Thanks to my fellow Civil War bloggers for giving me quite a bit to chew on these last few days as I put together some brief opening remarks for the Gettysburg College panel on how USCTs are currently being interpreted and where we go from here. My own posts can be found here, here, here, and here.
Head on over to Robert Moore’s site for a thoughtful post on USCTs in the Shenandoah Valley. Moore reminds us that the motivation behind black enlistment was complex and not always captured by the popular explanation that they were simply fighting for freedom.
One can say the local Confederates were fighting for slavery… but that would only be telling part of the truth. One can also say the USCTs were fighting for the chance to be free, but that too would be telling only part of their story. We have complicating factors that make us put on brakes… and pretty darn quick. Were some Confederates fighting to keep slaves, while others were fighting because… and, let’s be perfectly honest with ourselves and history… the boys in blue were “down here”? Absolutely. Of course, there were other Confederates who were in the ranks as well… and some of them didn’t even want to be there in the first place. That being the case, should we not expect the story of the USCTs to be equally complicated?
Jimmy Price adds to one of my recent posts on the difficulties of coming to terms with battlefield atrocities committed by USCTs. This is something that I am particularly interested in right now.
One cannot approach the topic of US Colored Troops without encountering numerous occasions in which black soldiers were ruthlessly cut down on the battlefield while in the act of surrender. Olustee, Fort Pillow, the Crater, Saltville – the list of places where Confederate troops perpetrated these war crimes goes on and on.
But there is a flip side to this coin, and the way it is presented in the grand narrative can be problematic. Just as one can find numerous examples in Civil War texts that lay out the atrocities committed by rebel soldiers, one can also find the examples of when US Colored Troops went into action shouting “Remember Fort Pillow!” and encouraging their fellow soldiers to “raise the black flag” and give no quarter to any Confederate soldier who sought any.
Emmanuel Dabney, who will join me this weekend for this panel discussion, provides some fruitful sources for those looking for the elusive black voices in the military. Finally, Craig Swain points to the possibilities of interpreting and commemorating the service of USCTs on the local level.
Thanks to Robert, Craig, Jimmy and Emmanuel for sharing their thoughts on this subject. They have given me quite a bit to think about, which I hope has a chance to surface during the panel discussion on Saturday.