Monday, April 12, 2021

Medal of Honor Spotlight - Sgt. William H. Barnes, Co. C, 38th USCI

Over the last few days I've been working my way through the service records of the 38th United States Colored Infantry to find casualties from the Battle of New Market Heights. It never fails to make me stop and think about those who either did not come off the field or suffered wounds. Some of those wounded survived days and months before succumbing, others died later from other causes.

Only two of the fourteen African American soldiers who received the Medal of Honor for their courageous acts at the Battle of New Market Heights died during their enlistments. Sgt. Alfred B. Hilton (4th USCI) died from his New Market Heights wounds about three weeks after the battle. Pvt. William H. Barnes (38th USCI) died on Christmas Eve, 1866, while serving in Texas.

William H. Barnes was born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. Although some sources contend he was a free tenant farmer, his service records do not inform us whether he was free or enslaved before enlisting in Company C, 38th United States Colored Infantry on February 11, 1864, at nearby Point Lookout, Maryland. The draft registration information for the 23 year old Barnes indicates he was married.

During the September 29, 1864, Battle of New Market Heights, the 38th USCI was the last of the five primary assaulting regiments to go into the fight. However, Barnes’s Medal of Honor citation states the he was “among the first to enter the enemy’s works; although wounded.” After a recovery at Balfour General Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, he returned to duty on December 12, 1864.

It must have been satisfying to Barnes to have been among the XXV Corps soldiers who entered Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, on April 3, 1865. A little over a month later though, the 38th USCI were among the regiments who received transfer to the Texas/Mexico border. Barnes earned a promotion to corporal in the spring of 1865, and then to sergeant that summer. Serving in an unhealthy environment resulted in many cases of disease among the black soldiers. Men who survived active combat during the war, fell victim to a host of illnesses in Texas; Barnes was among them. 

In the summer of 1866, Barnes reported sick. He stayed in the hospital at Indianola, Texas, for approximately the next six months before dying of tuberculosis on December 24, 1866, a month short of his regiment’s muster out. A marker notes his life and service at the San Antonio National Cemetery. Barnes receives recognition as well at the USCT memorial in Lexington Park, Maryland, in his native St. Mary’s County. 

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