SULLIVANS ISLAND, S.C. – The role of black Civil War troops in gaining the freedom of black Americans was pushed to a distant corner of the national memory for decades.
But the little-known story of the more than 200,000 blacks who served in the Union forces is one that scattered groups of black re-enactors are dedicated to retelling as the 150th anniversary of the war approaches.
It’s also a story many re-enactors themselves didn’t discover until adulthood.
“I’m originally from Ohio,” said Mel Reid, a retired National Park Service ranger from Washington, D.C., who re-enacts in a company of the 54th Massachusetts, perhaps the most famous black unit in the war.
“My teachers didn’t know that black soldiers fought in the Civil War so they didn’t teach us that,” he said.
Black re-enactors were unheard of 50 years ago during the Civil War centennial. But the story of the troops has emerged in the past 20 years thanks to new scholarship, the 1989 movie “Glory,” and Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the Civil War.
“Glory” tells the story of the 54th, one of several Union regiments that made an unsuccessful attack in July, 1863, on Confederate Battery Wagner on Morris Island on Charleston Harbor.
Reid was an extra in the movie and has been re-enacting since. He said 20 years ago there were no black re-enactors and “we were recruited just like the original 54th.”
Ernest Parks of James Island southwest of Charleston become an re-enactor after seeing the 54th.
“It’s a calling,” said Parks, who works for South Carolina Department of Transportation. “It just kept calling me when I discovered the history, because this was never taught to us.”
His neighbor, James Brown, a 50-year-old construction worker, said as a youth he always knew there was fighting nearby, but never the whole story.
“When we would go crabbing we would find old cannon balls,” he recalled. “We would be trying to clean the inside and beating on them trying to get the barnacles off so we could bowl with soda bottles.”
The story of the black troops is “really the only new story of the Civil War. Other stories have been presented but this one has been suppressed for so long,” said Hari Jones, curator of the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C.
The memorial, unveiled 12 years ago, lists the names of more than 209,000 blacks and their white officers who were on the Union military rolls.
Today there are at least 18 black re-enactment units in more than a dozen states. Those units, as well as 20 other people who portray black historic figures, will pass in a grand review in Harrisburg, Pa., this November.
That event recalls a painful chapter for the nation’s black Civil War troops and shows how the memory of what they did was pushed aside almost as the guns fell silent.
Black units were not invited to participate in the Grand Review of federal troops in Washington in 1865. So citizens of Harrisburg organized a review for black soldiers later that year.
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: http://www.afroamcivilwar.org/
54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment: http://mass54thcompany-a.com/
Company B, 54th Massachusetts: http://www.54thmass.org/
Bruce Smith/The Associated Press