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

part four in a series 

As I became more involved in the 23rd Regiment United States Colored Troops, I was amazed at how much time that it takes to be a Civil War living historian. We were bombarded with events, we had to learn to drill and portray an authentic soldierly presence, we had to really shoot the muskets that we bought, and we had to know what we were talking about!

In our first year, we participated in eleven events – three of which were talks that I gave at different locations – thirty-nine events in 2012, and fourteen events, thus far in 2013. At Gettysburg during the Remembrance Day Anniversary in 2011, there were over 100 black historians—men and women. There were about 60 men in the Union uniforms. We in the 23rd  have the luxury of being in close proximity to Company B of the 54th Massachusetts, which allows us to collaborate on several events each year.

However, in an organization where members donate their time and resources without compensation, participation is not always going to be the best. In some events, we were represented by one person and in other programs we were represented by up to twenty people. We had to make a decision to limit the amount of appearances that we can accept. It has led to some disappointments, but to me, it shows that we need more African American Civil War living historians. There are several units around the country, but this is an expensive, time-consuming hobby, and we cannot all join up and participate on very many occasions.

I have not been in the military and I did not take “cadets” or military science in high school (when I went to high school in Washington, DC in the late 60’s, you were supposed to take this course, but since I had transferred high schools in 1968 and 1969, I did not get it). However, many of our members are former military–both enlisted and officers–and they help drill the rest of us.

The Civil War Union army is significantly different from the modern military, though, and even our former military members have had to make a lot of adjustments. Kevin Williams, a former Navy officer and hospital corpsman, and I got our first taste of a hard drill instruction when we were at the 96th Annual ASALH (Association for the Study of African American Life and History) Convention in Richmond, VA in October 2011. Bill Gwaltney, a member of the 54th Mass. Co. B and a National Park Service Superintendent at that time, drilled the two of us –portraying and actually being –new recruits. He was relentless until Lou Carter took over the drilling (Kev and I still thank Lou to this day!). However, had we been real recruits in the war, Bill would have drilled us like that continuously for months before we would be ready to go into combat. Paul Stier, a former Army soldier in the 3rd U.S. Infantry and now a first sergeant in the 3rd US Regulars reenactment group, has helped drill us, as well.

For me, I still am not the perfect Civil War soldier, but I know the facings, how to march, and handle a rifled musket thanks to Bill, Lou, Paul, Kevin, and another of the 23rd’s members, Jerry Richardson, a former Army drill instructor. When we speak about drilling, we let our audiences know that it is hard work, and it takes a long time to learn to be good and authentic to the Civil War soldiers.

Shooting a rifled musket is fun to me, although it took a little while to learn to do it safely. Cleaning a musket takes a lot longer to learn, and it depends on what you shoot in the rifle. Most of the time I am only putting gun powder in the musket, and I can clean it pretty well, using brushes and a little hot water.  Sometimes, you are asked to put the cartridge paper into the rifles, which is considerably more difficult to clean out. I want to keep the musket clean because muskets are expensive, and I do not want to buy another one!

My uniform is also expensive, and it has to be authentic. I have the frock coat, which was originally given to the USCTs and is more expensive than the sack coats they were later given. Several sutlers are present at the big reenactments and have stores in areas where there are major Civil War battle reenactments; they are the best places to buy uniforms and equipment. You want to keep your uniform and brass clean and shiny for programs, but not too clean and shiny for battle reenactments and living history programs. And yes, the uniforms are all wool, and most events take place in the spring, summer, and fall –just like most of the military campaigns of the Civil War –so you can get very, very hot and smelly.

I remember the first annual Memorial Day Procession in Fredericksburg in 2012. This was the recreation of an 1871 multi-racial procession to the Fredericksburg National Cemetery to honor the Union soldiers. Plus, we had to stand as honor guard for the National Park Service program. Afterward, we were in the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center office drinking water. When we left the office, it smelled like a locker room.

2 Responses to My Life as a Black Civil War Living Historian—part four

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!