One of my responsibilities at the upcoming Future of Civil War History Conference at Gettysburg College is to moderate a panel on interpreting USCTs at historical sites. Panelists include Barbara Gannon, Emmanuel Dabney, Hari Jones, Joseph McGill, Jill Newmark, and Robert Sutton. The presenters have already submitted short essays on various issues that they believe are important to discuss. I’ve pretty much finished reading through them and am in the process of identifying challenges associated with the interpretation of USCTs as a point of departure for further discussion. Many of the papers reference the influence of the movie Glory on popular perception as well how we interpret the massacre of black soldiers on battlefields such as Fort Pillow and at the Crater. While I am particularly interested in how we frame the massacre of black soldiers the question of how we address instances where black soldiers executed Confederates has not been adequately addressed. Consider the following passage written by Park Ranger Emmanuel Dabney who does address this with visitors to the Petersburg National Battlefield.
One of the ironies I discuss with visitors is that the US Colored Troops capture Confederate earthworks which were primarily dug by slaves and free blacks. In discussing the troops assaulting these works, I read directly from a letter written by Henry M. Turner, chaplain of the 1st United States Colored Troops. Turner stated that the Black troops and the “the rebels were both crying out – ‘Fort Pillow!’ This seems to be the battle-cry on both sides.” He wrote of the men assaulting the position and the Confederates retreating which he humorously wrote that the Southerners went “out the rear of the forts with their coat-tails sticking straight out behind.” Immediately, he makes a powerful summary of how Confederate prisoners were treated as he penned, “Some few held up their hands and pleaded for mercy, but our boys thought that over Jordan would be the best place for them, and sent them there, with a very few exceptions.” I tell our audiences that while Chaplain Turner did not condone killing of Confederate prisoners it was done in retaliation to the Southern Congress’ May 1, 1863 legislation which stated that Black men found in the Union army’s ranks were slaves in insurrection and that the white officers leading them were inciting a servile insurrection. In both cases the Confederate legislators and the war department condoned the execution of USCTs as well as their white officers. I note that according to white Union soldiers, some of them that night stopped more Black troops from killing Confederate prisoners.
I suspect that these are very difficult stories for visitors to digest. They certainly don’t fit the overall narrative of those who have been influenced by the movie Glory as well as the Sesquicentennial’s emphasis on emancipation and the sacrifice of black soldiers. In this narrative battlefield massacres are central to a story of African American sacrifice for the Union and the eventual attainment of civil rights. Whether intentional or not our embrace of emancipation as the central theme of the Civil War affords black soldiers what might be described as a kind of moral immunity.
When USCTs are killing Confederates they are engaged in a fight for freedom and in those unfortunate moments when they are executed they are victims of an uncontrollable rage that has its roots in a society committed to maintaining slavery and white supremacy. How should we characterize incidents of black soldiers executing Confederates? I agree with Emmanuel that part of the explanation must reference legislation from the Confederate Congress, but that doesn’t constitute everything that we can learn from accounts such as the one cited above.
We have little difficulty coming to terms with white Union and Confederate rage on the battlefield and how it sometimes led to acts that fell beyond the rules of war. But what happens when the conduct of blacks on the battlefield takes a turn, however slight, toward something that resembles Nat Turner’s Rebellion? More to the point, what do we gain from looking more closely at these accounts when interacting with the general public and/or in the classroom and what are the risks involved?
This story just keeps getting more bizarre by the hour. Earlier today it looked like the Memphis City Council was going to vote to change the name of Forrest Park to Forrest – Wells Park, in honor of Ida B. Wells. Of course, local heritage organizers decided to shuttle in H.K. Edgerton to speak on behalf of a slave trader and member of the Ku Klux Klan. A few hour ago it looked like the council was going to rush through a vote to beat the passage of legislation on the state level (PDF) that would make it illegal to change the name of any public space named after a military figure. The latest news is that a decision was made to temporarily change the names of three city parks:
Forrest Park will now be known as Health Sciences Park.
Confederate Park is now Memphis Park.
Jefferson Davis Park is now Mississippi River Park.
And there you have it. I assume they will re-visit this issue at a later date. As always, I am happy with what the local community decides through their local elected officials.
That said, I do hope they decide to amend the name of the park to include Wells rather than discard Forrest entirely. The dedication of a park after such an individual tells us something important about the history of race and white power in Memphis’s history. Tearing it down does little more than erase that history from public view. Adding a monument and/or marker to Ida B. Wells compliments the Forrest monument in any number of ways. It reflects the voices of a part of the community that was prevented from taking part in the process that led to the original dedication and, more importantly, it reflects a stark change of values.
I would love to see more museums and other historical institutions use social media to share lessons learned from visitors. Here are two short interviews with participants, who attended a talk on the Emancipation Proclamation at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. They are, indeed, voices of the Civil War – our voices.
I so wish I could be in Fredericksburg, Virginia this weekend to take part in events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the famous battle and the war in 1862. I’ve been following events through my preferred social networks, but this video captures what remembering the war should be all about. John Hennessy is the chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. No one that I know personally thinks more deeply about what it means to do public history and how best to steer the general public through the many landmines of Civil War memory. Even through video John’s passion for history and commitment to engaging the entire community is palpable.
No doubt, we all glean something different from such a message, but I am reminded that how we remember as a community often reflects boundaries that we would do well to overcome.
What follows is a guest post by Thom Bassett, who recently took a trip to Virginia to explore Civil War battlefields and other sites. He took the time to visit the new MOC museum at Appomattox and sent along this review.Thom teaches at Bryant University in Providence, R.I. He has written numerous essays for the New York Times Disunion blog and is currently working on a novel about William Tecumseh Sherman.
For another, and more important, the MoC-Appomattox overall is a superb example of sophisticated, accessible, evocative, intellectually honest public narrative about the Civil War. While it’s in some respects still very much a work in progress, the museum nonetheless already meaningfully informs and engages the public about the war and its significance today.