My Life as a Black Civil War Living Historian—part two

The founding members of the 23rd Regiment United States Colored Troops in January 2011. Left to right Reverend Hashmel Turner, Horace McCaskill, Col. Retired US Army, Steward T. Henderson, Roger Braxton, and John Cummings at the John J. Wright Museum

The founding members of the 23rd Regiment United States Colored Troops in January 2011. Left to right Reverend Hashmel Turner, Horace McCaskill, Col. Retired US Army, Steward T. Henderson, Roger Braxton, and John Cummings at the John J. Wright Museum

Part two in a series

As a Park Service historian, I give tours on all four of the Park’s battlefields: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. I loved talking about the military history but never said much about the civilians until I started to work with the Chief Historian of the park, John Hennessy. The Park has a History at Sunset (HAS) program, which takes visitors to various parts of the battlefields and Civil War-related places in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania and Stafford counties. I have worked on several programs with him, and we led two HAS programs about slavery in Fredericksburg. When discussing these programs with him, he explained that when you add the civilian experience into your program, your audience can relate better to the events surrounding the military. Plus, it makes your program more interesting.

During my seven years at the Park, I have given hundreds of tours on the battlefields, Old Salem Church, and at Chatham. I have guided school groups, military groups, descendants of soldiers, and even diplomats from Sri Lanka on my tours. John and I gave a trolley car tour to three of the African American churches in Fredericksburg (Shiloh Old Site, Shiloh New Site, and Mt. Zion Baptist Churches), which afterward led to a very interesting question-and-answer period. Several people in the tour group thought that John and I would “get into trouble” for giving them the information that we gave on the tour and in the Q and A that followed. We just informed them of slavery and the United States Colored Troops. I was not surprised that many of them thought that the only role of African Americans in the Civil War was that of a slave.

I knew when I started working at the Park that I would try to get information from my own family that lived in the Fredericksburg area. When I brought up the topic of the Civil War, many of them did not want to talk about it, and the ones who did only talked about slavery. However, a family friend, Barbara Weston, who is a prominent member of the African American community, pointed me in the direction of a book, A Different Story by Ruth Coder Fitzgerald, that put onto paper the oral histories of the African American families of the Fredericksburg, Stafford and Spotsylvania communities. The maternal side of my family is from the Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania and Stafford area, and the book mentioned my great grandparents, great-great grandfather, and great-great-great grandfather. These experiences made me want to do more in educating people about the men of the United States Colored Troops.

I have gained a lot of experience and I can say that I have grown a lot in a field, where I started off as a Civil War buff and am now a National Park Service Civil War historian. But another experience finally catapulted me to become a living historian in the reformed 23rd Regiment United States Colored Troops.

Next: Enlisting in the USCT

About stewardthenderson

Civil War historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and living historian with the 23rd Regiment USCT and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Co. B. I am also a member of the Trail to Freedom Committee in the Fredericksburg, VA area and a member of the John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania, VA.
This entry was posted in Civil War Events, National Park Service, Slavery, USCT and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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