Black Civil War Re-Enactors Reclaim History

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.


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."


Remembering All Who Took Part

The National Park Service unveiled a memorial in 1997, listing the names of the black soldiers and their white Union officers. 


But not all black re-enactors portray Union soldiers. Some depict black soldiers fighting for the Confederacy, through re-enactor units such as the Matthew Fontaine Maury Camp No. 1722 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Female Re-Enactors of Distinction (FREED) is among the groups that remind us of contributions by black women during the Civil War era. The list of women who inspire them includes Mary Elizabeth Bowser, who was a spy for the Northern armies, and Elizabeth Keckley, former seamstress and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln. 


"What we're trying to do is inspire the next generation of ladies," says Pat Tyson, who co-founded FREED in 2005 and plays activist and writer Hallie Quinn Brown. "The Civil War was a defining moment in our history."

They also create characters based on the women of that era. Bobbie Coles, who got involved following a family visit to the African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation and Museum, has been a re-enactor since 2007. Coles developed the character "Old Miss Hattie" to depict the kind of heroine whose story gets lost in the discussions about the war.


"Hattie," who's in her 80s, from Clarksville, Tenn., has had three different names and lived on three different plantations, and counts her years based on the number of auction blocks she's stood on. Her last owner listed her as "Hattie," along with the horse and cattle he purchased that day. But in the end, black Union soldiers save Miss Hattie from slavery.    

The "Miss Hatties" of our past have been overlooked, says Cole. "I felt it was worth hearing from her in the programs; it was of great interest to know how someone like her could have survived" the kind of life to which so many African Americans were subjected.


Monée Fields-White is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers a wide array of topics, including business and economic news.