Re-enactors keep memory of black Civil War troops alive
Bruce Smith | 9/8/2010, 4:30 a.m.
During the decades after the war, the romanticized ideal of the Southern “Lost Cause” emerged, as did institutionalized racial segregation in the South.
In a mood of national reconciliation, Civil War reunions became events where veterans both North and South met as bands of brothers, celebrating the valor of the battlefield with little mention of the freedom brought to blacks and the role of blacks in gaining it.
That story “was surely erased, suppressed and ignored in the development of mainstream American memory; mainstream textbooks; mainstream public commemoration,” said noted Yale historian David Blight, who has written extensively on the topic.
A memorial to Robert Gould Shaw, the white commander of the 54th who fell at Wagner, and his troops was unveiled in Boston in 1897. But that was an exception.
The commissions that staged the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913 kept black vets away although there were black laborers there. “It was a Jim Crow blue-gray reunion,” Blight said.
But the story of emancipation and the black troops has, in recent years, become mainstream in scholarship and, depending on where one looks, in teaching, he said. Indeed, re-enactors from a company of the 54th marched in President Barack Obama’s inauguration parade.
“But it’s not in the popular memory,” Blight said. “To be honest, most Americans still get their history from a few snippets out of television movies, schooling to some degree and there is a vast, vast ignorance out there.”
The story was marginalized for years and “by the late 20th Century, we were still living with the effects,” Jones said, adding that even if people know of the black units, there is still a lot of misinformation.
Many think the 54th Massachusetts was the first black unit to fight and the Wagner attack was some sort of test to see how black men waged war. But the Militia Act, allowing enlistment of blacks, passed Congress more than a year before, he said.
Historians agree the first battle involving black troops was Island Mound in Missouri when the 1st Kansas Colored Troops fought Confederate raiders. Missouri has acquired the land for a state historic site.
Blacks also fought at Milliken’s Bend, La., as part of the Union Vicksburg campaign, as well as at Port Hudson, La., in the weeks before Battery Wagner.
Joe McGill, who helped organize the South Carolina company of the 54th, said the upcoming months are important to telling the story of black troops.
For years, he said, “it just wasn’t mentioned. When we’re not at the table telling our story, it doesn’t get told.”
For Brown, the construction worker, re-enacting is about more than history and dates.
“It helps me understand the lineage I came from,” he said. “Just think of what those gentlemen came through to help me.”
African American Civil War Memorial and Museum:
54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment:
Company B, 54th Massachusetts: