Tag Archives: USCTs

Crater Talk at Virginia Festival of the Book

First things first. Thanks to all of you who emailed yesterday to share your concerns about our safety in light of the attacks that took place here in Boston.  My wife and I have lived in Boston for close to two years.  After watching the response of our community to yesterday’s tragic events, I can honestly say that there is no other place I would rather live.  I love this city.

Last month I traveled to Charlottesville to take part in the Virginia Festival of the Book.  My panel included my good friend, Rick Britton, and new friend, Ronald Coddington.  We talked about our respective books and fielded a number of excellent questions from the audience.

This coming Saturday C-SPAN will air a panel discussion about United States Colored Troops that I recently moderated at Gettysburg College.  Let’s just say it was an unusual and entertaining discussion.  I’ve actually thought about it a bit and will share some thoughts over the weekend.

From Civil War to ?

58172-art-american-imperialismThis will probably be the last post I write before I put together my final thoughts as an introduction to the panel on interpreting USCTs at Civil War sites that I will be moderating on Saturday at Gettysburg College. I am still thinking about Carole Emberton’s essay, which I briefly touched on a few days ago.  She’s got me thinking about the place of black Union soldiers within a narrative arc that stretches from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement and the unquestioned assumption that closely links their service and sacrifice with a postwar reward of civil rights.  Emberton argues that this narrative stood in sharp contrast with a widespread belief that service in the military functioned to tame those characteristics that many white Americans (North and South) believed prevented African Americans from enjoying the benefits of full citizenship.  Continue reading

I’m Not the Only One Thinking About the Future of USCTs

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.

Carole Emberton Reconsiders the Black Military Experience

ffusctreI’ve been thinking quite a bit about the current state of interpretation re: the history of black Union soldiers during the Civil War and beyond in preparation for the Future of Civil War History Conference, which will take place later this week in Gettysburg.  As I’ve said before, I think there is much to celebrate as we look back over the past 50 years.  The number of scholarly and popular books being published continues at a brisk pace and popular representations of black soldiers can be seen in recent Hollywood movies such as Cold Mountain and Lincoln  and even a historical novel about USCTs at the Crater by Newt Gingrich. Most importantly, many history textbooks now devote significant space to black Union soldiers and their contributions.  Throughout much of the Civil War sesquicentennial USCTs have been front and center in museum exhibits, symposia, in the pages of local newspapers as human interest stories as well as in the form of new monuments and markers. Continue reading

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.