Yesterday Emmanuel Dabney posted his thoughts about the future of Civil War history, leaving readers with a set of questions about the focus of interpretation:
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?
His questions are direct, and right on target, in my opinion.
Back at the first of January, I had the privilege of speaking along side some of the other Loudoun County historians regarding the Emancipation Proclamation. My assigned task was to relate the military aspects of the proclamation. As you probably gather from my writings, I tend to focus on how things are applied, in the practical sense. So discussed the proclamation as an executive order – how it was applied by the military, and that emancipation was thence tied to success on the battlefield. But I also put emphasis on the oft forgotten section of the proclamation which authorized the USCT. The contribution of the USCT in the war was nothing short of crucial. In the end, their weight tipped the scales in the favor of the men in blue.
Emancipation depended the military… yet at the same time, the military depended on emancipation. The two were welded into a composite instrument by way of the proclamation.
One of the other speakers at the event was Kevin Grigsby, another of our Loudoun historians. Kevin has identified about 250 black men from Loudoun who served in the USCT. They fought on battlefields in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and of course Virginia. You’d think with such widespread service, their stories would be well known and shared. In a recent article run in the Washington Post, Kevin offered his take on why this is not the case:
“I don’t want to say they lived an anonymous life,” he said. “But they just kind of settled back in. There weren’t parades or statues or monuments; they came back as victors.”
“I can’t even imagine what it was like for an African American . . . to have had that moment,” Grigsby said. “In some cases, you went from a slave to a liberator . . . to a protector and then, within so many years, you begin to see that freedom slowly peeled back and you have the rise of Jim Crow.”
“So it’s no wonder that it took all these years later to kind of start discovering, wow, we had a lot of Civil War vets who were African American here,” he added. “You have to remember you are in Virginia, and that story kind of got overlooked.”
That is, to me at least, a good explanation as to why the USCT story was, for lack of a better word, buried. And that us back to Emmanuel’s set of questions.
I’ve mentioned here a time or two, a hallmark of the sesquicentennial, as compared to the centennial, is the diversity of stories… or shall I say broader spectrum of colors. It may be in Cleveland or here in Loudoun, but there is a strong current pushing us to a place with a more complete understanding of the war. We have every opportunity to bring these overlooked and overshadowed stories to the fore.
While no major actions in Loudoun involved USCT, those veterans lay in the county’s cemeteries.
That is where, in my opinion, we in Loudoun might tell the story of the USCT. The way I see it, the cost of a historical marker is a comparatively small investment considering the return. Particularly in order to speak to a portion of our collective history that deserves to be told in rich, bold colors.