They made history. Now there is a fight for their legacy.
VARINA, Va. – Less fuss and no fuss, that’s exactly what Jeff Dawes likes.
Dawes has lived on Yahley Mill Road in Varina for almost 40 years.
The retired firefighter is really digging into the past and uncovering relics from over 160 years ago.
“It really is a battlefield and I found artifacts in that area,” Dawes said. “It gives you a real sense of connection to the story.”
The Highland Springs native is surrounded by memories of the Civil War. Earthworks are just steps from its front door.
“This trench line extends for about two miles,” Dawes said. “Up to 10,000 men, 5,000 on both sides fought right here.”
But look closely and you’ll see signs of his own modern battle dot his property.
He is now leading a charge to prevent the hallowed ground from being bulldozed.
Much of the New Market Heights battlefield along Highway 5 was rezoned for housing 20 years ago.
“I see it as the gateway to urbanization,” Dawes said. “A development of this size would have a huge impact on us.”
Recently a subdivision of about 700 houses and townhouses was going to rise at this place.
But a Texas-based developer withdrew its plans in April after failing to meet the conditions of issued permits.
Conservatives like Parker Angelasto, executive director of the Capital Region Land Conservancy, saw a golden opportunity.
“The view you see behind me is what you would call pristine,” Angelasto said. “If we lose that, what you’re going to see is there’s a big donut hole in a conservation area.”
East of Henrico is dotted with Civil War sites, but historians rank New Market Heights as one of the rarest.
“There are a number of battlefields that American troops of color have fought on,” Angelasto said. “But there is none on which they have won such a victory.”
It was here, on September 29, 1864, that American Colored troops of the Union Army etched their names in the history books.
Hundreds of black soldiers fought and died here as they stormed Confederate earthworks under devastating fire.
“When they came out it was a complete massacre,” Angelasto said.
Of the 16 Medals of Honor awarded to African Americans during the Civil War, 14 soldiers earned them here.
For Damon Radcliffe, the effort to preserve New Market Heights is personal.
“I’ve known my great-great-grandfather since middle school,” Radcliffe said. “Sometimes I can really feel he was here.”
The York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Department Lieutenant is bound to this land forever.
“It brings a sense of pride to the family,” Radcliffe said.
Damon’s great-great-grandfather, Edward Ratcliff (last name has changed over the years) escaped slavery in James City County and joined the United States Army.
Edward Ratcliff’s bravery that day earned him a Medal of Honor.
“It’s a surreal feeling to stand on the other side knowing what they had to do to get here,” Radcliffe said.
To Sergeant. A descendant of Major Ratcliff, saving this sacred land is paramount to the legacy of the men who fought here.
“Anyone who had a family member who fought in the Civil War, regardless of which side they were on, those things need to be preserved so they have something to relate to in a book or a movie,” said said Radcliffe.
Jeff Dawes compared the bravery of colored troops to American soldiers in another famous battle 80 years later.
“It’s huge. It’s like Normandy on D-Day,” Dawes said. “They had the courage to keep going to achieve the goal of victory. It took courage.”
Dawes said he believed the actions of the Forgotten 14 and the rest of the Colored Troops marked the beginning of a new chapter in America’s history.
“I consider it the premier civil rights movement in black America,” he said.
Parker Angelasto and Damon Radcliffe are not against development, but they agree that this land should be off limits.
“When you hear about Damon and you hear that a lot of their story wasn’t even well known to the family, it gives me an idea of why we need to do more to preserve,” said Angelasto.
An intact New Market Heights battlefield would benefit everyone.
“It doesn’t make sense from a development perspective when you look at this section of Varina that’s largely preserved,” Angelasto said.
The decision to develop the majority of the fields and woods rests with the owner.
“We are in a position, if we could, to work with the current owner and see if we can make a conservation acquisition,” Angelasto said.
Damon Radcliffe hopes the land where his ancestor Edward Ratcliff got his Medal of Honor remains intact.
“This is one area where the course of our history has changed,” Radcliffe said. “The history of our country has changed right here.”
“I still have faith that we can save this battlefield,” Dawes said.
Neighbor and amateur historian Jeff Dawes remains cautiously optimistic. But shudder at the alternative.
“We will essentially lose the most important part of the battlefield. Most of it that hasn’t been touched in 160 years,” Dawes said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
After the Civil War, Staff Sgt. Ratcliff turned to farming in York County. The man who won a Medal of Honor died aged 80 in 1915.