Fleetwood was born in Baltimore on July 21, 1840, the son of Charles and Anna Maria Fleetwood, both free persons of color. He received his early education in the home of a wealthy sugar merchant, John C. Brunes, and his wife, the latter treating him like her son. He continued his education in the office of the secretary of the Maryland Colonization Society, went briefly to Liberia and Sierra Leone, and graduated in 1860 from Ashmun Institute (later Lincoln University) in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He and others published briefly the Lyceum Observer in Baltimore, said to be the first African American newspaper in the upper South.
With his wife Sara Iredell, whom he married on November 16, 1869, he led an active social life. Fleetwood was acquainted with most of the prominent African Americans of the period. They frequently visited his residence, and presented him with a testimonial in 1889.
When the American Civil War disrupted trade with Liberia, Fleetwood enlisted
into Company G of the 4th Regiment United States Colored Infantry, Union Army,
in August 1863. Due to his educated background, Fleetwood was given the rank of
Sergeant upon enlistment and was promoted to Sergeant Major days later, on August 19.
His regiment, assigned to the 3rd Division, saw service with the 10th, 18th, and 25th
Army Corps in campaigns in North Carolina and Virginia.
On September 29, 1864, the 3rd Division, including Fleetwood's regiment, participated in the Battle of Chaffin's Farm on the outskirts of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. During the 4th Regiment's charge on the enemy fortifications, Fleetwood supervised the unit's left flank. Among the charging soldiers was Sergeant Alfred B. Hilton, the bearer of two flags, one of which had been seized from a wounded sergeant. When Hilton himself was wounded, Fleetwood and another soldier, Charles Veale, each grabbed a flag from him before the colors could touch the ground. Now carrying the American flag, Fleetwood continued forward under heavy fire until it became clear that the unit could not penetrate the enemy defenses. Retreating back to the reserve line, he used the flag to rally a small group of men and continue the fight. For their actions during the battle, Fleetwood, Hilton, and Veale were each issued the Medal of Honor just over six months later, on April 6, 1865. Fleetwood's official Medal of Honor citation reads simply: "Seized the colors, after 2 color bearers had been shot down, and bore them nobly through the fight."
The medal is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
Although every officer of the regiment sent a petition for him to be commissioned an officer, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton did not recommend appointment. Fleetwood was honorably discharged from the Army on May 4, 1866.
Post-war life After the war, Fleetwood worked as a bookkeeper in Columbus, Ohio, until 1867, and in several minor government positions in the Freedmen's Bank and War Department, Washington, D.C. He also organized a battalion of D.C. National Guardsmen and, in the 1880s, Washington, D.C.'s, Colored High School Cadet Corps.
It was his military career that probably inspired Fleetwood's
interest in the Washington colored National Guard and the colored high school cadet
corps. A Washington cadet corps, organized and commanded by Captain D. Graham
on June 12, 1880, was expanded into the Sixth Battalion of D.C. National Guards on
July 18, 1887, with Fleetwood appointed major and commanding officer. After reorganizations,
several African American battalions were consolidated into the First Separate
Battalion in 1891. Passed over as its commanding officer, Fleetwood resigned in 1892.
Meanwhile, he and Major Charles B. Fisher, who had commanded the Fifth Battalion, were instrumental in organizing the Colored High School Cadet Corps of the District of Columbia in 1888. Fleetwood, the first instructor of the colored high school cadets, served until 1897, when he was succeeded by Major Arthur Brooks. These two officers developed a tradition of military service among young colored men in Washington which led some of them to enlist in World War I and others to be commissioned at the Colored Officers Training Camp in Fort Des Moines, Iowa.
Fleetwood never returned to active duty with any military organization. However, many residents of the District of Columbia recommended that he be appointed as the Commander of the 50th U.S. Colored Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War. This request was not seriously considered by the War Department, and the participation of colored soldiers from the District of Columbia was similarly disregarded. It is not known whether Fleetwood's short stature and physical ailments reduced his chances for consideration. His army records state that he was five feet, four and one half inches tall. These records also state that he applied in 1891 for a pension because of "total" deafness in his left ear, the result of "gunshot concussion," and "severe" deafness in his right ear, the result of catarrh contracted while in the army. His application also stated that these ailments prevented him from speaking or singing in public.
For a number of years he served as choirmaster of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church, St. Luke's and St. Mary's Protestant Episcopal Churches, as well as the Berean Baptist Church. Supported by the community, including the wives of former presidents (Lucy Webb Hayes and Frances Folsom Cleveland), his musical presentations were extremely successful.
What was he fighting for? Why did he put on the white man's uniform? Why did he risk his life to take up the flag of his unit when it was obviously a dangerous thing to do?
Christian Fleetwood's name gives him away. He believed in the Spirit of the God of the Bible and on his Son Jesus Christ. Christian Fleetwood knew he was fighting for the hope of freedom African Americans can now enjoy. Christian Fleetwood was a visionary.
Wearing the same uniform white men wore didn't make him an Uncle Tom. Christian Fleetwood is as brave a spirit as any man who ever wore flesh. God Almighty looked down from heaven and saw Christian Fleetwood's bravery and let him live his life to the full to teach him even more of his mysterious ways.
Fleetwood didn't live to see Martin Luther King march for freedom, but it doesn't matter much. He envisioned it.
He had purpose beyond himself. He was bigger than the problems he faced in this world. He brought honour to
his race. He was numbered among those African Americans who proved freedom is worth dying for even when it
is a long way off.