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.
File this one under the ‘better late than never’ category. I guess every historian has experienced uncovering a gem of a reference that failed to make it into a published work. The following editorial (“Our Colored Militia”) was published in the Petersburg Lancet on September 12, 1885 by George F. Bragg, Jr. on the occasion of a local black militia parade.
When we think of the achievements of those brilliant knights of the middle ages; when we think of the christian armies moving onwards to Jerusalem to wrest the tomb of the blessed Saviour from the fierce barbaric hands of Saracenic hosts; when we remember the courageous conduct of the Negro troops at Fort Fisher, Fort Wagner, at New Orleans and at the CRATER near our own city, in which the limbs of may of our brethren in black lie mouldering in the dust from which they came, we may feel that this gathering to day is not an idle insignificant one, but that the colored militia men of this grand old State have determined to perpetuate the memories of that institution from which so many healthy lasting benefits have been derived.
There were a number of black militias active throughout Virginia during the postwar period. Though their service was limited they performed an important function within the local black community by reinforcing civic pride and preserving a memory of the war that was slowly losing its hold on the public’s imagination by the late nineteenth century. This editorial reinforces just how important it was for African Americans to keep alive the memory of their service and sacrifice in the war as a way to maintain what limited freedoms they enjoyed, especially in the wake of the end of Readjuster control of the state.
One of the topics that I briefly explore in the book is the challenge of connecting black residents of Petersburg to the history at the Crater. Earlier this week I posted on a parade in Fredericksburg that recreates the postwar participation of local blacks in decorating and honoring Union graves. If repeated it at least has the potential to connect a certain segment of the community to the Civil War past and its continued relevance. Perhaps the recreation of a black militia march in Petersburg with their overt references to black participation in the war can achieve similar ends. Just a thought.
And here is the final comment from yesterday’s SHPG thread:
A few months ago, I saw on the History Channel some stories of earlier armies, who killed every standing soldier left in the battle. The Black Flag became a Flag – Understood by Pirates and Armies, that there would be “No Survivors” left standing – from either side. The Black Flag was raised by the Federals at Fort Pillow and again by the Black Troops at the Crater. Confederates going into battle were informed that the blacks had cried “Fort Pillow – No Surrender & were fighting under a Black Flag”. More importantly, when the blacks were trying to surrender – other men in the vicinity were still shooting from the Federal forces. A “White Flag” and a “Cessation” in Firing are two Critical Elements which would or could have caused the Confederates to Stop Shooting, however both of these were not forthcoming, until the Confederate Officers closed the door on the Fighting.
The question for Levin is – Has he ever defended the injustices done to the Indians by Federal Troops after the War Between the States? I doubt it. In his mind – it’s all about “Evilizing the South”.
I’ve grown use to these comments and I suspect they will increase in frequency once the book comes out. As much as I probably should be offended by such accusations, I’ve come to realize that they are not really about me. It’s hard to be offended once you understand that we are engaged in two different projects. For the author of this comment the goal is to defend a certain narrative of the past by striving for some sort of moral balance. Notice the references to previous wars or the query regarding whether I have any plans to explore the history of violence between the U.S. army and Native Americans. The assumption appears to be that the history of racial violence during the Civil War is no different from any other historical event. Well, if your goal is simply to maintain a moral balance sheet than the fact that there are salient differences will remain irrelevant. Historians, on the other hand, must look deeper.
I spent part of today organizing some digital files related to the battle of the Crater. Included is the following letter written by H.A. Minor to his sister just after the battle. I can’t remember if it made it into the book because I have so many rich letters written by soldiers in William Mahone’s division. For anyone familiar with these post-battle letters, what stands out are the patterns that emerge between the many soldiers who took pen to paper to share the highlights of the battle with loved ones back home. I detail this in the first chapter of the book, but here is a little taste.
Papers of Henry Augustine Minor [manuscript] 1864-76
Minor, Henry Augustine, 1835-
Personal Author: Minor, Henry Augustine, 1835-
Title:Papers of Henry Augustine Minor [manuscript] 1864-76.
Collection: Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.
Field Hospital, 9th Alabama Regiment near Petersburg, Va., August 1, 1864
H.A. Minor to sister, M.A. Moseley: Minor was the surgeon of the 9th Alabama Volunteers. Collection
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Don Troiani's "The Last Salute"
I think Gary Gallagher makes a pretty good case for why black soldiers were not present at the Grand Review in Washington D.C. in May 1865. He argues that their absence had little to do with scheming politicians and military brass, who hoped to keep it an all-white affair. The parade was made up primarily of units that were in the process of being demobilized. Since black units were raised later in the war they remained stationed in various parts of the South.
In contrast, black troops under Edward O.C. Ord’s command were at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. Anyone who has read William Marvel’s books on the march out of the Petersburg trenches and surrender knows that these units were kept in camp behind their white comrades once the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered. Before the surrender ceremony on April 12 these men were ordered away from Appomattox. Marvel suggests that this was done “for the sake of serenity.” That seems like a reasonable explanation.
One wonders how their presence might have shaped an account of a salute that may or may not have taken place.