Tag Archives: USCTs

Dedication of Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site

The Battle of Island Mound marked the first time that African-American troops were engaged in Civil War combat, nearly a year before the battle depicted in the film Glory. Battle of Island Mound State Historic site encompasses Camp Africa, where the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry were camped in 1862 before a pitched battle with pro-Confederate forces near a low hill named Island Mound. When the site is developed, it will interpret the battle, as well as the effect that the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry has on later Union decisions to allow African-American units to fight.

[website for the Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission]

Alternative School on Camp Douglas Grounds Causes Controversy

[Hat-tip to Bjorn Skaptason]

Here is an interesting story to start off the week.  Apparently, a group in Chicago wants to build an alternative school that includes a Civil War museum on the grounds of Camp Douglas.  If approved, the school would be housed in a former funeral home that was once owned by Ernest Griffin.  Before he died Griffin discovered that the funeral home was located on the grounds of the former prison and recruitment center and that one of his ancestors had served in the USCTs.

He set out to learn all he could about the Civil War, becoming an expert and amassing a grand memorabilia collection along the way before his death in 1995.  “It’s a fairly large collection, mostly genealogy,” according to Kelly McGrath, spokeswoman for the Newberry Library.  Heirs Dawn Griffin O’Neal and husband Jim O’Neal donated Griffin’s collection to the museum this summer. It’s yet to be catalogued.  Griffin had gained infamy by flying a Confederate flag on his property — alongside flags of the United States, Africa and a P.O.W. flag.  In 1990, at a ceremony attended by Daley and then-Ald. Bobby Rush, the funeral director installed a Heritage Memorial Wall in his parking lot to honor those who died in the camp.  All that is donated. A property marker remains, however, noting this is the “site of enlistment of Private Charles H. Griffin, Jan. 5, 1864, Co. B. 29th Reg., T. U.S. Col, D Infantry USCT.”  Griffin’s grandfather served in Company B of the 29th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry, the first African-American Union Army division in the state of Virginia.

Organizers hope to utilize these assets to establish a program in cultural preservation.  I am not quite sure what to make of this.  Ignoring the local political issues and just thinking of the possibilities leaves me with a number of questions and very few answers.  How does a program in cultural preservation help this particular group of students?  Who staffs it?  Anyway, it does sound interesting and I will make sure to keep you posted.

148 Years Ago Today

At about this time the USCTs of the Ninth Corp’s Fourth Division had entered the battle.  Part of one brigade ended up in the confusion of the crater itself, but much of the division managed to maneuver to its right and into the confusing and complex chain of earthworks that extended outward.  A couple of regiments pushed their way to some of the most forward positions that any Union regiment would occupy this day.  They performed admirably in what was a difficult situation.

That said, there remains some confusion as to their role in the outcome of the battle of the Crater.  Part of the story about the Crater and the men of the Fourth Division rests on a counterfactual or an assumption about the preparedness of the men under Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s command. Consider the following from an article in the Petersburg Progress-Index:

“This breakthrough would have likely ended the war,” said Park Ranger Randy Watkins, who blames incompetent Union commanders, who in a last minute decision pulled a well-trained group of U.S. Colored Troops from the frontlines to replace them with less experienced white soldiers. “The Union should have won this battle,” Watkins said.

It’s as if we want the difference between victory and defeat to rest on the racism of the Union high command.  “If only Meade had more confidence in these men….”  Meade simply did not believe that these men stood a better chance of success compared to the white soldiers and their use came with political risks.  Much of this is based on the well told tale that the Fourth Division had been trained specifically for this attack.  It is true that they trained, but it must be remembered that this would be their first real taste of battle.  While a few regiments may have performed drills tailored to a cratered landscape the evidence suggests that much of their training was done as part of any attempt to prepare green troops for battle.

Even before Mahone’s counterattack commenced Confederates in the area around the crater kept up stiff resistance and did much to stymie the Union advance.  One reenactor quoted in the Progress-Index commented on the bravery of these men:

“The Battle of the Crater stands for the resolve of the Southern man,” said re-enactor Michael Peacock, a Texas native who now calls Midlothian his home. “To Confederate soldiers, there was no surrender. This ran deep in their veins and still does,” he said.  Sam Watkins, who portrayed a private in the Confederate artillery, said that the Battle of the Crater was more important than the Battle of Gettysburg. “This right here was the defense of Petersburg,” he said.

Indeed, there was no surrender…no surrender that is for many of the black soldiers in the Fourth Division.  And this had everything to do with the fact that they were defending a civilian population in Petersburg.  Whatever ran “deep in their veins” it was excited by the fact that the site of black men in uniform solidified what the war was about and what the consequences would be if a Confederate victory in this battle and the war were not secured.

Note: For those of you visiting the battlefield my book is now available at the Petersburg National Battlefield book store.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial Gets a Poet Laureate

This morning I learned that Natasha Trethewey has been named as the next poet laureate.  Many of you know Trethewey from her penetrating collection of poems on the racial legacy of the Civil War, titled Native Guard.  Her selection comes at an important point in the Civil War Sesquicentennial as we begin to commemorate those events that mark emancipation and the recruitment of African Americans into the United States army.  It is a commemorative landscape fraught with landmines, but I am comforted in knowing that there are voices out there that can help to guide us through.

The ghost of history lies down beside me, rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.

Here is a video of the author reading “Elegy of a Native Guard” on location.