The African American Soldier Memorial in Vicksburg, MS; and an Old(?) ‘Grey Curtain’/NPS Controversy



African American Monument in Vicksburg National Military Park
The inscription reads, “Commemorating the Service of the 1st and 3d Mississippi Infantry, African Descent and All Mississippians of African Descent Who Participated in the Vicksburg Campaign.”
Source: from Flickr

There are many dozen, perhaps several hundred, Confederate memorials and monuments throughout the South and the country. A partial list of them is here on Wiki; that list is certainly not complete, failing to include, for example, the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Carving, or the Confederate Memorial at Courthouse Square in Oxford, Mississippi.

By contrast, there may not even be a dozen memorials or monuments to United States Colored Troopers in the South or in the nation. {UPDATE: A list of monuments to USCT is here.} I have found a couple of monuments to faithful slaves, such as this one and this one. I’ve also found that there are almost half a dozen memorials to Buffalo Soldiers throughout the country.

One of the small number of memorials to US Colored Troops is the African American Monument in Vicksburg, Mississippi. In 1999, former Vicksburg Mayor Robert M. Walker, who is black, proposed placement of a monument in Vicksburg National Military Park recognizing the contributions of African American soldiers during the Vicksburg campaign. With funding that included $25,000 from the city of Vicksburg, which is 60% black, groundbreaking for the monument was held on September 20, 2003, with dedication of the memorial on February 14, 2004.

(Mississippi provided 17,869 men to the United States Colored Troops. Only Louisiana (24,502), Kentucky (23,703), and Tennessee (20,133) had more men of African descent in the USCT. All told, just under 179,000 black men enlisted in the USCT, according to Wiki.)

A National Park Service (NPS) brochure for the monument notes that “of the more than 1,300 monuments in the park, this memorial is the first to honor black troops, and the first tribute of its type honoring African American soldiers placed on any of the Civil War battlefields administered by the National Park Service.” The brochure describes the monument:

The nine-foot tall sculpture depicts three figures – two Union soldiers representing the 1st and 3d Mississippi Infantry, African Descent, that participated in the Vicksburg campaign, and the third a civilian laborer. The soldier on the left looks toward the future that he helped secure through force of arms. The civilian looks to the past and the institution of slavery that he has left behind. Between them they support a wounded comrade, representing the sacrifice in blood made by African American soldiers on the field of battle.

The placement of the monument in Vicksburg National Military Park was not without controversy, and helps explain why African Americans have not shown the kind of interest in creating these types of monuments as one might think; the obstacles that get in the way can be very discouraging. These are excerpts from a 2004 article titled “Battle of Vicksburg being fought again over recognition of black Civil War troops” by Earnest McBride in the Jackson Advocate newspaper, from around the time the monument was being completed and dedicated:

Ironically, The First Mississippi USCT unit headed by Sgt. Major Norman Fisher of Jackson, the only group of black Civil War re-enactors connected to the Vicksburg campaign, is left out of nearly all [monument dedication] events staged by the National Park Service or other local sponsors. “Nobody’s notified me about going there and saying anything,” Fisher said in exasperation Monday evening.

Having met with Park officials in mid-August about Saturday’s groundbreaking, Fisher said he felt that park superintendent Bill Nichols and park historian Terry Winschel deliberately misled him regarding park responsibility for recognizing the black contribution to the Civil War. “They told me that the State of Mississippi was responsible for placing any monuments in the battlefield,” Fisher said. “I don’t like the idea of a state telling the federal government what to do in our national parks. I also suggested that instead of placing the proposed monument along the obscure location on Grant’s Avenue they should put it near the 7000 gravesites of the black troops buried in the cemetery. They said it would not be possible to place any statuary there. They also turned down my idea to rename the boulevard for the USCT soldiers.”

Fisher complains about the outdated film still being shown to all visitors to the park. “That film was made during the time of segregation in Mississippi and it doesn’t represent black people at all. There’s no mention of any of our fighting men. They say they don’t have funds to make a new film.”

One of the most influential web sites devoted to the black Civil War experience is Bennie McRae’s Lest We Forget vast data bank. McRae’s set of documents is one of the best collections of black history to ever come along. The site manager is also disturbed by the chicanery surrounding the inclusion of black troops as a part of the National Park’s standard program. “As for the Vicksburg Campaign,” McRae says, “all the troops should be acknowledged for their important roles.” This includes those at Milliken’s Bend, Lake Providence, Mound Plantation and at Port Hudson. Black sailors who were involved in the blockade should also be brought into the picture. There’s more than sufficient documentation and official records confirming the role of the black fighting men at Vicksburg. The USCT cavalry that was organized at Vicksburg after the Siege was one of the most effective units to serve in the Civil War. It makes no sense to bar these brave troops from admission to the National Park dedicated to Union fighting men.

Fisher suggests that Park historian Winschel, though an employee of the Union — the Federal Government — is really a Confederate loyalist deep within his heart. “I went to see him perform a monologue in Vicksburg a couple of times,” Fisher says. “He was all decked out in a Confederate uniform and he really poured his soul out about how bad the South had been treated. He actually had tears coming from his eyes. Instead of this kind of performance to satisfy the local pro-Confederates, the Park service needs to acknowledge that the black troops of the USCT exist and to fairly represent their role in the Civil War at Vicksburg and in other battles. They should change the name of the street where the USCT troops are buried. Change the brochures to show where African Americans fought. And they should sell more items related to Civil War African Americans in their visitors’ gift shop.”

Danger may lurk in defiance of the Grey curtain that has been drawn over Vicksburg National Park activities, however. Former Park Superintendent Paul McCrary was hounded out of Vicksburg and into early retirement in 1985 when he put the interests of the nation’s parks above the pedestrian interests of local Old-South Confederate sympathizers.

McCrary had served only one year before announcing his retirement after a running battle with “supposed historian” Gordon Cotton, curator of the Old Court House Museum and the editors of the Vicksburg Evening Post, the century-old daily newspaper, whose loyalties vary with the dominant white interests of the day. McCrary fenced in the Park and was reluctant to allow an annual “Run Through History” foot race to take place there. “Men from more than 26 states shed their blood so that a Union could be preserved,” McCrary wrote the local newspaper only days before his retirement. “These men, on the whole, suffered infinitely more than the citizens of Vicksburg… Some citizens of Vicksburg, as well as a supposed professional historian, Mr. Gordon Cotton, who profess such undying ‘love’ for the park, are more concerned about the appearance of a rail fence than supporting my efforts to preserve these national treasures.” In a parting shot towards the editor, McCrary wrote, “If your ‘love’ and caring for the park mean what you and a few citizens in Vicksburg have expressed, then I can only pity you, for your values are such that you are willing to prostitute the park’s integrity for your own personal pleasure and personal gain.” And the Vicksburg National Military Park remains the captive of local forces as much today as it did in McCrary’s day.

That article was written seven years ago, and lot of things could have changed since that time. Hopefully, the current National Park Service staff are following a more inclusive and accurate approach to the interpretation of the monument and its presentation to visitors.

Thanks to the Jackson Advocate which allowed me to quote from their article.
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This is a model that was made based on the Vicksburg African American Monument. More model images are here.

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6 thoughts on “The African American Soldier Memorial in Vicksburg, MS; and an Old(?) ‘Grey Curtain’/NPS Controversy

  1. Have you read Horwitz’ Confederates in the Attic? He gives two or three chapters to his time in Vicksburg, which predates this monument. A good read in any case, but especially about Vicksburg.

    • I have the book, but Haven’t read the whole thing – the sections on Vicksburg are on my ‘TO READ’ list. After your note, I tried to track down my copy of the book, in my house which is overrun by books… sigh… Thanks for the heads-up.

  2. I am curious as to whether any black or any film makers has been contacted about this conflict in Vicksburg concerning the acknowledgement of the colored infantries, who fought in and around Vicksburg Mississippi. Which also happened to be the hometown of the confederate president Jefferson Davis. I read that President Lincoln and General grant stated “the fall of Vicksburg turned the civil war in the union’s favor”. That’s makes the colored troops participation even more significant. Maybe a film about it could generate the funds to build more monuments there and around the country? I am appalled by the fact the population of blacks in Vicksburg is around 60%, with black political leaders, and yet they can’t, or are not interested in the sacrifices our and their ancestors made to make their positions possible, enough to raise the necessary funds to erect these monument. Heck, it’s a sense of pride for me, and should be for all of us. Yeah, less we forget. It’s actually insulting to the memory of our colored troops who fought for our freedom.

  3. Another thing that is never mentioned is that a large number of the Black troops in the US Army were either never used as soldiers in the war (only as laborers building forts, for example), were used only as occupation troops or joined the US Army after the war was over and were used as occupation troops.
    The widespread looting of Southerners and raping of both White and Black women by Black troops remains as a canker in the memories of old Southern families (not that the White US Army troops didn’t do the same) to this day.
    Most of this history is under the surface as the women didn’t speak publicly about what they were terribly humiliated and shamed by. The many mulatto offspring of Black troops’ rapes of White women and, of course, of White troops’ rapes of Black women were for the most part taken in by Black women.

    • Black Union troops murdered the owner of the McRaven House during the war.

      Also, the models used for the monument are white. I know the guys because I reenact with them and one of the units we portray is a Confederate Marine unit. Go to http://www.nps.gov/vick/historyculture/african-american-history.htm and scroll down to the bottom to the individual portraits. The two soldiers wearing kepis have Marine emblems on the tops of their kepis. The one in the middle is plainly visible. It is a Civil War era Marine insignia with the “M” removed.

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