Thursday, October 01, 2020

Monumental decisions: How we can honor Blacks who served

Black troops, such as these 29th Connecticut Colored Infantry soldiers, played
a huge role in the restoration of the Union. (Samuel A. Cooley | Library of Congress)

A version of this essay will appear the November 2020 issue of America's Civil War, available soon in Barnes & Noble and elsewhere.

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ON AN UNSEASONABLY COOL summer morning in Franklin, Tennessee, Inetta Gaines and I sit on a park bench near the eye of a hurricane of history. Twenty yards away, in the public square, stands a controversial Confederate monument. “Towering over everything else,” she says ruefully.

At the old Williamson County courthouse, looming over our shoulders, slaves were auctioned through the outbreak of the Civil War. In November 1864, Union officers met in the two-story, brick building during the exceptionally bloody Battle of Franklin, fought less than a mile away, and from the second-floor porch in 1888, a Black man named Amos Miller was lynched by a White mob. In the very square in front of us, Whites battled Blacks two days after the Fourth of July during the 1867 “Franklin Race Riot.”  

Inetta Gaines, the only Black on a Brentwood (Tenn.)
historic commission, stands at the old county courthouse
near the Confederate monument in Franklin's public square.

The nearly 38-foot high Confederate monument, topped with “Chip,” a statue of a Rebel soldier grasping a musket, was dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1899 on the same ground where Black men, women and children were sold at slave auctions in the 1850s. "No country ever had truer sons," reads an inscription carved into the marble monument, "no cause nobler champions."

Gaines, the only Black member of the 12-person Brentwood, Tenn., historical commission, prefers that the Franklin monument be placed in a museum. But if it and similar memorials remain on public land, she believes it is vital they are placed in the proper context.

Until 2019, when five markers were added by Franklin explaining African American history here, the full story of this turbulent place was untold. A full-scale statue of a U.S. Colored Troops soldier, another major effort to balance the scales, will be dedicated in the square in 2021 in honor of hundreds of Black men from Williamson County who served in the Union Army. 

“That day,” Gaines says, “will be etched in my mind forever.”  

And maybe that’s what’s missing from our often-ugly national debate over Confederate monuments: recognition of the immense contributions of Blacks during the Civil War. Thousands of memorials  —in town squares, cemeteries, parks, battlefields, and elsewhere — honor the sacrifice of White Americans, those who fought on both sides. Although monuments to the USCT were dedicated in recent years in New Haven, Conn., Vicksburg, Miss., and elsewhere, the public landscape remains embarrassingly deficient in its representation of African Americans’ Civil War experience

Sadly, it’s an old issue.

“Nowhere in all this free land is there a monument to brave Negro soldiers, 36,847 of whom gave up their lives in the struggles for national existence,” George Washington Williams, a Black Civil War veteran, wrote in 1888. “Even the appearance of the Negro soldier in the hundreds of histories of the war has always been incidental. These brave men have had no champion, no one to chronicle their record, teeming with interest and instinct with patriotism.”

So, let’s fully embrace the “fuller” story of the war. Learn the names of courageous Black soldiers. Celebrate them. Perhaps, like the city of Franklin, we can build rather than tear down. Here’s where we can start:    

NEW MARKET HEIGHTS 

From left: Powhatan Beaty, James Harris and Christian Fleetwood were among 14 U.S.C.T
who earned the Medal of Honor at New Market Heights.

TWENTY-FIVE BLACKS earned the Medal of Honor for action during the Civil War, 14 at New Market Heights in Virginia -- one of the war’s largely forgotten battles. Remember their names: William Barnes, Powhatan Beaty, James Bronson, Christian Fleetwood, James Gardiner, James Harris, Thomas Hawkins, Alfred Hilton, Milton Holland, Miles James, Alexander Kelly, Robert Pinn, Edward Ratcliff, and Charles Veal. 

Early on the morning of Sept. 29, 1864, while one wing of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James assaulted Confederates at nearby Fort Harrison, another attacked near New Market Road. To slow the advance of five regiments of U.S.C.T., Confederates placed abatis — felled trees with intertwined branches -- between their earthworks and a swampy creek. A conclusive Union victory at New Market Heights could open the road to Richmond, eight miles away.

“Remember Fort Pillow!” 4th and 6th U.S.C.T soldiers shouted as their assault began about 5:30 a.m. – a reference to the Confederate massacre of Black troops in Tennessee five months earlier. 

Despite initial breakthroughs, the attack was stymied, and Confederates regrouped to protect their capital. But the valor of Black troops, who suffered 800 casualties, earned the respect of Butler and others.

“The good conduct of the colored troops, and especially the absence of all straggling, their uncowering advance in the face of terrific firing … have won for them the sincere admiration, without exciting any envy, of all the volunteers of the Army of the James,” wrote a Philadelphia Press correspondent. 

Benjamin Butler commanded Black troops
at New Market Heights.
(Library of Congress)
Many of the earthworks remain at New Market Heights. But a post-war, water-filled quarry occupies ground where one the major attacks by Black troops occurred. And the battlefield, largely owned by Henrico Country, is infrequently visited and poorly interpreted. Two state historical signs and a Civil War Trails marker denote one of the most significant battles of the war involving the U.S.C.T.  

That’s “a crying shame,” says Tim Talbott, who serves on the board of directors of the Battle of New Market Heights Memorial & Education Association. The non-profit group is in the initial planning stages for creation of a long-overdue monument on the battlefield to honor U.S.C.T. at New Market Heights.  

Talbott, who’s also director of education, interpretation, visitor services & collections at Pamplin Historical Park in Petersburg, pours his passion for New Market Heights into the association’s web site. His research revealed one of the more compelling soldier stories of the war.

In the charge on enemy breastworks, Miles James of the 36th U.S.C.T suffered a grievous wound in his left arm. While urging on his comrades, he remarkably continued to fire his weapon. At a field hospital, his arm was amputated. The 34-year-old corporal, whose pre-war occupation was listed as “farmer,” was sent to Fort Monroe to recover. James easily could have sat out the rest of the war. Instead, he chose to continue to serve.  

On Feb. 4, 1865, his brigade commander, Col. Alonzo Draper, wrote to the chief surgeon at Fort Monroe hospital: 

“Sir – Sgt. Miles James, Co. B, 36th U.S.C.I. writes me from your Hospital to urge that he may be permitted to remain in the service. He lost his left arm in the charge upon New Market Heights, Sept., 29, 1864. If it be possible, I would most respectfully urge that his request be granted. … He is one of the bravest men I ever saw; and is in every respect a model soldier. He is worth more with his single arm than half a dozen ordinary men.” 

On April 6, 1865, James received his Medal of Honor. Three weeks later, he was promoted to sergeant. He served in the Union Army through the end of the war. 

An immense crowd attended Andre Cailloux's funeral in Union-occupied New Orleans.
(August 29, 1863, edition of Harpers Weekly)

NEW ORLEANS

ALTHOUGH HE HAD NO DIRECT TIE to New Orleans, a monument to Robert E. Lee stood in Lee Circle in the city from 1884 until 2017, when the mayor ordered its removal. Yet no Civil War monument in the city has ever commemorated the vast contributions of Blacks to the Union war effort. That “borders on being shameful,” says Alan Skerrett, who maintains an impressive web site largely devoted to the African American Civil War experience. 

“If you are an African American going through that town,” he says, “you have no recognition of your history.” 

An 1863 illustration in Frank Leslie's Illustrated depicts 
the death of Andre Cailloux at Port Hudson.
Louisiana supplied more Black soldiers, and perhaps more African American officers, to the Union war effort than any other state. Remember this name: Andre Cailloux, who surely merits recognition on the landscape in the city he called home.

Born into slavery, Cailloux was a mulatto who served in the 1st Louisiana Native Guard. The 38-year-old captain was killed during an attack at Port Hudson on May 27, 1863 – one of the first Black officers to die during the war. That assault at Port Hudson, like one weeks later by the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner, underscored the worthiness of Blacks as soldiers.  

“A revolution in sentiment toward colored troops took place upon that field of carnage,” wrote an Ohio newspaper, “which in itself was a glorious victory.”

Organized by occupying Union authorities, Cailloux’s funeral in New Orleans was described as “one of the most extraordinary exhibitions brought forth by this rebellion.” Immense crowds of free people of color and slaves lined the streets, and roughly 100 sick and wounded Black soldiers marched in the funeral procession.

“In Captain Cailloux the cause of the Union and freedom has lost a valuable friend,” a New Orleans newspaper wrote. “Captain Cailloux, defending the integrity of the sacred cause of liberty, vindicated his race from the opprobrium with which it was charged.”

Skerrett, who has a collateral ancestor who served in the U.S.C.T., highlights stories such as Cailloux’s on his website, “Jubilo! The Emancipation Century.” He believes the stories of Blacks during the Civil War – contrabands, civilians who aided the Union army and others – have gone unrecognized.

“There is a big need,” says Skerrett, who volunteers at the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, “to have these stories told in whatever way is possible.”

Skerrett sees a need, too, to tap the brakes on the removal of Confederate monuments from the public spaces. 

“I think monuments are works of art, what people were thinking and feeling at the time,” the 65-year-old retired auditor says. “I don’t think they should be destroyed or defaced or vandalized.”

But the community landscape should be “fair, balanced and accurate,” he says. “If not, that’s a prima facie case that it should be changed.”

In this late-19th century lithograph, the 54th Massachusetts storms Fort Wagner.
(Library of Congress)
CHARLESTON, S.C. 

AS TWILIGHT ARRIVED on July 18, 1863, the nearly all-Black 54th Massachusetts charged with bayonets fixed toward Fort Wagner on Morris Island, at the southern entrance to Charleston Harbor. Hit by flanking fire, the soldiers slogged through a ditch filled with water before charging up the slope to the fort, where they slugged it out with the defenders. 

In the inky blackness, re-enforcements mistakenly fired into the 54th, perhaps causing as many casualties as the enemy did. But the bravery of the Black soldiers – famously depicted in the 1989 Academy Award-winning Glory -- was undeniable.

“On the whole, this is considered to be a brilliant feat of the 54th,” recalled Sergeant George Stephens. “It is another evidence that cannot now be denied, that colored soldiers will dare go where any brave men will lead them.”

Shortly after their failed assault, 54th Massachusetts soldiers proposed erecting a monument near where Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, their commander, fell.  They would even help pay for it themselves.

Shaw’s father had another idea.

"The monument, though originated for my son, ought to bear, with his, the names of his brave officers and men, who fell and were buried with him," he wrote. The memorial was never erected, the funds instead directed to the first free school for African American children in Charleston, named after Shaw.

In their local newspaper recently, Bernard Powers, an emeritus professor of history at the College of Charleston, and lawyer Robert Rosen advocated for a monument in Charleston to African American heroes of the Civil War. “Monuments tell a story,” they wrote in The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., “and we can begin to heal the wounds of generations by telling the forgotten stories of those who fought and died for the equality of all men and women.”

But no time is better for a monument to the 54th Massachusetts – the most famous Black regiment of the war -- in the very city where the Civil War began in 1861. And, as Shaw’s father suggested long ago, it should include the names of those Union men who made the ultimate sacrifice on Morris Island. 

Of 700 men in the assault, at least 100 died. Among them were privates Josephus Curry, a “bold, fearless and worthy soldier always ready for duty”; Joseph Johnson, a former slave who was the only means of support for his wife, Fairaby; George Henry Albert, a “good and faithful man”; Charles Hardy, who, before he enlisted, gave the $2.50 a week he earned as a waiter in a restaurant to his widowed mother in Philadelphia; and William Lee, a married father of four children under 8 years old.  

Remember their names.

At the Battle of Nashville on Dec. 16, 1864, Black troops assaulted Peach Orchard Hill.
But the two historical marker there don't mention their role.

NASHVILLE

AND LET'S REMEMBER THIS NAME: James Thomas.

On the morning of Dec. 16, 1864 – Day 2 of the Battle of Nashville -- the 13th U.S.C.T. private said goodbye to his wife and sister. "I never saw my brother again," recalled Sarah Walker, who, like James, was born into slavery.      

Later that unseasonably warm day, Thomas and his comrades and two other U.S.C.T regiments advanced up the steep, 300-foot Peach Orchard Hill into the teeth of strong enemy defenses near the crest. Canister and well-directed musket fire poured into them. And yet these ill-equipped and ill-trained soldiers charged on. 

“I never saw more heroic conduct shown on the field of battle,” recalled an Ohio officer, “than was exhibited by this body of so recently released slaves.” 

Disabled by a wound, U.S. Army officer Ambrose Bierce watched from afar the advance of the U.S.C.T. through intricate abatis of felled trees. “They did not hesitate for a moment,” he recalled decades later. “Their long lines swept into that fatal obstruction in perfect order and remained there as long as those of the white veterans on their right. And as many of them in proportion remained until borne away and buried after the action. It was as pretty an example of courage and discipline as one could wish to see."

Even Confederate commander James Holtzclaw noted the bravery of the Black troops. In his sector, the general’s men defended against soldiers in the 13th U.S.C.T. In its first, and only, major fight of the war, the nearly 600-man regiment suffered 55 dead among 220 casualties. Thomas was among those killed.

“Placing a negro brigade in front,” Holtzclaw wrote in his official report, “they gallantly dashed up to the abatis, forty feet in front, and were killed by hundreds. Pressed on by their white brethren in the rear they continued to come up in masses to the abatis, but they only came to die.”

In an affluent suburb about five miles south of downtown Nashville, only slivers of ground remain undeveloped on Peach Orchard Hill, where the 12th, 13th, 100th regiments fought courageously in their first battle of the war. Two historical markers there highlight the fighting, but neither mentions the Black troops’ role in the battle. 

The Confederate monument in the public square in Franklin, Tenn.

TWENTY MILES SOUTH, in Franklin, a discussion with Inetta Gaines drifts from the 19th century into the 20th – RFK, MLK, Black Panthers, 1960s Mississippi and Alabama – before landing back in the 21st. Perhaps, she says, this city’s handling of its Confederate monument issue can serve as a model for the South. 

Before we part, Gaines mentions a date she has mentally circled: June 19, 2021. That’s Juneteenth, a holiday long embraced in the Black community as the day in 1865 many enslaved found out about their emancipation.

It’s also the date “Chip” finally may get company.


-- Have something to add, correct? E-mail me at jbankstx@comcast.net


SOURCES

-- Pension files for 54th Massachusetts privates Josephus Curry, Joseph Johnson, George Henry Albert, Charles Hardy, William Lee, National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C., via fold3.com. Also: Widow's pension file for James Thomas of 13th U.S.C.T.
-- New York Tribune, June 3, 1863.
-- Philadelphia Press, October 1864.
-- San Francisco Examiner, June 5, 1894. (This is source for Bierce comment about worthiness of black soldiers.)
-- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate ArmiesVol. 45, Part 1. This is source for James Holtzclaw's comments regarding U.S.C.T. attack at Peach Orchard Hill.
-- Voice of Thunder. A Black Soldier’s Civil War. The Letters of George E. Stephens, edited by Donald Yacovone, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Ill., 1998.
-- Williams, George Washington, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1888.

3 comments:

  1. Interesting but the actions to remove statues seem like a Tennessee Taliban. While many Confederate monuments were erected by all-white local governments, many were also commissioned by private groups and individuals. Since the Civil War, many wealthy blacks a and organizations could have erected statues but didn't Imagine how many statues Oprah could pay for.

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  2. Removal or erection of physical monuments is a deceptively shallow concern. Education, such as that provided by this post, is of much greater significance.

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  3. Instead of tearing down Confederate monuments, building other monuments next to them honoring these Union men I feel is the better course of action. It is all our shared history and our Southern and American historical heritage.

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