On November 10, 2012, the 23rd Regiment United States Colored Troops celebrated veterans in the Fredericksburg area of Virginia. This was our first Veterans Day program and it was held at the John J. Wright Museum in Fredericksburg.
During this program, we had several veterans on the stage to talk about how they joined the service, whether they enlisted or were drafted. They told what they did in the service and how they attained their rank. We were inspired by the lessons that they learned and took with them from their time in the military. We asked them to stand, when they heard the music for their particular branch of the military. During my closing remarks, I singled out a World War II veteran, Ray Castner, who volunteered at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for over 15 years. I introduced the various veterans who are members of the 23rd USCT. At the end of my remarks I asked for all of the veterans to stand and I had the members of the 23rd USCT salute them.
Afterward, we had some refreshments for the vets and the people in attendance and we all had an opportunity to speak with and personally thank them. The museum’s Executive Director and Curator, Ms. Terry Miller, decorated the main hallway with over 100 pictures of veterans of the wars from World War II to Afghanistan. Everyone enjoyed the event and we of the 23rd were very happy to honor those vets as well as the memory of the men who were the original 23rd Regiment United States Colored Infantry.
After the program was over and I was alone with my thoughts, I thought about how those Civil War vets felt about what they experienced. Then I thought back to what I had heard from servicemen that I knew and talked with. I am not a veteran myself, but I have had many of my relatives serve in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Marines.
I chose to wear corporal stripes on my Union Civil War uniform, to honor my father, who was a corporal in the Army during the Korean War. In fact my youngest uncle, Steve, was a Navy hospital corpsmen and served in Viet Nam with the Marines. He is only six years older than me, so he mentored me for quite some time. In fact, we used to go to the Chiefs’ Club at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC from the 1970’s to the early 1990’s. I got to know many veterans from all of the services at that club. Many of them probably thought that I was a vet because I was there so much.
As a Civil War historian, I talk about how most veterans never tell their families about their war experiences. In biographies, diaries, and letters that I have read or scanned, these men wanted to spare their families from the horrors of war. Well, at the Chiefs Club, I learned from first hand stories of the horrors of actual combat and I know why these men and women did not talk about their wartime experiences, unless it was among fellow servicemen. I compare what I had heard from these modern-day warriors with what I have learned about Civil War soldiers. There experiences were very similar. Many civilians should never know or understand what they saw and how they felt.
In the first part of the movie Glory, you see a man’s head explode and some of the blood will fall on other soldiers, in the Antietam scenes. In Saving Private Ryan, you will see the soldiers being shot to pieces and blown up in the D-Day scenes. Although many in the movie audiences of these two films may have gotten sick or maybe even fainted during those scenes – these were only movies and you can forget about them. To the men and women who experienced this reality in battle, they cannot forget what they have seen.
Think about the Viet Nam war, so many men were drafted to fight in this war – men who may not have had any thoughts of being in an armed service. If you were living during this period in American history, you heard of many atrocities during this war, especially about civilian casualties and destruction of homes. You may have heard of the protests about the war. However, during that time, these vets were not treated very well by our own countrymen. I really felt badly about how our many of our citizens dishonored the Viet Nam Vets. I also dislike the fact that when many of these soldiers come back home from war, they have a hard time finding jobs. Some of that is still true today for our vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the Viet Nam vets went homeless and lived in the streets. It may have been the same after many of our wars, but the first time that it was widely publicized was after Viet Nam.
After the Civil War, you had many veterans who had lost limbs or become disabled due to their military service. Many men may have had mental problems after the war and because of their experiences; many of those men did not go back to their homes. The men formed their own groups where they could help one another and keep their friendships, for example the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR).
So, I am very happy that we can honor these American veterans, from all of our wars. They sacrificed themselves, so that we can be safe and secure in our country. Please honor the vets and those servicemen and women, who are still on active duty, who are your family, friends, and acquaintances – and not just on Veterans Day. If they keep to themselves sometimes, it may be because they are thinking about something that they experienced in a war setting. Give them your support, while respecting their space. Without these brave men and women, our country would not still be strongly standing!
We in the 23rd US Colored Troops certainly honor all of our nation’s veterans, thank them for their service, – and we salute them!