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.
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?