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.
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.

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.
Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com


From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: USCT Reenactors at the Knott House Museum
Source: Photograph copyright WTXL TV, “2015 Knott House Museum Hosts Emancipation Day Celebration”

Fort Pickens was an island fort just outside Pensacola, Florida that remained in Union hands throughout the war. It is somewhat infamous in some circles as one of the first federal locations where slaves sought refuge from bondage, but were turned back. (This happened after the first rash of Confederate secessions, but before the attack on Fort Sumter). The book Blockaders, Refugees, and Contrabands: Civil War on Florida’s Gulf Coast, 1861-1865 by George Buker talks of how the war affected Florida’s western coast. The book notes that as the war progressed, many slaves (also called “contrabands”) escaped, and some sought out the Navy blockaders as a path to freedom. Some slaves joined the U.S. Navy and Army. (During the Civil War, the Union established a naval blockage over southern ports to prevent Confederate commerce with other nations.)

One of the most famous Civil War battles in the state was the Battle of Olustee, also called the Battle of Ocean Pond. It occurred in Baker County, Florida, roughly 50 miles west of Jacksonville, on February 20, 1864. The battle, which included several USCT regiments (54th Massachusetts Infantry, the 8th Infantry USCT {from Pennsylvania}, and the 35th Infantry USCT {from North Carolina}), was a loss for the Union, and a bloody one at that.

So, although General McCook did read the Emancipation Proclamation (EP) in Tallahassee at the time noted, many slaves throughout the state were aware of the EP; an untold, perhaps relatively small number gained freedom as a result of Union occupation or the proximity of Union army and navy forces; and a number of African American soldiers and sailors were involved in military activities in the state. So there is a depth of black Civil War experience in Florida that goes beyond just the reading of the EP on that day in May 1865. Of course, the surrender of Confederate forces and a more widespread Union occupation made the proclamation of freedom into the reality of freedom. But if the “grapevine telegraph” was at all active throughout the state, it was probably abuzz with the idea that freedom might be coming, and McCook confirmed that the rumors and their hopes were true.

Emancipation Day has been observed throughout the state for many years. However, just in the past few days, I have met a handful of Florida residents who were not aware of it. Which is further proof that we must do more to ensure that our history – America’s history – of freedom, emancipation, and service are remembered and commemorated.

Emancipation Day Parade- Lincolnville, Florida 1920s 1
Emancipation Day Parade: Lincolnville, Florida (1920s). Lincolnville was community in St. Augustine, FL that was founded by former slaves after the Civil War.
Source: FloridaMemory.com Blog, “Emancipation Day Celebrations in Florida”

St. Paul A.M.E Church float- Lincolnville, Florida 1920s
St. Paul A.M.E Church float, Emancipation Day, Lincolnville, Florida (1920s)
Source: FloridaMemory.com Blog, “Emancipation Day Celebrations in Florida”

The Queen and her court- Lincolnville, Florida 1920s)
The Queen and her court, Emancipation Day, Lincolnville, Florida (1920s)
Source: FloridaMemory.com Blog, “Emancipation Day Celebrations in Florida”

The Pennsylvania Grand Review of Colored Troops in Harrisburg, PA

Harrisburg Grand Review 4 copy
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

This was the first Civil War type event that I had ever attended. I found it informative, enlightening, and even inspiring. And hey, now I’m even doing this blog.

Harrisburg Grand Review 5

 

Harrisburg Grand Review 3

Washington, DC, April 2015

IMG_1824

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):

Battle of Forks Road 2 copy

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

[​IMG]
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. 

[​IMG]
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.​

[​IMG]
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.

Robert Houston, US Colored Troops reenactor; and a list of USCT reenactor/living historian groups

This Youtube video from AL DÍA News Media features Robert F. Houston, a United States Colored Troops reenactor.


From the video description: Published on Jun 26, 2013: Robert F. Houston, a 20-year Civil War re-enactor for the 3rd Regiment Infantry, United States Colored Troops. Houston advocates for living history to engage youth in history, while remembering his own. The 3rd Regiment Infantry U.S.C.T. is a nationally recognized non-profit dedicated to presenting and preserving the role of freedom fighters of African descent during the Civil War.

Houston is one of several hundred African Americans who are engaged in the craft of Civil War reenacting and living history. The US Colored Troops Living History Association (USCTLHA) has been formed to educate the public about the role of African Americans in the Civil War, and to promote the participation of African American in reenacting/living history activities, as performers and attendees. Their Facebook page is here. Houston’s 3rd Regiment United States Colored Troops Reenactors operates in the Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware area, and beyond.

The USCTLHA maintains a directory of these USCT units and organizations. The following is a recent list of living history/reenactment groups with locations, if known (thanks to Yulanda Burgess of the USCTLHA for this). I encourage readers of all backgrounds to consider using these folks as a resource for educational and commemorative events; and I encourage African Americans to consider taking part in this important project to ensure that the service and sacrifice of African American soldiers, sailors, and civilians during the Civil War is not forgotten.

List of African American Civil War Reenactors/Living Historians per the US Colored Troops Living History Association

First Mississippi Volunteer Infantry (African Descent)

First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, Savannah, GA

2nd Infantry Regiment of United States Colored Troops, Tallahassee, FL

2nd Regiment US Colored Light Artillery, Battery B

Battery B, 2nd United States Colored Light Artillery, Wilmington, NC

3rd USCC, Philadelphia, PA

3rd USCI, Philadelphia, PA

4th USCT, Benicia, CA

5th USCI, Co. C (Toledo), Toledo, OH

5th USCT, Co. G. (Cleveland), Cleveland, OH

6th Regiment United States Colored Troops and 1st Rhode Island Regiment Reenactors Inc), NJ

8th USCI, Co. A, Central Pennsylvania

8th USCT, Co. B, Tampa, FL

12th USCHA, Nicholasville, KY

13th USCT Living History Association, Nashville, TN

14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, Providence, RI

22nd USCT (USCI)

23rd Regiment USCT, Spotsylvania, VA

26th USCT, NY Metro, New York Metropolitan Area, NY

26th USCT, Albany, NY

29th USCT, Illinois

Company F, 29th Infantry Regiment USCT, Milwaukee, WI

30th USCT, Dinwiddie, VA

37th USCT, Kinston, NC

38th USCT, Co. D., Richmond, VA

44th USCT, Knoxville, TN

54th Mass, FL

54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Company A and Colored Ladies Christian Relief Society, Boston, MA

54th Massachusetts Infantry, Co. H (Vancouver, Washington), Dallas, OR

54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Company, Hyde Park, MA

54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Company B Reenactors , Washington, DC

54th. Mass. Volunteer Infantry, Co. I, SC

62nd USCT and 65th USCT, St. Louis, MO

Co. B, 102nd USCT/Black History Group, Detroit, MI

33rd USCT, Mount Pleasant, SC

Gospel Army Black History Group , Grand Blanc, MI

Stone Soul Soldiers, (Peter Brace Brigade), Springfield, MA

United States Colored Troops Living History Association, Louisville, KY

“Bid Em In” – A Video for Oscar Brown Jr’s Biting Riposte on Slave Auctions

This video is based on Oscar Brown Jr’s song “Bid Em In.” This was the subject of one of my first posts when I opened this blog four years ago. I find the video moving even after numerous views.

Thanks and congratulations to Neal Sopata for his excellent animation work.