on 15 June 1864. In this initial assault Sergeant Major Fleetwood and the Fourth USCT proved their combat abilities by charging and overrunning Confederate defensive batteries. Ultimately the assault on Petersburg failed to take the city, and the Fourth USCT settled in with other Federal forces to a protracted siege.On 29 September the Fourth USCT marched north of the James River and was thrown against the Confederate defenses of Richmond at New Market Heights (Chaffin's Farm). The Fourth USCT was one of the leading elements in the initial charge on the Confederate works. Confederate fire was so intense as the Fourth USCT swept up toward their lines that eleven of twelve members of the color guard were cut down within minutes. Seeing the national flag fall, Sergeant Major Fleetwood rushed forward and grabbed the flag to prevent its capture by Confederate soldiers. In January 1865 the Fourth USCT participated in the assault and capture of Fort Fisher and Wilmington, North Carolina. During the occupation of Wilmington, Fleetwood was struck seriously ill with typhoid fever, but perhaps the arrival of his Medal of Honor for bravery under fire in saving the national flag at New Market Heights sped his recovery. His commanding officer thought Fleetwood's exemplary service warranted a promotion to the rank of a commissioned officer, but the War Department refused to consider this recommendation. Christian Fleetwood and the Fourth USCT mustered out of service on 4 May 1866, and by 10 May, Fleetwood had returned to Baltimore.Perhaps finding that opportunities had passed him by in Baltimore, Fleetwood held a job as a bookkeeper in Columbus, Ohio, until 1867. He moved to Washington, D.C., in that same year and worked as a clerk at the Freedmen's Savings and Trust Company (Freedmen's Bank) and later as a civil servant in the War Department. Christian Fleetwood married Sarah Iridell in Philadelphia on 18 November 1869. Sarah Iridell Fleetwood was a member of the first graduating class of the Freedmen's Hospital Training School, and in 1901 she became superintendent of the Training School for Nurses. The couple had a daughter named Edith, born on 17 May 1885. The Fleetwoods quickly became leading lights in the affluent black middle class of Washington, D.C. At their home they hosted weekly cultural and literary readings that were attended by many of the nationally famous African American socialites, thinkers, and businessmen of the day. Christian Fleetwood also found time to organize black regiments for the Washington, D.C., National Guard, and he was the first instructor of the renowned Washington Colored High School Cadet Corps. Christian Fleetwood died of a heart attack on 28 September 1914.

Reference Entry.  1427 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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