The Future of USCTs at Civil War Sites

What follows are a few thoughts in response to the position papers of my fellow panelists, who will join me next week at Gettysburg College to talk about how we interpret the USCT experience on our Civil War battlefields.  It’s a bit rough, but it should give you an idea of some of the things I’ve been thinking about of late.

In one way or another the papers acknowledge that we are well positioned to engage the general public about the experiences of black soldiers at various battle sites.  The challenges are many, including those mentioned here such as how we respond to misinformation, the continued influence of the movie Glory, and the continued hold of the Lost Cause interpretation of the war.  Edward Zwick’s Academy-Award winning movie about Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Mass. Vol. Infantry is coming up on its 25th anniversary, but I am unconvinced of its continued influence, especially among younger Americans.  Hari Jones makes a compelling case re: the movie’s inaccuracies and the extent to which it distorts our understanding of the relevant history, but I tend to see these oversights as opportunities in our classrooms and in other educational settings.  All Hollywood movies about history are fraught with interpretive problems.   We need look no further than the movie Lincoln.  In the case of black soldiers, however, these issues are exacerbated by decades of neglect at NPS sites as well as the intentional distortion of the historical record for racial and partisan purposes.

Looking back we can now see Glory as part of a burgeoning new interpretation that places emancipation and the sacrifice of black men as central to how we frame the meaning of the war and its consequences.   While this narrative of “From Slavery to Freedom to Civil Rights” and the emphasis on self-emancipation is certainly a necessary corrective I wonder whether it has led to new roadblocks that prevent us from more fully interpreting the experiences of black Civil War soldiers.  I was reminded of this in Emmanuel Dabney’s reference to a story involving black soldiers massacring Confederates during the Petersburg Campaign as well as evidence which suggests that black soldiers meant to carry out the intention behind their occasional battle cry of “No Quarter.”

It’s difficult enough to discuss the massacre of black soldiers by Confederates, but I suspect that these stories are even more difficult 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, national redemption, 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?

At times our discussions of black soldiers, whether on the battlefield, in the classroom or museum resembles a morality play, thus making it difficult to present and embrace a richer and more complete interpretation of the USCT experience.  I agree with Joseph McGill that black men embraced the opportunity “to strike a blow at the Confederacy” in the name of freedom, but where do stories of cowardice on the battlefield, desertion and doubt about the future fit?  How about the story of one black man from Salisbury, CT who deserted from his unit within days of joining as a paid substitute?  The stakes are high, especially given the risk of reaffirming specific threads of the Lost Cause narrative that are still pervasive and embraced by many who visit Civil War battlefields.

As we move closer to commemorating events at the end of the Civil War we will have the opportunity to connect the service and sacrifice of black soldiers with Reconstruction and beyond.  The NPS has already moved in this direction by embracing the theme, “From Civil War to Civil Rights.”  While the battlefield fits prominently in a history that stretches from the Reconstruction Amendments, to the rise of Jim Crow and eventually the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s we run the risk of overlooking or minimizing other aspects of the military experience of black soldiers.  I am thinking specifically of the protest by black soldiers for equal pay.  This is very briefly explored in Glory as an obstacle to be conquered in the struggle to unite Shaw and his men.  What is lost is that the protest went on for over one year and resulted in the execution of black soldiers for insubordination.   This extended protest against the policies of the United States government not only helps to frame the battlefield exploits of black soldiers, but better positions us to appreciate the continued challenges that African Americans faced from their own government throughout the postwar years.

At the same time I worry that our tendency to interpret the service of black soldiers and the outcome of the war through the narrow prism of the temporary gains in civil rights during Reconstruction obscures important ways in which black veterans continued to draw meaning from their wartime experiences.  Here I am thinking of the pioneering work done by Barbara Gannon in her book, The Won Cause, on the racial profile of GAR camps.  For a long time we thought of these camps as segregated, which certainly fits into a popular broader collective memory that emphasizes reconciliation and the marginalization of African Americans in society by the turn of the twentieth century.  However, not only were many of these camps not racially segregated, in many cases African Americans assumed important leadership roles.  Her work points to the extent to which black and white veterans were able to maintain bonds built during the war.  These stories provide us with important entry points at historic sites and other settings when discussing the long-term affects of the battlefield on postwar race relations.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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2 comments… add one
  • Doug didier Mar 5, 2013 @ 7:28

    Examining 2011 OAH document submitted to the NPS .. Looks like USCT not mentioned in taking the high ground etc.. Wonder if a strawman chapter or page from this conference could be a start..

    • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2013 @ 7:31

      Thanks for passing that along. I didn’t even bother to look at the document, but now think that it might be a good idea for a number of reasons.

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