Interpreting the USCT at Civil War Sites

Looking forward to seeing some of you next month in Gettysburg for the Future of Civil War History conference.  As I’ve mentioned before I am moderating a panel discussion on interpreting United States Colored Troops at Civil War sites.  We’ve got a nice selection of panelists who can address different aspects of the challenge of engaging the general public about race and the history of USCT through the National Park Service, museums, and the classroom.  Pre-conference discussions are already taking place so that we can take full advantage of our time together in Gettysburg.

Here are the questions we are thinking about.

  • What is gained and lost in trying to understand the USCT experience through the theme of “new birth of freedom”?  How does recent scholarship on the USCT experience grapple with this theme?  In restoring agency to the USCT at historic sites, have we inadvertently made the message visitors receive too celebratory?
  • How does the movie Glory continue to shape popular understanding of the USCT?
  • How can we effectively convey the diverse experiences of USCT soldiers at Civil War sites, and help visitors to understand what changed – and what did not change – between 1863 and 1865?
  • How can Civil War sites use the USCT to move beyond the battlefield discussion of Reconstruction, citizenship, and westward expansion?

For a number of reasons I am very interested in the first question.  I know a few of you out there are planning to attend the conference so having these questions should give you a sense of the scope of the panel.  Even if you are unable to attend feel free to share your thoughts about any of the questions or anything else related to this topic that you think the panel should consider.  C-SPAN is slated to record this panel so it should be available for viewing at a later date.

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3 comments… add one
  • John Maass Mar 1, 2013 @ 7:03

    Readers may be interested in a recent book published by the US Army Center of Military History: FREEDOM BY THE SWORD: THE U.S. COLORED TROOPS, 1862-1867, by William Dobak, published in 2011.

    The pdf of the book is here:

    • Kevin Levin Mar 1, 2013 @ 7:16

      Thanks, John. I am reading it now.

  • TF Smith Feb 25, 2013 @ 21:23

    Not certain what you’re getting at with “In restoring agency to the USCT at historic sites, have we inadvertently made the message visitors receive too celebratory…”

    Were the USCTs discriminated against, and forced into a segregated service, from the mass of the RA/USV of the AUS? Sure…pretty much every Western army was segregated along the color line in the 19th Century, and a good part of the 20th. Still doesn’t mean the men who volunteered for the USCT were not displaying agency.


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