Commemorating the Battle of New Market Heights, Henrico County, Virginia

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Bennie White of Company A, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry; he was one of the many Reenactors/Living Historian at the Battle of New Market Heights Commemoration, September 27, 2014

This past weekend (September 27, 2014) I attended a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the US Civil War’s Battle of New Market Heights in Henrico County, Virginia. The county borders the city of Richmond, which was the Capital of the Confederacy. Many battles took place in the vicinity before the end of the war in early 1865.

The commemoration included a number of events, the highlight being a staging of the battle by a large group of Confederate and Union soldier reenactors.

New Market Heights is significant as the battle which earned the Medal of Honor for more than a dozen soldiers of the United States Colored Troops, or USCT. The USCT was the part of the Union army which contained just about all of its black enlistees. A ceremony was held at the end of the day to honor the medal winners, which included some of those soldier’s descendants. I found that to be a very poignant event,

I didn’t get a lot of great photos during my visit, but I am fond of the one which is above. The gentleman in the photo is Bennie White of Company A, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which is based in Boston, Massachusetts. He mentioned that his involvement in reenacting dates back to the movie Glory – and many African American reenactors/living historians have told me the same. That movie has sparked more black interest in the war than any book, it seems to me. Which says more about the books that have been used to teach the history of the war, than the movie, I think.

I want to give a shout out to my friend Marquett Milton. Milton, who is young, energetic, and enthusiastic, was chosen to lead the charge that captured the New Market Heights earthen fort. After doing so, he was very pumped up, as you can imagine. We drove back to Washington, DC, when the day’s events were finished, and he fell asleep after just 10 minutes. Although some very late night banter from the previous day with his fellow camp mates may have contributed to his fatigue. (Many reenactors slept in a tent camp the previous night, and had a good time while at it.)

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Marquett Milton, United States Colored Troops Reenactor/Living Historian at the Battle of New Market Heights Commemoration, September 27, 2014

Finally, hats off to the folks of Henrico County for a great event.

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Reenactors/Living Historians at the Battle of New Market Heights Commemoration, September 27, 2014. These men took part in the ceremony that honored the members of the US Colored Troops who earned the Medal of Honor during the Battle.

Colored (African American) Soldier and Family in Civil War Era Photo Identified


Previously unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-36454

In May 2011, I posted a blog entry featuring the above photograph, which is from the Library of Congress. The photo shows a soldier in uniform, a wife in dress and hat, and two daughters wearing matching coats and hats. More details can be found at the Library of Congress record for the photo, which is here.

The Library of Congress description for the photo lists the soldier and family as “Unidentified.” But thanks to research whose results were published in the November 2012 issue of Kentucky Explorer Magazine, it is believd that the photo depicts Sergeant Samuel Smith of the 119th US Colored Infantry, his wife Molle and their daughters Mary and Maggie. Sergeant Smith enlisted at Camp Nelson, Kentucky. More details about the Smiths are provided by Angela Y. Walton-Raji at her blog The USCT Chronicle.

Thanks to Kentucky Explorer Magazine and Angela Y. Walton-Raji/The USCT Chronicle for providing this information!

PS, I met Angela Y. Walton-Raji several weeks ago during a visit to the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, DC. It was a brief meeting, but it was fun to talk to a fellow blogger. I wish her well on her labor of love.

New Book: “African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album”


Cover for the book African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album by Ronald Coddington. Book published by John Hopkins University Press.

Ronald Coddington has produced the third book in his “Faces of the Civil War” series. His books feature photographs of civil war soldiers, and provide an annotation about them – for example, soldier name, background, war experience, and post-war experience. His latest work is African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album. 

African American Faces is notable for its exhibition of a large photographic record of “colored” Civil War participants. Over 75 African Americans are pictured and discussed. Most are Union soldiers, such as Sargent Major Lewis Henry Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass, who served in the famous Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry; and Major Martin Delaney, the black activist, newspaper publisher, and soldier recruiter who was the highest ranking African descent field officer in the Union at the end of the War. But several non-Union soldiers are included, such as Confederate slave Silas Chandler; Robert Holloway, the personal servant of Union Colonel Ambrose Burnside who was captured at the First Battle of Bull Run; South Carolinian Robert Smalls, who became famous for leading a group of slaves out of Charleston harbor and into freedom on a stolen steamboat; and Navy seamen.

The brief biography that accompanies each photograph serves to “flesh out” each of these men, and helps us understand that for African Americans, this was not merely a war for Union or Southern independence, but rather, was a struggle for freedom, equality and dignity.

And this is a book about men; all the subjects noted are male. If I could have given one suggestion to the author it would have been to include Harriet Tubman in the book. Tubman, a noted conductor of the Underground Railroad helped to lead a union raid in South Carolina to disrupt Southern supply lines and free local area slaves. This story would have made for an interesting complement to the others in the book.

African American Faces is written to be accessible to a large group of readers, and would be a welcome addition to middle school libraries and above, as well as being a fine addition to any personal library. As an elementary and high school student in the 1960s and early 1970s, I never saw an image of a black civil war soldier, nor did I hear anything mentioned about them. Coddington’s book further illustrates that there is a rich record from which to draw concerning this previously (and some say currently) neglected aspect of the Civil War.

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.”

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