A pretty lady walked quietly in the cemetery where her grandparents and great-grandparents are buried. As she looked at the dates on the markers:
I realized from the dates on my great grandmother’s grave that she was born in 1859 and she lived to the age of 100, passing in 1959. I was seven years old when she died, and I remember her well. She’d taught school in New Orleans and introduced me to books at a very young age. So, I have literally held the hand of someone who was born before the Civil War began. She was the inspiration for starting my USCT Facebook page, as well as her brother, Lt. Charles Bannister, who served with the 73rd USCT regiment.
ECW readers, meet Jerilyn James Lee, mother of the Facebook page “Stories of the United States Colored Troops.” In my research on Abraham, the slave that was blown into the Union lines at Vicksburg, I reached out to the FB page looking for some help reading slave records. Jerilyn graciously welcomed me to their FB group, and we have talked about several things concerning history since that time. When the topic of whether the Civil War matters anymore came up, I realized I knew of a group to whom it matters very much. With reenactors aging out of the hobby, and with battle scenarios becoming difficult to do with authenticity, I decided to interview Jerilyn about the groups with which she is involved. Here is what she said:
Meg: When did you personally become aware of the USCT as a historical entity?
Jerilyn: About 25 years ago, quite unexpectedly. I accidently came across the book “Army Life in a Black Regiment” by Thomas Wentworth Higginson at a college library while looking for another book. Higginsons’ book fell out as I pulled my selection off the shelf. I put it back, and it fell again! I thought it was about WWII as I noticed the title. I flipped through it out of curiosity, and discovered it was about black troops in the Civil War. I checked it out of the library and read it in just a couple of days. That was it for me – I was hooked!
Meg: Was it the presence or absence of USCT that energized you the most?
Jerilyn: It was definitely their presence, especially considering they literally had to fight for the right to fight. There were three methods of entry into the war arena from my perspective. Free blacks who enlisted, understanding the risks that that they could be imprisoned, or forced into slavery, or executed; enslaved blacks who escaped and ran straight to Union lines for safe harbor and then asked to join the USCT; and Black Canadians who left their own country and came to the United States to offer their services to the Union.
Meg: Are you a reenactor?
Jerilyn: I don’t personally interpret. I try to engage others through my USCT Facebook page, and I encourage all Living History interpreters and regiments to offer their insights on my page and make our members aware of their upcoming events.
Meg: How do you feel about the downturn in numbers of battle scenarios open to the public?
Jerilyn: We lose part of our history every day. Most USCT history was never taught in schools, or students receive a watered-down version of the Civil War. We cannot escape our history, nor can we change it. Everyone in this country needs to understand the gravity of the Civil War and the impact it had on the lives of those who fought in it as well as the lives of those affected by it. We look at war now from 60” television screens with no conception of the sights, sounds, and smells of death and destruction. Reenactments cannot truly duplicate the actual events, but they help average citizens understand the loyalties and determination on both sides, the strategies that were implemented, and the impact on American history. We are losing sacred ground every day to subdivisions and shopping malls. There are parking lots and office buildings built on top of Civil War burial grounds. As a community of Civil War historians, enthusiasts, reenactors and Living History interpreters, we must stand together to save as much of the history, land and artifacts as possible.
Meg: Are you looking for other ways to portray the experiences of the USCT? Can you give us some examples?
Jerilyn: I personally do it through my Facebook page, “Stories of the United States Colored Troops.” My page is strictly dedicated to the Civil War era, and it has become a repository for anything related to the USCT, including letters, documents, USCT flags, monuments, commemorations, battle notes involving USCT regiments and upcoming regimental events. And I am personally available as a USCT speaker. I have an hour-long presentation on the USCT that will take a viewer from the inception of the war, the USCT in the war, and post-war events including the inception of the Buffalo Soldiers. My presentation is geared toward a general audience and specifically designed for citizens who have little or limited knowledge of the United States Colored Troops. The most interesting and rewarding invitation I received to speak was a couple of years ago at the Sons of Confederate Veterans quarterly meeting in eastern North Carolina. It was a packed house with attentive and respectful interest, and several questions after the presentation. I would really like to see more forums and venues in schools, churches, fraternity/sorority conferences, community events and historical associations throughout the year, not just during Black History month. This isn’t just black history, it’s American history.
Meg: It seems to me that—as other reenactment units begin to curtail their battle scenarios, or even curtail their reenactment involvement in general, that the USCT is actually ramping up their involvement. What is going on here?
Jerilyn: You’re correct, and it’s so encouraging! I am still surprised at the number of people – black and white – who had no prior knowledge of the United States Colored Troops. The membership on my Facebook page alone has grown to over 2,000 members in just three years, and many new members have commented that they never knew black troops served in the Civil War. The page also serves as a jumping-off point for greater involvement – learning what reenactors do and why, listening to USCT Living History interpreters and making others aware of their programs, and taking youngsters to presentations. There is nothing more exciting than watching a young man attending his first reenactment who meets a young drummer boy in full uniform, and he tells his parents he wants to do that, too!
Meg: What types of opportunities are there for families in the USCT movement? I noticed a summer camp and some more homefront-oriented events this summer.
Jerilyn: There are entire families who participate in USCT interpretation, as soldiers, sailors, drummer boys, women of FREED (Female Reenactors of Distinction), teachers who traveled with the USCT, laundresses, valets, and all kinds of auxiliary roles. The USCT can be as much a family affair as the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts, teaching leadership skills, outdoor skills, discipline and brotherhood/sisterhood. Same principles, different venue. There was a summer camp this summer, and the School of the Soldier is being held in April of 2020, focusing on the life of the average USCT soldier with intense training on proper drill methods. Individual regiments often engage in weekend training camps.
Meg: Does the USCT as a group of reenactors feel that the Civil War is still important or relevant today? How does reenacting factor into your answer?
Jerilyn: Although I’ve never participated as a reenactor before, I’ve been to several encampments. Nothing will give you greater chills and a sense of pride than to arrive at a reenactment camp as the sun is coming up and there are no sights or sounds of the modern world around you, with black USCT soldiers and white USCT officers in full uniform in preparation for the day’s activities. It quickly becomes obvious that their intent is to give a genuine portrayal of the characters they represent, from the shine of their brass to the tilt of their kepi. USCT reenactors are not only relevant, they are an integral part of American history. It is a history that we cannot, must not lose.
Meg: What else can you tell me about what is going on?
Jerilyn: I always encourage others to post any upcoming events on my USCT page. And there are also opportunities for participation within local Civil War Roundtables, where the USCT is rarely discussed. USCT information needs to be incorporated into all Civil War discussions at every level. There are also local regiments actively recruiting for new participants every day. This is our history, our story. As Frederick Douglass proclaimed in 1863, “Men of Color, to Arms!”. That statement still holds true today – to preserve USCT history through reenactment, interpretation and education.
I would like to thank Jerilyn James Lee for her detailed and thoughtful replies. I encourage readers to check out her Facebook page and to check local community events for a chance to see the USCT troops in action. When I wore hoops, we had no such representation at Fort Tejon, California. Personally, I give Jerilyn and her “pards” a gallant Yankee hurrah!