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

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

African-American_Civil_War_Memorial
…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 of the era 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.


Union General Benjamin Butler receives runaway slaves Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory at Fort Monroe, Virginia, May 1861
Image Source: From The Daily Press, Newport News, Virginia

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. Continue reading

Defacing monuments is wrong! Stop doing it!


Statue of Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia, after being defaced.
Image Source: Courtesy and copyright Richmond Times-Dispatch.


Statue dedicated to “Confederate Defenders of Charleston” in White Point Garden, Charleston, SC, after being defaced.
Image Source: TWITTER/PHILIP WEISS via The Root

The above acts of monument defacement are wrong. I hope the people who did this will just stop. The defacing of public monuments is unacceptable, and we should all righteously condemn the people who are responsible.

I have heard some people speculate that these were the acts of white supremacists. The theory goes that, like alleged serial killer Dylann Roof, these folks are trying to incite a race war by doing things which cause the ire and anger of various ethnic groups. I do not know if this theory is correct. I have nothing to say to such people, except that what they did was wrong and condemnable.

Some say these were the acts of foolish young people, who had nothing better to do than vandalize public property. I do not know if this is true. I have nothing to say to such people, except that what they did was wrong and condemnable.

Some say that this was indeed the work of “Black Lives Matter” activists, and that for various reasons, they decided to place their message on Confederate monuments. For them, I have two comments, beyond the usual statement that two wrongs don’t make a right.

First: the defacement of public memorials sets a horrible precedent. Once it becomes “OK” to vandalize some monuments, it opens the floodgates to vandalizing any and all of them. So, for example, we might see tit-for-tat or copycat defacements of memorials to the Underground Railroad or Civil Rights workers. Do we really want that to happen? I hope not.

Second: the use of vandalism is an ineffective and counter-productive way to put forth the message that black lives matter. The method used to deliver the message overshadows, cheapens, and debases the message. The people who see this stuff will not get the idea that black lives matter. The message they get is that the folks who did this are disrespectful, unlawful, uncaring, and self-serving idiots. For many people, these acts serve only to reinforce the idea that black people are nothing but thugs.

Simply put, there is no righteous justification for these acts of vandalism and defacement. All of us should reject and condemn them. Surely there are other, more creative ways of non-violent protest to advance the cause of positive change.

EDIT: Some have suggested that what we see above are, in effect, protests against these monuments (as opposed to agitation for the “Black Lives Matter” cause). Let me provide my comments on that.

I support the idea of engaging in discussions about the appropriateness of these monuments in today’s public spaces. To those who are committed, I say go ahead and build movements that advance the case and cause for change, and at least try to see if some type of democratic process can be used to affect that change.

But I do not support defacement as an appropriate means of protesting against monuments that many of us don’t like. Other citizens have rights, too. They have as much a right to support these monuments as others have to reject them. Vandalism and defacement serve only to delegitimize fair protest, it ruins objects that are fairly called works of art, and which, for good or ill, say something about our history. And, as mentioned above, these acts can lead to the general feeling that any memorial that anybody finds objectionable can be defaced and vandalized.

Regarding the defacement of memorials: just don’t it. Don’t even think about it. It is wrong.

May 20, 2015: Celebrating Emancipation Day in Florida

Emancipation-Day Florida 2015
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: Tallahassee resident Brian Bibeau (center) portrays Brigadier General Edward McCook and presents a dramatic recitation 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

May 20, 2015, marked the 150th anniversary of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. That date is observed as Emancipation Day in the state; thus, Florida Emancipation Day is the equivalent of Juneteenth in Texas. Activities were held throughout the state to commemorate the event, including a reenactment of the Proclamation reading in Tallahassee.

Here’s the history behind the Day: on May 10, 1865, Union soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Edward McCook entered Tallahassee. This was weeks after April 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces in Virginia, and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his forces in North Carolina. Successive waves of Confederate surrenders followed throughout the South. McCook and his men came to Tallahassee from Macon, Georgia, to facilitate the end of hostilities in the state and begin Union control. On May 20th, General McCook announced the Emancipation Proclamation in the city. Freedom in Florida was now “official.”

Of course May 20, 1865, was not the first time that slaves in Florida had heard of the Emancipation Proclamation or gained freedom as a result of the war. Union forces made forays into Florida throughout the Civil War. The state was not strategically important enough for the Union to conduct many operations there. But Union troops did, for example enter Jacksonville during the war, and that city changed handed hands several times throughout the conflict. Some of the Union forces consisted of men from the US Colored Troops (USCT). In NE Florida for sure there was an awareness of the Emancipation Proclamation, and slaves seesawed from slavery to freedom and back more than once as the Union and Confederacy took turns at controlling Jacksonville.


Emancipated slaves wait in front of the Provost Marshal’s office in Jacksonville about 1864. 

As noted here, the 2nd Infantry Regiment, USCT, did time in Florida. The source notes:

The 2nd U.S.C.T. was attached to the District of Key West, Florida, Department of of the Gulf, in February, 1864, and saw duty in New Orleans and Ships Island, Mississippi. In May the unit also participated in an attack on Confederate fortifications at Tampa, resulting in the destruction of the Confederate positions. The 2nd participated in several operation along Florida’s west coast between July 1st and 31st, 1864; including raids from Fort Myers to Bayport, and from Cedar Key to St. Andrew’s Bay. During the St. Andrew’s Bay expedition the 2nd skirmished with Confederate troops on the 18th of July.

There is a monument to the 2nd USCI in Fort Myers, FL, which is south of Tampa/St Petersburg:

My guess is that many slaves in west-central Florida – and admittedly, the huge part of the slave population resided in the northern part of the state – would have been aware of the Proclamation from Union soldiers.

Emancipation-Day FL  2nd USCT Reenactor speaks to school children
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: a member of the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit speaks to a group of school children.
Image Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com
Continue reading

The Pennsylvania Grand Review of Colored Troops in Harrisburg, PA

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US Colored Troops reenactors/living historians at the 2010 Pennsylvania Grand Review commemoration in Harrisburg Pennsylvania.
Image Source: All photos courtesy Yulanda Burgess.

As noted in Wikipedia, “The Grand Review of the Armies was a military procession and celebration in Washington, DC, on May 23 and May 24, 1865, following the close of the American Civil War. Elements of the Union Army paraded through the streets of the capital to receive accolades from the crowds and reviewing politicians, officials, and prominent citizens, including the President Andrew Johnson.” The Grand Review was basically a victory parade for the Union as it celebrated its defeat of the Confederate States of America.

Some 180,000 African Americans enlisted in the Union army, and were part of the US Colored Troops (USCT) – the part of the army that was created for the organization of black soldiers into the Union army. Yet, none of the regiments from the USCT were represented in the Grand Review. Some say this was a slight of black soldiers; others have noted that the USCT was engaged in other activities that made them unavailable for the Grand Review (a number of troops were sent to Texas over concerns for the protection of the Mexican border). For whatever reason, the black soldiers were not there for this glorious celebration of victory.

The state of Pennsylvania, and African Americans leaders in the state, would see to it that black solders soldiers got their chance to bask in the glow of glory, recognition, and appreciation. As noted here,

Black veterans held a parade in Harrisburg on November 14, 1865. Thomas Morris Chester, Harrisburg’s most distinguished African American, served as grand marshal. The parade formed at State and Filbert Streets (now Soldier’s Grove). The soldiers marched through Harrisburg to the South Front Street residence of U.S. Senator and former secretary of war Simon Cameron. Cameron reviewed the troops from his front porch and thanked them for their service to the nation.

Other speakers included Octavius V. Catto, an African American educator and USCT recruiter from Philadelphia; William Howard Day, abolitionist and clergyman; and Brevet Major General Joseph B. Kiddoo, former commander of the 22nd Regiment USCT. Pennsylvania was the only state to thus honor black soldiers who had helped save the Union.

Harrisburg Grand Review 1 copy

Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania, and a more central location for the state’s African American population. At the start of the war, Pennsylvania had the largest black population of any northern state, with 56,949 black residents. Pennsylvania also provided the most black soldiers of any northern state to the Union army, some 8,600 men in all.

In November 2010, a reenactment of the Pennsylvania Grand Review was held in Harrisburg. Various USCT reenactors from around the country participated. In addition to the reenactment of the Review Parade, there were numerous educational and cultural activities in the days before the march. It was a grand event.

Yulanda Burgess, who is a living historian, took a number of photographs from the event which are shown above and below. These belie the notion that African Americans are not interested in the Civil War.

Harrisburg Grand Review 2 Continue reading

Washington, DC, April 2015

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Picture taken in Washington, DC, in April 2015, near Ford’s Theater. At left is Marquett Milton, a Civil War/US Colored Troops reenactor, with one of man’s best friends, along with other folks in Civil War era dress.

The past few months have seen a number of Civil War events in Washington, DC, such as the commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inauguration, Lincoln’s assassination, and the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.

Perhaps the biggest event will be the Grand Review Parade, scheduled for May 17, 2015. Be there, so you can take a picture of a Civil War reenactor with a dog… or something like that.

Scenes from the commemoration of the Battle of Forks Road, Wilmington, NC

Soldiers at Battle of Forks Road
US Colored Troops reenactors/living Historians at the 10th Annual Civil War Living History Weekend in Wilmington, NC.
Image Source: Facebook page for the US Colored Troops Living History Association (USCTLHA), added February 9, 2015

This past February 7th and 8th, the Cameron Art Museum, Wilmington, NC, presented the 10th Annual Civil War Living History Weekend, to commemorate the Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the Battle of Forks Road. The theme of the event was “Forks Road…The Beginning of the End,” which was appropriate, in that the fight occurred just several months before the the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Virginia. I had hoped to attend, but it was not meant to be. However, I can share some images from the event which are on social media further below.

The Battle of Forks Road website has an excellent account of the battle, and reporting of its importance. As noted at the site,

Although officially considered a skirmish, the Battle of Forks Road, February 20-21, 1865, fought on the site now occupied by Cameron Art Museum, is arguably one of the most important social and political events in the history of the Wilmington area.

In contrast to many Civil War battles, at Forks Road there were white and African American soldiers serving in both the Union and Confederate forces. Furthermore, many soldiers in both forces were local men—North Carolinians for generations. Of course, most of the African American soldiers had been slaves, but they were, nonetheless, on their home ground as were the white Confederates. There were African American soldiers, too, who had been sent, as slaves, to serve in their owner’s place, throughout the Confederate army.

One group whose contribution at Forks Road is not widely known is the force of 1600 African American Union troops, known as the U.S. Colored Troops or U.S.C.T. These men, along with other Union troops, were victorious at Forks Road, defeating the Confederate forces, taking control of Wilmington, and hastening the end of the war. The U.S.C.T. emerged from the war as heroes, viewed by former slaves and freemen alike as liberators of their people. Though there were certainly casualties among the U.S.C.T., most survived the war, and many of those remained to make their home in the area.

Very soon after the end of the war Wilmington’s population shifted from a majority white population to a majority African American population; an effect that some have attributed to the influence to the soldiers who remained to make Wilmington their home. The cultural and political effects of that population shift were profound and are still reflected in the social and political life of the region.

More history of the battle is here. An article that features interviews with two US Colored Troops reenactors/living historians who have attended the event is here.

The commemoration weekend included lectures, living historian presentations, a battle reenactment, cannon and artillery demonstrations, and an encampment with tents, sutlers, period games and music, artisan demonstrations, and children’s activities.

These three photographs, taken by Chuck Monroe, are from the Facebook page for the US Colored Troops Living History Association (USCTLHA):

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Battle of Forks Road 4

Battle of Forks Road usctlha 2

These photographs are from an Image Gallery on the Battle of Fork Roads site, courtesy Alan Cradick Photography. Click on the link to see the full set of photos.

These are scenes from prior year events: Continue reading

Self-emancipation during the Civil War: Remembering the Corinth Contraband Camp, MS

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Statue and markers near the entrance to the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

The Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is winding down. In a scant few months, we will observe the 150th anniversary of Confederate general Robert E Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, which signaled the beginning of the end of the Civil War. This is a good moment to reflect on how the War was commemorated these past few years.

One disappointment of the Sesquicentennial, in my opinion, has been the relative lack of attention given to contrabands/runaways/self-emancipated slaves.

During the War, over a hundred thousand enslaved African Americans escaped their masters and sought refuge from bondage behind Union lines. At the start of the War, Union policy was to return these freedom seekers to their owners; the goal was to maintain the owners’ loyalty to, and support for, the Union cause. That policy unraveled as the Union came to see the slaves as valuable and necessary allies in the war against the Confederate regime.

Over time the Union evolved new policies, under which slaves who escaped their masters would be given asylum, usually in war refugee/labor camps that were in or near army encampments or forts. These places were variously called contraband camps or freedom colonies or freedom villages. The escaped slaves were called ‘contraband’ by northerners, on the basis that they were property that was seized from Confederates. I do not know if the self-emancipators defined themselves using this northerners’ lexicon.

There has been a very good focus during the Sesquicentennial, I think, on the role of African descent soldiers during the War, due in part to the efforts of African American reenactors and living historians. But the black southern soldier was a subset of a larger group of people who escaped bondage. And the story of that larger group hasn’t seen as much attention, as I look back at the spate of events and activities since the Sesquicentennial period began in 2011.

Many of the stories of these former slaves are about families, women and children especially, taking huge risks, and enduring much suffering in the process, to gain their freedom. Even if these families were successful in reaching a contraband camp, they sometimes lived in harsh conditions. Many of their menfolk joined the United States armed forces; by the War’s end, over 135,000 men from Confederate or Union slave states joined the US army, and thousands more joined the navy. With the men gone, black women were forced to care for themselves, their children and the elderly, in places that might seem like war refugee camps today. Groups like the American Missionary Association aided the military in providing educational and other services to the freedmen and women.

We know much about the black men who joined the armed forces because of the records that were kept about their service. But literacy, gender, age (again, many of these former slaves were children) and other factors have resulted in a more spare record of the former slaves at these camps.

This is not to say that the memory of these folks has been completely ignored in the commemorative landscape, that is, the public and non-public spaces which memorialize the past. An exemplary public site for the recognition of the runaways is the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi, near the state border with Tennessee.

End of Slavery Civil War exhibit in Corinth, Mississippi

Statues inside the Civil War Interpretive Center at Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi; featuring an African American Union soldier and a freedwoman taking a class.
Image Source: Photo/Copyright by Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright. Photo is not in the public domain. 

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Statue of freedwoman and child reading a book at the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

The Camp is a National Park Service (NPS) site, and part of the larger Shiloh National Park complex. This is from the NPS description of the site:

As Federal forces occupied major portions of the South, enslaved people escaped from farms and plantations and fled to safety behind Union lines. Once President Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862, the number of freedom seekers increased considerably in Union occupied Corinth.The Corinth Contraband Camp was established by Union General Grenville M. Dodge to accommodate these refugees.

The camp featured numerous homes, a church, school and hospital. The freedmen cultivated and sold cotton and vegetables in a progressive cooperative farm program. By May 1863, the camp was making a clear profit of $4,000 to $5,000 from it enterprises. By August, over 1,000 African American children and adults gained the ability to read through the efforts of various benevolent organizations.

Although the camp had a modest beginning, it became a model camp and allowed for approximately 6,000 ex-slaves to establish their own individual identities. Once the Emancipation Proclamation was implemented, nearly 2,000 of the newly freed men at the Corinth Contraband Camp had their first opportunity to protect their way of life and made up a new regiment in the Union army. Since most of the men came from Alabama, the unit was named the 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment of African Descent, later re-designated the 55th United States Colored Troops.

In December 1863, the camp was moved to Memphis and the freedmen resided in a more traditional refugee facility for the remainder of the war.

The Corinth Contraband Camp was the first step on the road to freedom and the struggle for equality for thousands of former slaves.Today a portion of the historic Corinth Contraband Camp is preserved to commemorate those who began their journey to freedom there in 1862-1863. This land now hosts a quarter mile walkway which exhibits six life-size bronze sculptures depicting the men, women, and children who inhabited the camp.​

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Statue of United States Colored Troops solider at the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
The 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment of African Descent, later re-designated the 55th United States Colored Troops, was formed at the Corinth Camp.

Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

One of the wonderful things about the statues in the park is that women are so well represented. The inclusiveness is important, and for visitors, informative and even enlightening.

The Corinth site is in northeast Mississippi, about 60 miles from Jackson, TN, about 100 miles from either Memphis, TN, or Decatur, AL, and about 120 miles from Huntsville, AL. This will make for a great visit for those who want to learn about this important part of Civil War and American history.