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They made history fighting in Virginia. Now these men are fighting to preserve their legacy

U.S. Colored Troops of the Union Army
Posted at 5:46 PM, May 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-20 18:01:34-04

VARINA, Va. -- Less hustle and no bustle is just the way Jeff Dawes likes it.

Dawes has called Yahley Mill Road in Varina home for nearly 40 years.

The retired firefighter truly digs the past and has uncovered relics from more than 160 years ago.

“This really is a battlefield and I’ve found artifacts in this area," Dawes said. "It gives you are real sense of connection to history.”

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The Highland Springs native is surrounded by reminders of the Civil War. Earthworks sit steps from his front door.

“This trench line runs approximately two miles,” Dawes said. “Up to 10,000 men, 5,000 from both sides fought right here.”

But look closely and you will see signs of his own modern-day battle dot his property.

He is now leading a charge to save sacred ground from being bulldozed.

A large swath of the New Market Heights Battlefield along Route 5 was rezoned for housing 20 years ago.

“I see it as the gateway to urbanization,” Dawes said. “A development that size would impact us greatly.”

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Recently a subdivision with about 700 homes and townhouses was going to rise on this spot.

But a Texas-based developer withdrew plans in April after failing to meet the conditions of the permits issued.

Preservationists like Parker Agelasto, Executive Director of the Capital Region Land Conservancy, saw a golden opportunity.

“The vista you see behind me is what you would call pristine,“ Agelasto said. “If we lose this, what you’re going to see is that there is a big doughnut hole in an area of conservation.”

Capital Region Land Conservancy Executive Director Parker Agelasto
Capital Region Land Conservancy Executive Director Parker Agelasto

Eastern Henrico is dotted with Civil War sites, but historians rank New Market Heights as one of the rarest.

“There are a number of battlefields in which the U.S. Colored Troops fought," Agelasto said. "But there is none in which they had such victory.”

It was on this spot, on September 29, 1864, U.S. Colored Troops of the Union Army etched their names in history books.

Hundreds of Black soldiers fought and died here while storming Confederate earthworks under withering fire.

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“When they came out it was a complete slaughter,” Agelasto said.

Out of the 16 Medals of Honor awarded to African Americans during the Civil War, 14 soldiers earned them right here.

For Damon Radcliffe the effort to preserve New Market Heights is personal.

“I’ve known about my great-great-Grandfather since middle school,” Radcliffe said. “Sometimes I can actually feel that he was out here.”

The lieutenant with York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Department is linked to this land forever.

“It brings a sense of pride to the family," Radcliffe said.

Damon Radcliffe
Damon Radcliffe

Damon’s great-great-grandfather Edward Ratcliff (the family's last name changed over the years) escaped slavery in James City County and joined the U.S. Army.

Edward Ratcliff’s valor that day earned him a Medal of Honor.

“It is a surreal feeling to stand on the other side of it knowing what they had to do to get here," Radcliffe said.

To Sgt. Major Ratcliff’s descendant, saving this hallowed land is paramount to the legacies of the men who clashed here.

“Anybody who had a family member who fought in the Civil War, regardless of what side it was on, these things to be preserved so that they have something to have a connection with versus a book or movie," Radcliffe said.

Jeff Dawes compared the Colored Troops’ bravery to U.S. soldiers from another famous battle 80 years later.

“It's huge. It is like Normandy at D-Day," Dawes said. “They had the gumption to keep moving forward to finish the goal of victory. That took some real grit."

Dawes said he believed the actions of the forgotten 14 and the rest of the Colored Troops was the beginning of a new chapter in America’s history.

“I consider that the first civil rights movement of Black America," he said.

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Agelasto and Radcliffe aren’t anti-development, but they agree this land should be off-limits.

“When you hear from Damon and you hear that much of their history was not even well known to the family it gives me a sense of why we have to do more to preserve," Agelasto said.

An intact New Market Heights battlefield would benefit all.

“It doesn’t make sense from a development perspective when you look at this section of Varina that is largely preserved," Agelasto said.

The decision to develop a majority of the fields and woodlands rests with the owner.

“We’re in a position if we could we would gladly work with the current owner and see if we can make a conservation acquisition," Agelasto said.

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Radcliffe hopes the land where his ancestor Edward Ratcliff earned his Medal of Honor remains untouched.

“This is an area where the course of our history changed," Radcliffe said. "Our country’s history changed right here."

“I still have the faith we can save this battlefield," Dawes said.

Neighbor and amateur historian Jeff Dawes remains cautiously optimistic. But shudders at the alternative.

“We’ll lose basically the most important part of the battlefield. The biggest portion that hasn’t been touched for 160 years," Dawes said. "Once it’s gone it’s gone forever."

Following the Civil War Sgt. Ratcliff turned to farming in York County. The man who earned a Medal of Honor died at the age of 80 in 1915.

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