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)

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The movie gave a dramatized account of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry and the white officer who led them, Capt. Robert Gould Shaw. The film garnered actor Denzel Washington an Academy Award for best supporting actor and introduced America to a piece of forgotten history. It was also a source of inspiration for re-enactors.

“The movie Glory convinced me that African Americans had a say in the outcome of the Civil War,” says Joseph McGill, who helped organize the South Carolina re-enactment unit of the 54th.

In his uniform, with musket in hand, McGill shares what happened to those soldiers of the 54th at a host of historical events. He balances that with his job as the program director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Southern regional office. In February of this year, his re-enactment unit hosted a daylong commemoration of the bloody Morris Island battle in 1863 that was dramatized in Glory, and in 2009, McGill and his fellow re-enactors marched in President Barack Obama’s inauguration parade.

McGill says that he participates in the re-enactments to fill in missing pieces of the Civil War story in the public mind.

“We are still playing catch-up and filling the void,” he says. “We are still letting people know that indeed this war was about us. At the beginning, 4 million were enslaved, and at the end, 4 million were free.”

Heeding the Call to Arms

In 1862 Congress passed the Militia Act, which authorized the inclusion of black soldiers in the Civil War. There was one stipulation: They could only do manual labor. Still, there was white political and social resistance to the idea. The barrier was broken during the following year, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the final part of the Emancipation Proclamation, which officially accepted black soldiers into all-black units to fight in combat. In May 1863, the U.S. War Department developed the Bureau of Colored Troops.

That same year, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, through a newspaper editorial, urged black men to support the war. Knowing a loss to the Confederacy could result in re-enslavement, more than 200,000 heeded the cry. Historians have said that even Lincoln recognized that black soldiers were a key factor in the Union victory.

It’s that spirit that black re-enactors attempt to portray at historical events, schools, churches and conferences. “These black men were fighting for their freedom and fighting for their manhood. Slavery took a lot from them,” says Beech. “Saying that we are able to re-enact or display their courage and strength, that’s a very moving sensation.”