Black Civil War Re-Enactors Reclaim History

White Southern men aren't the only ones who like to dress up and re-enact the great conflict that began 150 years ago between North and South. Here's what motivates some blacks to join in.

Female Re-Enactors of Distinction at a National Memorial Day Parade in D.C. (Pat Tyson)
Female Re-Enactors of Distinction at a National Memorial Day Parade in D.C. (Pat Tyson)

At the end of the Civil War in May 1865, a throng of Union soldiers marched along the streets of Washington, D.C., victorious in the Grand Review of the Armies. Missing at the march, however, were the surviving black soldiers who counted themselves among the ranks of nearly 200,000 African Americans who fought during the last two years of the war. Only white soldiers were allowed to take part.

Black troops held their own parade in Harrisburg, Pa., in November 1865. They marched through the state capital celebrating not only the end of the war but also the end of slavery.

This is one of the many little-known tales that black Civil War re-enactors are keeping alive as the nation celebrates the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the conflict. “It’s a very surreal kind of experience to try to tell what those guys might have felt at the time, to tell that they were doing something important,” says Malcolm Beech, who is part of the 37th U.S. Colored Troops re-enactment unit. His unit took part in a November 2010 commemoration of the parade by black troops.

Beech began sharing the stories of black troops through re-enactments and symposiums in 2001, when he founded the Cultural Heritage Museum in Kinston, N.C. His group is among the nearly 20 African-American-focused re-enactment units nationwide, in addition to the host of men and women who portray major historical figures such as abolitionist Frederick Douglass and activist Hallie Quinn Brown. The re-enactors can be found in action at local schools, conferences, churches and other historical events.

Forgetting History

Blacks haven’t always taken part in Civil War-themed celebrations to nearly the same degree. In the decades following the War Between the Atates, commemorations included little, if any, recognition by whites of how black people figured into the reason for the war and the waging of it. Southerners celebrated — even romanticized — their loss through parades and ceremonies. In the process, the history of black people “got submerged in efforts [by whites] to interpret the Civil War in different ways,” says James Stewart, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association for the Study of African American Life and History Inc.

That reinterpretation continues to the present day, as shown in the current debate over whether the Civil War was fought mainly over slavery or states’ rights. In a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll of Americans in April, 52 percent said that the leaders of the Confederacy seceded to keep slavery legal in their states, while 42 percent said that slavery was not the main reason those states seceded.

Nevertheless, within last two decades, there has been heightened awareness of the stories of black Civil War troops, says Stewart. Ken Burns produced the acclaimed 1990 documentary film The Civil War, which acknowledged the roles of both free and enslaved blacks in the conflict. A year earlier, with the release of the 1989 movie Glory, Hollywood had gotten into the act of depicting African-American contributions to the war.