Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900, Part V

Editor's note: In part five of his look at the history and preservation of America's Civil War battlefields, as captured in Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900, historian Richard West Sellars looks at the Africa American role in recalling the Civil War. (You can purchase the entire article, complete with footnotes and photographs, from Eastern National).

Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900

By Richard West Sellars

Part V: The African American Role

In marked contrast to the involvement of Confederate veterans, African American participation in Civil War battlefield commemoration was minimal in virtually all cases. Prior to President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863, some blacks served as soldiers (and sailors) for the North. But most blacks were strictly limited to their enforced roles as servants and laborers—their status being either as freedmen or contraband for the Union army, or as slaves for the Confederacy.

However, the Northern success at Antietam in September 1862 spurred Lincoln to issue the Proclamation; and, beginning in 1863, blacks became increasingly active as soldiers in the Union army. It is estimated that nearly 180,000 blacks joined the United States Army before the end of the war, more than half of them recruited from the Confederate states. They served mainly in infantry, cavalry, and heavy and light artillery units.

Yet African American soldiers did not fight on any of the battlefields destined to become the earliest military parks. Blacks were mustered in too late to see combat at Shiloh and Antietam in 1862, before the Proclamation. And they did not fight in the siege of the city of Vicksburg, or at Gettysburg, Chickamauga, or Chattanooga—each of which occurred in 1863. Their principal involvement was in the broader Vicksburg campaign, where they fought with distinction at the battles of Milliken’s Bend and Port Hudson.

The Vicksburg campaign thus provided the most likely possibility for any significant African American involvement in postwar commemorative activity at the early military parks. Black veterans did, indeed, take a very active part in Vicksburg’s 1890 reunion, even in organizing it. It was, however, a rigorously segregated event, as were most reunions held at other battlefields, including Gettysburg. There, blacks marched in segregated parades, dined separately, and worked mainly as laborers and servants—this time not in support of soldiers at war, as in the past, but of white reunion participants.

Due to widespread racism in the South and North, African Americans would, through the decades, face discrimination in all types of Civil War battlefield commemoration.

Next week: Creating the First Military Parks