Battle of Vicksburg Being Fought Again Over Recognition of Black Civil War Troops
By Earnest McBride
JA Vicksburg Correspondent
Plaque dedicated to United States Colored Troops regiments that fought in the 1863 Vicksburg Campaign and related Civil War battles was one of the two in the Vicksburg National Military Park between 1903 and 1942, the year they were removed from Park. The plaque above is a reproduction of the original. But instead of being returned to its former site in Grant's Circle in the Park, it has been placed at Grant's Canal, an obscure location across the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Contemporary Park historians have denied that black troops participated in the Vicksburg Siege. The Monument, however, tells a different story.
Note: The text will be posted soon. It is not legible on the image, even when enlarged.
Published in the September 18-24, 2003 edition of the Jackson Advocate. Posted by permission
VICKSBURG, MS -- Within the boundaries of pure reason, the battle at Vicksburg should have ended before General Sherman set out for Chickamauga and Atlanta in 1864.
Confederate General John C. Pemberton had surrendered on July 4, 1863. And the Union troops -- blacks included -- were brought into the city, which now became the official headquarters for Grant, and then Sherman, his successor as commander of the Army of the West.
Saturday in Vicksburg might prove to be as hot a venue as was the living hell of the 47 Siege Days of 1863. The groundbreaking ceremony for a monument dedicated to the United States Colored Troops (USCT) has triggered a nationwide debate among black and white Civil War scholars, history buffs and black interest groups that could prove troublesome to the National Park Service and other organizations involved with the exercise.
National Park Service historians based in Vicksburg and Virginia have long denied that black troops played a role in the campaign that was the key to defeating the Confederacy. Chief historian Edwin C. Bears insisted his entire active career, from Vicksburg to Washington, D.C. and back, that "no black troops participated in the Siege of Vicksburg."
Plans to erect a monument to properly recognize the black troops who fought during the Vicksburg Campaign might prove troublesome to the Park Service or might get turned around at some point because of a deep-seated hostility towards including any kind of memento to black soldiers in the Park here.
"No effort was made at all, by anyone to get a monument in the Vicksburg National Military Park before," says former Vicksburg mayor Robert Walker, chairman of the African American Civil War Monument Committee. Walker's group has both state money and the official blessings of both the National Park Service and the Mississippi Civil War Battlefield Commission to proceed with the erection of a larger-than-life statue of three Civil War era black troopers in the Park.
As mayor, Walker broached the subject of a black Civil War memorial for either the City or the National Park. In 1999, the Centennial year of the park's establishment, he had on display an earlier model of what was to become the black commemorative statue. After Walker lost the office in 2001 to Laurence Leyens, a young Jewish repatriate from San Francisco, those plans were put in abeyance until the monument for which groundbreaking takes place this week was developed. Vicksburg has a black majority of 60 percent. Walker's loss of the mayoral election was attributed to his disaffection with the black community.
"I opted for the National Park," says Walker, "because no matter who the mayor of the city might be, there would be perpetual care of the monuments in the park."
The spot designated for the statue, which Walker says is to be set in place on February 14, 2004, is 50 yards east of the Kansas Monument on the opposite side of the winding boulevard that runs through the park.
The great flowering of what was first known as the African Brigade and then the United Colored States Colored Troops (USCT), originated at Vicksburg and the surrounding encampments only months before the Siege began. General Grant's headquarters was at a small town across the Mississippi slightly north of the city of Vicksburg called Milliken's Bend. Lincoln had declared, "Vicksburg is the key" to opening up the Confederacy. And Grant, the commander of the Army of the West (as opposed to McClellan, who was the bumbling commander of the Army of the Potomac) felt compelled to put that key in the President's pocket.
Having failed on repeated attempts to conquer the self-proclaimed "Gibraltar of the Confederacy," Grant would soon have the right combination put at his disposal that would open up the city -- Black soldiers and sailor from among the hundreds of thousands of newly liberated slaves anxious to do battle with their former "masters."
The entire body of United States Colored Troops evolved out of the Vicksburg Campaign beginning in April and May of 1863. President Lincoln authorized his Army Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas "to raise as many regiments of blacks as I can," according to the general's memoirs. Thomas met with Grant at Milliken's Bend and gave the orders to formulate 10 black regiments. While seasoned black soldiers from the Louisiana Native Guards were the first to fight against Confederate troops near Pascagoula and Baton Rouge in May, 1863, it was the three black regiments of raw recruits posted at Milliken's Bend across from Vicksburg that would demonstrate the real fighting prowess of black soldiers.
Designated the African Brigade (or African Descent), the 9th and 11th Louisiana Infantry and the First Mississippi Infantry (African Descent) were forced into battle on June 7, 1863, by the incursion of Confederate forces who outnumbered them two-to-one.
These 1300 troops, along with 160 white soldiers from the 23rd Iowa Regiment, had been posted along the perimeter of the Mississippi, while Grant and his generals crossed over first to engage the Confederates scattered in central Mississippi and then to surround the rest of Vicksburg in preparation for the 47 day Siege that won the battle and ultimately the war for the Union.
Ironically, The First Mississippi USCT unit headed by Sgt. Major Norman Fisher of Jackson, the only group of black Civil War re-enactors connected to the Vicksburg campaign, is left out of nearly all events staged by the National Park Service or other local sponsors.
"Nobody's notified me about going there and saying anything," Fisher said in exasperation Monday evening. Having met with Park officials in mid-August about Saturday's groundbreaking, Fisher said he felt that park superintendent Bill Nichols and park historian Terry Winschel deliberately misled him regarding park responsibility for recognizing the black contribution to the Civil War.
"They told me that the State of Mississippi was responsible for placing any monuments in the battlefield," Fisher said. "I don't like the idea of a state telling the federal government what to do in our national parks.
"I also suggested that instead of placing the proposed monument along the obscure location on Grant's Avenue they should put it near the 7000 gravesites of the black troops buried in the cemetery. They said it would not be possible to place any statuary there. They also turned down my idea to rename the boulevard for the USCT soldiers."
Fisher complains about the outdated film still being shown to all visitors to the park. "That film was made during the time of segregation in Mississippi and it doesn't represent black people at all. There's no mention of any of our fighting men. They say they don't have funds to make a new film."
One of the most influential web sites devoted to the black Civil War experience is Bennie McRae's Lest We Forget vast data bank. McRae's set of documents is one of the best collections of black history to ever come along. The site manager is also disturbed by the chicanery surrounding the inclusion of black troops as a part of the National Park's standard program.
"As for the Vicksburg Campaign," McRae says, "all the troops should be acknowledged for their important roles. This includes those at Milliken's Bend, Lake Providence, Mound Plantation and at Port Hudson. Black sailors who were involved in the blockade should also be brought into the picture.
There's more than sufficient documentation and official records confirming the role of the black fighting men at Vicksburg. The USCT cavalry that was organized at Vicksburg after the Siege was one of the most effective units to serve in the Civil War. It makes no sense to bar these brave troops from admission to the National Park dedicated to Union fighting men. "There's tons of information on Vicksburg ranging from before, during and after the Siege. The National Park historians know this. But for some reason, they act as if it doesn't exist."
Fisher suggests that Park historian Winschel, though an employee of the Union -- the Federal Government -- is really a Confederate loyalist deep within his heart.
"I went to see him perform a monologue in Vicksburg a couple of times," Fisher says. "He was all decked out in a Confederate uniform and he really poured his soul out about how bad the South had been treated. He actually had tears coming from his eyes.
"Instead of this kind of performance to satisfy the local pro-Confederates, the Park service needs to acknowledge that the black troops of the USCT exist and to fairly represent their role in the Civil War at Vicksburg and in other battles. They should change the name of the street where the USCT troops are buried. Change the brochures to show where African Americans fought. And they should sell more items related to Civil War African Americans in their visitors' gift shop."
Danger may lurk in defiance of the Grey curtain that has been drawn over Vicksburg National Park activities, however. Former Park Superintendent Paul McCrary was hounded out of Vicksburg and into early retirement in 1985 when he put the interests of the nation's parks above the pedestrian interests of local Old-South Confederate sympathizers.
McCrary had served only one year before announcing his retirement after a running battle with "supposed historian" Gordon Cotton, curator of the Old Court House Museum and the editors of the Vicksburg Evening Post, the century-old daily newspaper, whose loyalties vary with the dominant white interests of the day. McCrary fenced in the Park and was reluctant to allow an annual "Run Through History" foot race to take place there.
"Men from more than 26 states shed their blood so that a Union could be preserved," McCrary wrote the local newspaper only days before his retirement. "These men, on the whole, suffered infinitely more than the citizens of Vicksburg.
"Some citizens of Vicksburg, as well as a supposed professional historian, Mr. Gordon Cotton, who profess such undying "love" for the park, are more concerned about the appearance of a rail fence than supporting my efforts to preserve these national treasures." In parting shot towards the editor, McCrary wrote, "If your "love" and caring for the park mean what you and a few citizens in Vicksburg have expressed, then I can only pity you, for your values are such that you are willing to prostitute the park's integrity for your own personal pleasure and personal gain."
And the Vicksburg National Military Park remains the captive of local forces as much today as it did in McCrary's day.