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

Pictured at the Fredericksburg Area Museum, from left to right Emmanuel Dabney, Petersburg Battlefield NBP, Lt. Jimmy Price, Cpl. Steward Henderson and Captain John Cummings—May 2011

Pictured at the Fredericksburg Area Museum, from left to right Emmanuel Dabney, Petersburg Battlefield NBP, Lt. Jimmy Price, Cpl. Steward Henderson and Captain John Cummings—May 2011

Part three in a series

One fall day in 2010 at the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield, while giving a tour, I ran into John Cummings, a Spotsylvania Civil War historian I had known for a while. We served together on the Board of Directors of the Civil War Life Foundation. After I finished my tour, I helped John measure trenches in the Mule Shoe and the Bloody Angle. We started talking about the Sesquicentennial and the 23rd Regiment United States Colored Troops. “It would be a shame, if the sesquicentennial went by and we did not celebrate their skirmish,” he said. He thought we should try to reorganize the unit, and I agreed. With this conversation, we put into motion the re-created 23rd USCT! 

My cousin, LeVaniel Ennis suggested that I contact reverend Hashmel Turner, and to his credit, Rev. Turner said that we would have the 23rd USCT, even if the only members were John, me, and him. I then contacted Horace McCaskill and Roger Braxton, who were on the Board of Directors of the Civil War Life Foundation with John and me. In January 2011 at the John J. Wright Museum, we became the original five members of the 23rd USCT. At our next meeting, we were able to recruit, Jimmy Price as our white lieutenant, as John was the captain–giving us two white officers.

During this time, I sought the help of some of my comrades at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park—Russ Smith, John Hennessy, Greg Mertz, Eric Mink, Don Pfanz, Kris White, and Noel Harrison—to get as much information as possible on the roles of living historians, Civil War reenactors and the 23rd USCT. I also had the privilege of meeting Dr. James Bryant II, who was a professor at Shenandoah University and a former historian at the Park, who researched the 23rd. All of them supported the founding of the group.

Eric Mink gave us our first public appearance in uniform. Eric gave a talk on the History of the U S Colored Troops in May 2011 at the Fredericksburg Area Museum. He asked me if we would like to come and spend a few minutes to talk about our group. We appeared as the 23rd, two white officers and one black corporal, we briefly spoke, and we were interviewed by Clint Schimmer of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. Our pictures were taken, with Emmanuel Dabney, a black historian from the Petersburg Battlefield.

Our next event was at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House reenactment just a few days later. While at this event, we met three members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Company B, Lou Carter, Howard Lambert, and Bob Wright. They had been representing the 23rd USCT for a few years; in fact, they had represented many USCT units at several events for over 20 years. All three are also members of the 23rd now, and I am also a member of the 54th Mass. First Sergeant Lou has especially taken on the role of mentoring our unit and was the first to show the black members of our regiment how to be living historians and reenactors.

At this event, our first big event in the public, I was overwhelmed with the number of people taking our pictures! It seemed like everyone—white, black, Hispanic, and Asian American—wanted our picture and information about our group. Clint Schimmer again interviewed us, as well as others, and this time my picture was in the Free Lance-Star being interviewed by a young white girl, who was preparing a paper about the reenactment. John arranged for us to have our picture taken with the Confederate Cavalry –three Union soldiers in front of several Rebel soldiers on horseback! I had to admit, I was not expecting all of the attention that we received.

John told me that it was more important for the public to get to know me, as I was the African American in the “blue uniform.” Roger, who is also African American but not in uniform, had billed me as the “expert” on the Colored soldiers. I was able to answer many questions on the 23rd USCT, the first black soldiers to fight “in directed combat” against General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Although we were in Union blue uniforms, I was surprised at how many times I was asked if we were Union or Confederate soldiers. I was asked quite a few questions about black Confederates, which I had previously questioned my historian colleagues at the Park about in 2005 and 2006–so I knew that there were very few black Confederate soldiers. I will discuss this issue in a later post. I was surprised at how many people did not know about black Union troops in the Civil War. I had two conversations about this subject with two black men; one tried to convince me that he had ancestors who were Confederate soldiers and the other was Kevin Williams, Sr.

Our first sponsored program at the John J. Wright Museum, Rappahannock Exodus, pictured left to right Cpl. Steward Henderson, Cpt. Jon Cummings, Lt. Jimmy Price, and (future) Hospital Steward Kevin Williams, Sr.

Our first sponsored program at the John J. Wright Museum, Rappahannock Exodus, pictured left to right Cpl. Steward Henderson, Cpt. Jon Cummings, Lt. Jimmy Price, and (future) Hospital Steward Kevin Williams, Sr.

Kevin joined the 23rd after this event and is now our hospital steward or as we say he is our “Doc.” Although he was aware of the 54th Massachusetts, he was not aware of the 23rd. We had a great conversation about black soldiers, as his father was a Montford Point Marine. By the time we had our first 23rd sponsored event at the John J. Wright Museum in June 2011, Hashmel, and Kevin had their uniforms. So we now consisted of three blacks and two whites in Uniform for the 23rd.

I spent a considerable amount of time telling people about the 200,000 soldiers and perhaps another 20-30,000 black sailors in the United States armed services during the Civil War. Most people use the 180,000 number for black troops; however, the African American Civil War Museum and Monument in Washington, DC, lists the names of 209,145 US Colored Troops, which include 7000 white officers and 1,145 Hispanics and 201,000 blacks.

Many blacks of duplicate names were in the units. For example, there were 14 George Washingtons in the 23rd USCT. The roster of the 23rd contained 1,792 names, at a time when a regiment was only 1000 men. Some blacks did not have real names, just one name, or wanted their identity hidden so that their families, who may still be enslaved, would not suffer further cruelty. Many of the escaped slaves who became soldiers in the Union army had their families beaten, starved, or killed when it was found out that the men had joined the Union army.

From this first major event, I realized that the role of a black Civil War military living historian is to educate the public that he speaks with about the United States Colored Troops. I also learned that you had to drill, drill, and drill some more just to be realistic on the battlefield and at events. Also, there is a big difference in being a reenactor and a living historian.

More about these topics in my next blog.

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.
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