Remembering United States Colored Troops on C-SPAN

Gettysburg ConferenceI finally had a chance to watch the panel on USCTs that I moderated at Gettysburg College last month.  C-SPAN aired it this weekend.  I think the discussion went better than what I remembered, though I still get the sense of a subtle or perhaps no so subtle divide among the panelists between a detached scholarly interest in the subject and one that reflects a strong emotional streak.  The latter comes through loud and clear in Hari Jones’s comments.  I guess when it comes to black Union soldiers we still need both.  It is an emotional topic for some and that is certainly understandable at this stage in the game.

One final thought: I definitely should have gotten a haircut before the conference.

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10 thoughts on “Remembering United States Colored Troops on C-SPAN

  1. Pete

    Could you elaborate on the divide that you discern between public historians and academics?

    P.S. Your hair has a fabulous Greg Brady of the Brady Bunch look.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Pete,

      I apologize for not being more specific. I had just arrived home from a weekend in Petersburg, where I gave a lecture for the Civil War Trust.

      I wasn’t thinking so much about a divide between public historians and academics. The problem (if that’s the way to frame it) was that I had a certain expectation for the panel that was not quite fulfilled. I really wanted to look at how we currently interpret USCTs in our respective fields, where there is a need for interpretive revision, and suggestions on how to move forward. I didn’t want to get caught up with Glory, but that is probably my fault since my first question referenced it, but I didn’t see how we could get around it without bringing it up at the beginning and putting it to rest. I guess what I was getting at in my comment is that there is still an emphasis with just getting the word out that blacks fought in the Civil War. Hari Jones goes furthest in expressing this intense passion for the subject and his commitment to sharing it with the general public. I applaud him for his efforts in that regard. In other words, I was looking toward the future and some of the panelists are locked in to the present. At first I thought I had completely botched my responsibilities as a moderator, but I now see that the public historians who deal with this subject still have a very different set of challenges as opposed to simply looking toward the future of interpretation of USCTs. Hope that helps.

      Reply
  2. Bryan Cheeseboro

    Hi Kevin,
    I can certainly understand if you didn’t want to get into a discussion on “Glory-” because the story of the Black Civil War soldier is so much bigger than what that movie has to offer. But I don’t think the movie can be completely ignored. If not for “Glory,” who knows where the discussion on Black Civil War soldiers would be today. Granted, many professional historians and scholars did not need the film to understand the real history of the 54th Massachussets and the United States Colored Troops… but to a mainstream public with no knowledge of mid-19th Century Blacks as anything other than slaves, this baby food movie tasted like steak and potatoes.

    Of course, it’s no surprise that many young people today- those not even as old as this film- have never seen it. Indeed, the last time I watched it, the movie was really showing its age. I’ve felt for a long time now that we’re overdue for a new Black soldier Civil War combat movie (really, we’re long overdue for ANY Civil War combat movie). Eighteen men- most of them Black- were awarded the Medal of Honor for actions at the battle of Chaffin’s Farm on September 29–30, 1864. If that’s not a movie, I don’t know what is.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Bryan,

      I certainly agree, but I hope you didn’t interpret my commentary as wanting to completely ignore the movie. Rather, I just didn’t want it to dominate our discussion at Gettysburg. No doubt, it is still a very useful film, but I am not sure it needs to be at the center of a discussion about the future of USCT interpretation.

      Reply
  3. Bryan Cheeseboro

    “I hope you didn’t interpret my commentary as wanting to completely ignore the movie.”

    I didn’t get that at all, Kevin. You know, the same day I first saw “Glory,” I finished “Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers” by Joe Glathaar. When I saw the movie later that evening, I knew the characters were fictional, but at the time, I felt the regiment still seemed authentic because it didn’t imply people like the Douglass sons, Peter Vogelsang and William Carney were NOT there… the film just focused on a different group of men. Of course, I’ve learned since that time that the film is a lot of misleading myth. I know Hari Jones has argued that the 54th was the most literate regiment, Black or White, in the Union Army… and that many in the 54th were college educated. That’s an interesting point… because back in December when I went to the Fredericksburg 150th, I met a reenactor in the US Engineer Battalion (15th and 50th New York Regiments) who told me that to be a part of that unit, you had to be able to read and write or you would be rejected. I don’t have documented proof of what that man said… but Was the 54th more literate than the engineers? Or more so than the 20th Massachusetts, with several men from Harvard? Maybe Hari Jones’ interpretation of the 54th’s literary competency is true… but for this to be the case, I think it would mean that the regiment was recruited and the men had to pass an aptitude test to get in or they would be rejected. And I would imagine things were not much different for the 55th Massachusetts, if that was the case.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I know Hari Jones has argued that the 54th was the most literate regiment, Black or White, in the Union Army… and that many in the 54th were college educated.

      Obviously I don’t want to respond to what someone else supposedly said without a reference, but I highly doubt that the 54th was the most literate Northern regiment white or black. I also can’t imagine many being college educated or that there was a literacy test. Who would have instituted such a test?

      Reply
  4. Bryan Cheeseboro

    “I highly doubt that the 54th was the most literate Northern regiment white or black. I also can’t imagine many being college educated or that there was a literacy test. Who would have instituted such a test?”

    And this is my point. I can believe the 54th Massachusetts was an exceptional unit that had many literate men. But I don’t think I believe they were the most educated unit, Union or Confederate, during the Civil War.

    Reply
  5. Bryan Cheeseboro

    BTW, here is the reference to what I was referring (at 2:13 in the video). The museum is a great place… but I just don’t go along with this one.

    Reply
  6. Emmanuel Dabney

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for moderating again.

    I think you’re right that we are locked in the present, partly because it’s all we know. Historians don’t make good futurists and I think that was something present throughout this conference. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just not what we do.

    That being said, it is made all the more difficult for us to be futurists, when as you have pointed out, people STILL don’t know that Blacks participated in regiments and artillery batteries in the United States’ Civil War military. We have still have a long row to hoe on getting this information out. What I tried to do in my brief comments of reciting the commentary of three USCT service members was encourage us to not simply think of these men as one mass of 179,000 men all there equally with the same interests at heart of reasons of enlistment. What I failed to include that I wanted to (and remembered it soon as I sat down) was George Jones of Chesterfield County, Virginia who escaped to City Point in May 1864 and enlisted in a USCT regiment. He deserted from the same unit at an unknown date and the final piece of paper in his file states that he was never paid. I have wondered since I ran across him if he didn’t desert because he asked himself “What is different from this service and slavery? Work but no pay? Enlist but not fighting (his unit saw limited service during the Petersburg Campaign)?”

    Reply

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