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National Medal Of Honor Day: Remembering Civil War's Black Soldiers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On this day in 1863, the first Medals of Honor were presented for military gallantry in the Civil War. That's why today is National Medal of Honor Day, something Virginia State Delegate Lamont Bagby holds sacred.

LAMONT BAGBY: I think we take for granted the battlefields that we pass by, walk across frequently.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Especially frequently if you live in Virginia. Bagby is leading a push in his state to remember the Black soldiers who fought with valor in the Civil war - for example, on the battlefield at New Market Heights. On September 29, 1864, the Union Army confronted Confederate soldiers south of Richmond. The Union forces included thousands of Black soldiers.

MARY ABROE: Fourteen of them were awarded their Medals of Honor because of gallantry at the battle of New Market Heights.

MARTIN: That's more than half of the Medals of Honor given to Black men during the Civil War. Mary Abroe is a history teacher and a trustee with the American Battlefield Trust, which is preserving the site.

ABROE: So it seems especially appropriate that we should talk about them today and acknowledge their heroism and the ability of their example to inspire and to uplift previously unrepresented or underrepresented Americans.

MARTIN: One of the Medal of Honor recipients was Powhatan Beaty. He was born into slavery in Virginia. He became a free cabinetmaker and farmer in Cincinnati. And at the Battle of New Market Heights, he was a sergeant in the Union Army.

ABROE: The vast majority of the enlisted men in his regiment were wounded, as were all eight of their officers. He was a non-commissioned officer. He was the only one left, so he took charge of the regiment. And in a second charge, which was successful, that's when he won his Medal of Honor.

INSKEEP: Amazing life - enslaved, then a farmer and cabinetmaker, then a war hero. And after the war, he became a Shakespearean actor. Lamont Bagby, who chairs the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, supports telling these stories at preserved battlefields. He traces his ancestry to the first freed people who were given their own land in Henrico County, Va.

BAGBY: What I'm learning now, even as a 44-year-old adult, is something that I think I should have learned when I was in high school, particularly with such rich history in this area.

INSKEEP: For Bagby, that starts with honoring Black Medal of Honor recipients who served this country even before the country recognized their full rights as citizens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.