National Park Service Refuses to Give Black Civil War Soldiers FullCredit
National Park Service Refuses to Give
Black Civil War Soldiers Full Credit
By Earnest McBride
Jackson Advocate Vicksburg Correspondent
Published in the September 25-October 1, 2003 edition of the Jackson Advocate, Jackson, Mississippi. Posted by permission.
Vicksburg - Widely criticized for its century-long exclusion of memorial plaques and monuments dedicated to the nation's black fighting men, the National Park Service demonstrated again last Saturday its deep-seated phobia of the 7,000 dead African American troops buried there from past wars.
The crowd gathered in the Vicksburg National Military Park at 10:30 Saturday morning was there ostensibly to attend a ground-breaking ceremony for the first monument erected in any of the nation's parks to honor the United States Colored Troops who fought so valiantly in the Civil War, most of them former slaves from Mississippi and surrounding states who were converted into ferocious fighting men. Numbering over 200,000 in all, the black Civil War troops left their indelible mark in the annals of the war, but they were systematically erased from the pages of popular history in the century of white supremacy following the Plessy versus Ferguson ruling of 1896.
Despite the lavish praises given them by host Robert Walker, the former mayor of Vicksburg and now chairman of the African American Monument Committee, Park Superintendent Bill Nichols and Park historian Terry Winschel begrudgingly labeled the black regiments as "supply guards" in the text on display rather than giving the men their full measure of respect as the fully-recognized infantry, artillery and cavalry units that they were.
"As a child," Walker said from the podium set up on the grassy knoll about 50 yards away from the Kansas Monument along Grant's Avenue deep within the recesses of the Park, "I enjoyed many hours of excitement and pleasure on these grounds. I paid little attention to these monuments or knew the importance of these grounds. I never felt a connection between the Park and me."
Walker pointed out how his own "failure to connect" stemmed from the Park Service's "failure" to recognize the heroism of black regiments such as the 1st Mississippi (African Descent), the 9th and 11th Louisiana (Corps d'Afrique) and nearly a dozen other black regiments organized before and during the 47-day Siege of Vicksburg.
Walker's committee will spearhead the installation of the eight-foot tall monument in February.
Black men fought and died in some of the most gruesome battles during that Siege period. Milliken's Bend, the victorious battle that reportedly proved that black soldiers were battle-ready, was also one of the costliest. Over half of one regiment was wiped out, another lost about a third of its men and the third fared almost as bad. But when the battle of Milliken's Bend came to a close on June 8, 1863, the Black fighting men had sealed a Union victory and reassured Grant that his--till-then-15 days of Siege could continue without fear of enemy encroachments from across the Mississippi.
Since now-retired Chief Park historian Edwin C. Bearss first set up camp in Vicksburg in 1955, the Park service there has steadfastly denied that any black fighting troops took part in the Vicksburg Campaign, the strategic set of battles lasting from April till August of 1863 that both President Abraham Lincoln and his Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant viewed as "the key" to victory over the rebellious South. Only 13 years before Bearss launched his anti-black campaign in Vicksburg, two memorial plaques for black Civil War troops existed in the Park at Grant's Circle. But both were melted down in 1942 for the metal the War Department needed for use in World War II.
In recent years, a small group of Civil War historians and some black interest groups have come to the defense of the long-dead but unrecognized black fighting men and are demanding that they be given praise and recognition equal to their white comrades.
Although, black units and individual black soldiers and sailors had participated in the Union actions from the very beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, it was only after Army Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas was given the order in April 1863 to "form as many black units as I can" that the official African Brigade, or USCT, came into being. Troops recruited for the 1st Mississippi and the 9th and 11th Louisiana regiments were pressed into war less than two months before the Siege of Vicksburg began.
Conspicuously absent from the ceremonies Saturday was Norman Fisher of Jackson, the commander of the black re-enactment group the First Mississippi Regiment of the Sons and Daughters of the United States Colored Troops. Fisher complained earlier that he had not been invited to participate, although his organization is the only one reflecting the history and lives of the black troops that fought on the Union side in central Mississippi and Louisiana.
One of the most egregious misrepresentations of the wartime activities stems from the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg, where museum curator Gordon Cotton claims that the only "black men in uniform during the Siege were on the Confederate side." The Mississippi Department of Archives and History, however, has emphatically stated it can only verify one black man who actually fought as a soldier in the Confederate Army. That was Holt Collier, the black man whose later friendship with President Teddy Roosevelt led to the creation of the Teddy Bear. No other black men fought for the South, period.
Historian Jim Woodrich attended last Saturday's ceremonies on behalf of Elbert Hilliard, director of the Department of Archives and History. "By being here today," Woodrich said, "we acknowledge the valor and honor" of the black Union troops. Their story, he said, "yearns to be known."
Representatives of the "Lest We Forget" historical group also attended. The website is the most complete collection of black Civil War documents available. Their interest in the Vicksburg developments remains as keen as that of any Union commander of the Civil War era could have been.
"Vicksburg is the key," says website manager Bennie McRae, quoting Lincoln.