The sesquicentennial anniversary of the Grand Review in Washington, D.C. has given new life to an old myth about the lack of United States Colored Troop presence. This past weekend the African American Civil War Memorial & Museum in D.C. hosted a reenactment of the two-day march that included black reenactors.
For Sarah Anderson the reenactment was meant “to correct a wrong made in 1865, when black soldiers were left out of the Grand Review, the Union Army’s victory parade.” The oversight, as her article suggests, is part of a long history of racial injustice that leads directly to Ferguson and Baltimore.
Richard Kreitner, writing for The Nation also implies that black soldiers were intentionally left out of the festivities, that for many Americans signaled the end of the war and the triumph of the Union.
Excluded from the triumphant event, however, were the almost 200,000 black soldiers who had fought on the Union side, all of whom had been conveniently kept away from Washington.
The only problem with such an interpretation is that USCTs were not “conveniently” left out. Since the vast majority of black regiments were not raised until 1863 their terms of enlistment had not yet expired by May 1865. More importantly, as historian Greg Downs argues in his new book, they remained on the ground in much of the Confederate South enforcing the law and in support of emancipation.
These men were charged with maintaining the peace between ex-slaves and slaveowners and assisting with the former’s transition to freedom. Why wasn’t the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in Washington for the Grand Review? According to Downs, the 54th and other black units helped to maintain the federal government’s commitment to remaining on a ‘war footing’ for the immediate future. In short, as far as the federal government was concerned, the war had not ended in May 1865.
In August the 54th and 55th did triumphantly march through the streets of Boston to the steps of the capitol building to return their flags to the governor and muster on The Common one final time. Their service was honored, it just took a little longer to complete their duty.
We are naturally drawn to the past to explain contemporary problems. There is no doubt that the recent racial unrest in Baltimore and beyond has its roots in the past. At the same time we ought to be very careful when looking for these antecedent events. This picture of black soldiers enforcing emancipation in a hostile environment while their white comrades paraded through the streets of Washington certainly doesn’t compliment a memory of black men snubbed in the very moment of victory.
Sometimes the past is a foreign country.