Going beyond the Confederate Flag Controversy: Missing Monuments – The Unfinished Work of Commemorating the African American Experience in the Civil War

Many people are concerned about the presence of this…
Image: Confederate Battle Flag
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.

…but many more should be concerned about the relative absence of this.
Image: African American Civil War Memorial, Washington, DC
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial–the multi-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War–is just about over. There are already discussions about commemorating the Reconstruction Era, which followed the war. For example, the National Park Service is considering the development of sites that will memorialize Reconstruction Era events.

But recent controversies over the Confederate Battle Flag (see here and here and here, for example) suggest that the job of properly commemorating the war in our public and private spaces is not yet done.

I understand how and why the Confederate Battle Flag (CBF) is such a lightening rod for debate and dispute. But my own concern is not with the presence of the CBF on public or other spaces. I am concerned about the relative absence of memorials, monuments and other objects that reflect the roles and experiences of African Americans during the American Civil War. This is something that we Americans need to talk about, and hopefully, address with collective action.

There are easily hundreds of, if not over a thousand, statues, monuments and other objects that commemorate the Civil War. Overwhelmingly, these objects feature white soldiers, sailors, and civilians. The Civil War era presence of African Americans on the “commemorative landscape,” as many call it, is inadequate, if not woefully so.

This situation is a result of our history. Nine out of ten Civil War era African Americans lived in the Union and Confederate slave states, which were considered “the South.” After the Reconstruction Era, which saw many advances toward racial equality, the South devolved into a state of racial supremacy for whites, and racial subjugation for African Americans. Political, financial, and social conditions inhibited or even prevented African Americans from creating memorials that fairly depicted their wartime experience. The result was a commemorative landscape in which Civil War era black folks were out of sight and out of mind. Someone raised in the South prior to this century could look at the commemorative landscape and easily (and wrongly) conclude that black people were a negligible and inconsequential part of the war.

Things have gotten better. For example, since the 1989 movie Glory, over a dozen or more monuments to black Civil War soldiers have been installed. (A review of monuments to African American Civil War soldiers is here.) But much more needs to be done. In way too many places, children of all backgrounds are growing up in a commemorative environment where the back presence in the Civil War in under-represented, or even unrepresented. We have the power to fix that.

The following are just are a few suggestions for new memorials that depict various aspects of the Civil War history of African Americans. The list is not meant to be comprehensive, but it’s a good place to start. If anyone has their own suggestions to offer, feel free to note them in the comments section below. I hope this becomes part of a conversation about creating a commemorative landscape that fully and truly reflects the richness and diversity of the Civil War experience.

So, here we go:

1) No state is more significant in the history of African American soldiery during Civil War than Louisiana. Louisiana provided more African American soldiers to the Union than any other state. Three of the first five black Union regiments were formed in the state. And finally, Louisiana probably produced the most black army officers of any state. A portion of these soldiers were free black Creoles, while others were former slaves. Many enlisted in the Louisiana Native Guards regiments that were organized in New Orleans.

Officers of Company C of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard at Fort Macomb, Louisiana, per Wikipedia
Image Source: Harpers Weekly, February 28, 1863, via Wikipedia

Yet, there is no monument or memorial to black soldiers in the city of New Orleans. Per my research, there is only one monument to black soldiers in the entire state — at Donaldsonville, Louisiana (which is between New Orleans and Baton Rouge).

This is an oversight that borders on being shameful. I hate to use such strong language. But it is past due that New Orleans and other places in the state recognize the pivotal role these soldiers played during the Civil War.

2) When the Civil War began, president Abraham Lincoln and the US Congress made it clear: the Union had no intent of disturbing the institution of slavery where it stood. Why? At the least, they hoped to maintain the loyalty of the slave states that had not seceded and joined the Confederacy. At best, they hoped that the Confederate states, secure in the promise that slavery was safe, would return to the Union, thereby avoiding a war. (Note that, Lincoln was adamant that slavery would not spread to the western territories – a policy stance that the secessionists found unacceptable.)

But the slaves had their own agenda. They saw the war as an opportunity for freedom. On May 23, 1861 – just weeks after the war began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina – Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory fled bondage and sought asylum at a Union occupied fort outside of Hampton, Virginia, named Fort Monroe.

The fort’s commander, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, had no duty to return the slaves; in fact, by Union policy, he should have returned them to their master. But he reasoned that because the slaves were property being used by Confederate insurrectionists, it was within his rights to confiscate that property and use it for the Union’s purposes. This was the beginning of the Union’s contraband policy.

Contraband of War Butler Fort Monroe Three
Union General Benjamin Butler receives runaway slaves Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory at Fort Monroe, Virginia, May 1861
Image Source: From NY Public Library

The contraband policy, which gave bondsmen asylum from slavery in return for their providing labor to the Union, eventually morphed into the Emancipation Proclamation. But the Proclamation might never have happened if not for the three brave men who took the risk of liberating themselves and seeking aid and comfort with their master’s enemy. We need a monument outside of Fort Monroe, which still stands, to commemorate their actions and those of Gen. Benjamin Butler.

3) In 1865, African American soldiers were the first to enter and liberate the cities of Charleston, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia from Confederate rule and slavery. I talk about these two events here and here.

What a truly sublime moment it must have been, for these black soldiers to end the bondage of their brethren, and for the bondsmen to see their own people as their liberators. Charles B. Fox, a major in the 55th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (a black regiment), wrote in his diary that “(t)he glory and the triumph of this hour may be imagined, but can never be described. It was one of those occasions which happen but once in a lifetime, to be lived over in memory for ever.”

US Colored Troops enter Charleston
“Marching on!”–The Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Colored Regiment singing John Brown’s March in the streets of Charleston, February 21, 1865
Image Source: Drawing from Harper’s Weekly, March 1865; image is at the Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-105560 (w film copy neg.) LC-USZ62-117999 (w film copy neg.)

Those wondrous moments should be set in marble or bronze, in a prominent spot in both of those cities. I don’t know much about the lay of the land in Richmond, but the city’s Monument Avenue, which includes several monuments to Confederate military figures (and one to African American legend Arthur Ashe, who was raised in the city), would be an excellent place to commemorate the liberation of that city by black Union soldiers.

4) Many people, myself included, make the point that African Americans were part of the process for ending slavery during the Civil War. This is not to say that African Americans freed themselves by themselves; the point is that, by their actions, black folks were agents of their own liberation, and should be acknowledged as such.

But that doesn’t mean that all the slaves gained their freedom during the war. In fact, most of people who were enslaved at the start of the war were still enslaved when it ended. They gained their freedom only with the arrival and occupation of the Union army, which had the military power to enforce emancipation upon former slaveholders.

As in the case of Charleston and Richmond above, it must have been an amazing moment, when both enslaved and enslaver were told that now and forever, human bondage is dead. Although the initial euphoria might have been tempered by the fear and uncertainty of the future: the freedmen surely wondered: “now that we are free… now what do we do?”

Emancipation-Day Florida 2015
From the 2015 Emancipation Day (May 20) Celebration in Tallahassee: Tallahassee resident Brian Bibeau (center), in a portrayal of Union Brigadier General Edward McCook, reenacts the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation from the front steps of the historic Knott House Museum. He is joined by the Leon Rifles 2nd Florida Volunteer Infantry Regiment Co. D, Captain Chris Ellrich Commanding, and the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit & Living History Association, led by Sgt. Major (Ret.) Jarvis Rosier.
Image Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com

No matter what the reaction, the announcement of emancipation in places like Tallahassee, Florida on May, 20, 1865, or in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, was a life changing event that the freedmen probably never forgot. And we shouldn’t forget it either. It would be great to capture their memories in memorials that are placed in the public square in those two cities.

5) During the Civil War, seven African American sailors won the Medal of Honor. Four of them-William H. Brown, Wilson Brown, James Mifflin, and John Henry Lawson-earned their medals while serving on different ships during the Battle of Mobile Bay, an important Union victory in 1864.

There are very few monuments to Civil War sailors, and I know of only one monument that features a black sailor. (Refer to the image of the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC, at the top of this blog post.) I recommend placing a monument to the four men I mentioned earlier in Mobile, Alabama. Alternatively, a monument can be placed at the site of the Naval Museum in Columbus, GA, to commemorate all the black sailors who won the Medal of Honor during the war.

John Henry Lawson Per Wikipedia: “John Lawson (June 16, 1837 – May 3, 1919) was a United States Navy sailor who received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the American Civil War.”
Image Source: Library of Congress, Lot 11931, Digital ID: cph 3c18553, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-118553, via Wikipedia Commons

6) Do you know who Abraham Galloway was? Abraham Lincoln did. Galloway was a North Carolina spy and recruiter for the Union army. Per his biography by David Cecelski, Galloway “also stood at the forefront of an African American political movement that flourished in the Union-occupied parts of North Carolina, even leading a historic delegation of black southerners to the White House to meet with President Lincoln and to demand the full rights of citizenship. He later became one of the first black men elected to the North Carolina legislature.”

Galloway is a prominent example of the many black civilian leaders and activists who were agents of freedom and progress during and after the war. Their history deserves commemoration. I recommend a statue of Galloway and the black soldiers he recruited for the Union Army, or perhaps, a statue of Galloway and his delegation in meeting with Abraham Lincoln.

7) Christian Fleetwood was a freeman from Baltimore, Maryland. Baltimore was something a “hot spot” for free blacks: in 1860, it had almost 25,700 free African Americans, which was the largest free black population of any city, North or South. Fleetwood was uniquely privileged early in life. As noted in Wikipedia,

Fleetwood was born in Baltimore on July 21, 1840, the son of Charles and Anna Maria Fleetwood, both free persons of color. He received his early education in the home of a wealthy sugar merchant, John C. Brunes, and his wife, the latter treating him like her son. He continued his education in the office of the secretary of the Maryland Colonization Society, went briefly to Liberia and Sierra Leone, and graduated in 1860 from Ashmun Institute (later Lincoln University) in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He and others published briefly the Lyceum Observer in Baltimore, said to be the first African American newspaper in the upper South.

Fleetwood’s background did not prevent him enlisting in the US Army, where he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major. In September 1864, Fleetwood participated in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, just outside Richmond, Virginia. His heroism during that battle led to his receipt of the Medal of Honor on April 6, 1865. Wiki reports that the medal is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Maryland has three Confederate monuments, including one in Baltimore. The state has two monuments to black soldiers, but neither is in the city. I think it’s time for the city to build a monument to its native son and war hero.


Again, this is not meant to be a complete, comprehensive list. But it highlights that there are many places out there which merit our attention as opportunities to memorialize the black experience during the war. Once installed, these monuments will educate, enlighten, and maybe even inspire broader swaths of the American public. I hope that as the Sesquicentennial winds down, and the brouhaha over the Confederate Battle Flag dies down, we can catch our collective breath and get to the unfinished work of creating a commemorative landscape that properly reflects all the people who lived, suffered, fought, and strived during the American Civil War.

2 thoughts on “Going beyond the Confederate Flag Controversy: Missing Monuments – The Unfinished Work of Commemorating the African American Experience in the Civil War

  1. This is a fine piece on the necessity and appropriateness of inclusive commemoration and the still-startling absences. Thank you for your suggestions with their historical contexts and importance. Speaking of black sailors – how about Robert Smalls, in Charleston no less!

  2. I would LOVE to see Emancipation Day be celebrated with parades, events, reenactments and almost as much fanfare as Independence Day itself. We have Juneteenth here in my area, but even as much as I’ve tried to fight Confederate romanticism I have yet to go to a Juneteenth celebration. I’m going to see how I can change that and make it so much fun that people will come from far and wide.

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