Thoughts on Future of the Civil War History

I apologize for the lack of posts. I had a busy February with public programs at work regarding United States Colored Troops and then two public presentations regarding the Omohundros of Richmond. I will try to be more regular.

Detail of the men in Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry. Original image at Library of Congress.

I try not to write much about work but I will soon be joining a large number of academic historians and public historians at Gettysburg for the Future of Civil War History conference March 14-16. I am looking forward to catching up with old friends and making new ones. Perhaps some of you will be there.

I am on a panel with Barbara Gannon (University of Central Florida), Hari Jones (African American Civil War Memorial and Museum), Joseph McGill (National Trust for Historic Preservation), Jill Newmark (National Library of Medicine), and Robert Sutton (National Park Service). The topic up for discussion is interpreting United States Colored Troops experiences at Civil War sites.

Since I do interpret USCTs at work, I will have to abandon my typical decision to not discuss work. So let me again state in this post: MY thoughts are not necessarily those of my employer, the National Park Service, or specifically Petersburg National Battlefield. These are based on MY observations and conversations with people I encounter collectively.

I have been asked recently by a friend how do we (in the public history field at museums, historic sites, battlefields) tell the stories fraught with the issue of race. My respond was simple: Just do it. I apologize to Nike for borrowing their trademark slogan but this is the truth of how I feel.

I said something similar in a pre-conference position paper that each panelist was asked to submit for the conference. We owe it to the historical record to get that information out to the public. By doing so, we restore the diversity of experiences felt by people regardless of who they are, this includes United States Colored Troops.

In my recent United States Colored Troops at Petersburg tour given back in early February, I used a series of quotes selected from participants in different USCT units to shed light on the battles these men participated in. I think those in the field and even academics until fairly recently (let’s say last ten years) have complained of the lack of sources regarding USCTs. It is true most were illiterate as they escaped bondage or volunteered as free men from North and South; but it is not true that there are no sources.

I am happy to say that my fellow panelists all are in accord that the information is out there.

So where are these voices?

The Christian Recorder, a black newspaper started prior to the Civil War whose wartime articles are not just about religion but also secular news including politics and the state of the war. Within this source are numerous letters from LITERATE Black soldiers and chaplains who were in the field. If you are nearby to a university this is accessible through AccessibleArchives.

Diaries do exist, perhaps one of the most easily accessible is that of Sergeant Christian Fleetwood, 4th USCT and a Medal of Honor recipient. You can read it here.

Memoirs are around and include reflections from women who interacted with colored troops. Notable is that of Susie King Taylor.

Finally, the pension files of the Colored Soldiers AND their widows (which may include mothers and/or minor children) are a source filled with the soldiers’ voices or that of their family. I have been indebted to Eric Mink at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for his transcriptions of the pension files of Esther/Hester Tuckson regarding her husband’s military service and that of Peter Churchwell’s military service.

One of the elements I emphasize as way to tell the story is to use these voices on the battlefields. Read directly from the transcription or have the audience read it. Read from multiple perspectives such as the officers of these colored troops, several of whom wrote memoirs after the war. Read from the Confederates perspectives, many of whom wrote letters to family members regarding the USCTs. I warn visitors that we’ll be getting into stories which have language that we wouldn’t use in polite company today but that their voice adds power to the story.

So what do you think? If you are interpreting USCTs at a museum, historic site, or battlefield, how have you incorporated their stories in your interpretation? If you haven’t, why not?




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11 responses to “Thoughts on Future of the Civil War History

  1. Joe Botana

    Great article. Wish I could be there in Gettysburg for your panel. The future of Civil War History is indeed an interesting and important topic. Sadly, the fact that it is so controversial illustrates that many of the issues of the era are still unresolved in many peoples’ minds as well as the general attitude of incivility prevalent in our nation today. Carry on, O faithful soldier. The topic you are researching is of particular import. I look forward to meeting you sometime at Petersburg and hearing your battlefield lecture – particularly interested in your take on how USCT were sacrificed at “The Crater.”

  2. Colleen

    Definitely interested to hear more on the subject. I’m not an interpreter, but I find this concept of the “future of history” fascinating.

    • Joe Botana

      It is a fascinating topic. We heard Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, noted historian and President of Harvard, do a presentation at the Harpers Ferry Sesqui where she compared/contrasted her experiences at the centennial in 1962 with the present day in terms of the common themes and perspectives of each time, and then discussed where we might (and should?) be headed. It was extremely interesting. I am also not an expert/professional, just a highly interested amateur, but consider this a relevant and useful pursuit in the study of history.

      • I was fortunate to hear Dr. Faust at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam.

        People interested in history are just as important as those of us practicing it professionally. We connect with everyone from the buffs to the generalists to those who know nothing about the topic of the historic site. We have to have everyone involved in the consumption of services provided at our historic sites. We often learn information from those who come in, particularly those with ancestral connections to places.

  3. Pingback: Yes, let’s tell that story. It’s time to bring the USCT to the fore. | To the Sound of the Guns

  4. James D.

    The civil war was an act of domestic terrorism against the United States of America for the purpose of continuing the practice of slavery. Article 3, Section 3 of the United States of America Constitution of 1861, confirm that fact both then and now.” Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

    The task at hand is how do we conduct a worldwide war against terrorism, foreign and domestic, and continue to present those guilty of this act of terrorism as other than what they were and are, Traitors. It is so obvious that the descriptions presently used to describe those individuals and acts are not in accordance with the laws of the U.S. at that time nor now.

    The real question is: For what cause or ideal today, 150 years removed, are domestic terrorist, traitors, still being presented to our children, society and the world as what they are not, positive role models.

    The future of Civil War History is found in addressing that reality. It is a difference between make believe and fact, fiction and non-fiction, the truth and an outright lie. So, what is civil war history? In that lie its future!

    • Thanks for reading.

      In no way can I support the Confederate government’s desire to maintain slavery but I seek to understand their ideology alongside that of the Federal government’s. I seek to find the voices of the people in both North and South and assess the thoughts of those who left their letters, diaries, memoirs, etc.

      I am not going to proclaim expertise on the subjects of the modern Department of Homeland Security, CIA, FBI, and modern U.S. Military and the current war on terror; but I will direct the readers to how most NPS interpreters go about their work using the interpretive process model.

      We can still get at the points you mentioned of the Federal government responding to Southern provocation in 1861. In fact, someone I know well discusses this issue regularly at his work place in regards to Fort Sumter (person doesn’t work at Ft. Sumter).

      Yet there are some universal concepts and intangibles that can connect with human beings simply because we’re human beings and these elements existed in the past 150 years ago (or 50 years, or 1000 years) and exist today.

  5. Pingback: Interpreting USCTs in places where they were not… | Cenantua's Blog

  6. Hello! Great article! I wish I could have attended this conference. As a Black descendant of a Confederate soldier and his enslaved common-law-wife, I have been trying to find new ways of understanding and remembering the Civil War. I am also a graduate student who focuses on America’s history of slavery so I have been spending quite a bit of time lately reading, writing and blogging about the events and people who led us to Emancipation. In fact my current blog article ( is what has led me to your blog. I hope you do not mind if I borrow the photo above. I am using it for a post about my Confederate ancestor. I have linked back to your blog of course 🙂 I am following you now so I cannot wait to see your next post!

  7. Pingback: Love Across the Battle Lines or Can You Love the Man Who Owns You?: An old family story finds new truths and questions in the archive | Their Child

  8. Pingback: Fighting for Freedom: Leesburg’s newest Civil War marker, and first for the African-American contribution | To the Sound of the Guns

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