Civil War commemorations renewing interest among black reenactors

July 22, 2011

Mel Reid slipped on a pair of wool pants and tucked in his striped blouse, suspenders snapped on tight. Later, he buttoned up a wool navy blue coat and attached a scabbard around his waist.

His rifle, a replica 1859 Enfield, never left his side as he stood at attention next to 11 other black men on a scruffy island in Charleston Harbor on Monday to pay tribute to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the most celebrated African American units that fought in the Civil War.

Nearly 10,000 Civil War reenactors have descended upon Manassas this weekend to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run. The vast majority will be white; no blacks are known to have participated in the epic battle fought in 1861. But across the country, hundreds of African Americans like Reid travel across the South and mid-Atlantic to reenact and commemorate battles in which black Civil War soldiers fought from 1863 to 1865.

Their mission: to let it be known that African Americans were an essential part of the Civil War and the Union’s victory.

“When I was growing up, the only thing we heard was: ‘Lincoln freed the slaves, Lincoln freed the slaves,’ ” Reid said one morning from his home in Penn-Branch section of Southeast Washington. Reid, who says only that he’s in his 60s, is an earnest history buff with an encyclopedic knowledge of the black Civil War soldier. A retired National Park Service manager, his home is filled with souvenirs and memorabilia illustrating black Civil War fighters: a lamp cast in the form of a black soldier and a poster of the 54th hanging on a wall.

“But if you look, you’ll see that most historians now say that if it wasn’t for these black soldiers, the North might not have won the war,” he added. “These guys were freedom fighters. That’s what our people should know . . . and that’s why we do this.”

The black reenactor community is much smaller than the broader Civil War reenactor movement: At its peak in the 1990s, there were no more than 1,000 black reenactors across the country, said Hari Jones, curator of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington. The United States has about 50,000 Civil War reenactors overall, according to Dana Shoaf, editor of Civil War Times.

Gaining a following

But after a period when interest waned, the black reenactor community is beginning to gain back some momentum, Jones said, stoked partly by increasing interest in the 150th anniversary celebrations and increased attention being paid to the 209,000 blacks who officially fought in the conflict.

“We’re getting close to a point where we were,” Jones said in an interview. He added there were robust reenactor communities in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. “What we’re hoping is that the 150-year celebrations will help develop more interest among African Americans and we see more people join.”

Still, the ceremony Reid participated in with 18 others was tiny compared with the elaborate festivities going on in Manassas this weekend. The 13 men, five women and single 9-year-old drummer boy commemorated the Second Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, where the 54th stormed one of the toughest Confederate redoubts. Set on Morris Island — a stone’s throw from Fort Sumter— it’s an annual event where participants gave speeches and fired off a three-round salute from their replica muskets during the 20-minute ceremony.

“Three cheers for the 54th!” one soldier called. “Hip-Hip Hurrah! Hip-Hip Hurrah! Hip-Hip Hurrah!” the rest responded as they ended the ceremony.

Joe McGill, 49, the organizer of the event, was ecstatic that he was able to get reenactors from as far as Washington and Atlanta. He said he was trying to build momentum for 2013, when he planned to organize a reenactment of the battle. “That was a great turnout.”

‘Why are we so ashamed?’

Interest among blacks in Civil War reenacting had an uptick about 20 years ago after the release of the big-budget film “Glory.” The movie, released in 1989, portrayed the 54th Regiment and the battle at Fort Wagner, and made the unit the most celebrated of the 179 black regiments that were formed in the Civil War.

Many of the movie’s extras, who donned period uniforms to play lesser characters, continued their interest by staging battles and commemorations of their own. The 1990 Civil War documentary by Ken Burns, which featured a discussion of blacks fighting in the war, also sparked reenactor interest. About 36,000 black soldiers died in the conflict.

Like many reenactors, the black men and women who perform, dress up and commemorate are avid history buffs, schoolteachers, retirees and descendents of Civil War veterans. They are often older — retired or over 50, which usually invokes some soul searching about how accurate their reenactments can actually be: Most Civil War soldiers were between 18 and 30.

And black reenactors often face the same challenges as the broader reenactment community in widening their hobby: indifference among a younger generation accustomed to video games and other media; the high cost of replica weaponry, uniforms and other accouterments that can start at $1,000; and stereotypes that all reenactors are quirky extremists, some of whom will go as far as losing weight to accurately portray their subjects.

But there is the added challenge of explaining to the black community at large what could be redeeming about portraying a period in history when many black men and women were in bondage.

“I can understand why it would be tough for African Americans” to reenact some of the larger battles of the Civil War, said Shoaf, the Civil War Times editor. “If an African American wanted to accurately reenact in the Battle of Manassas, for example, he would have to play a slave or a manservant of an officer. Pretty sure most guys wouldn’t be into that.”

But others see reenactments as opportunities to fill in the gaps of black history.

Bobbie Cole, 65, a female reenactor from Washington, helped start Female Reenactors of Distinction, a group that portrays women who went to battles to support the troops as nurses and teachers.

“When I started looking at pictures of enslaved people, there was just something about their faces,” she said. “In the media, people portrayed them more like a caricature, but if you look into their eyes, you see this intensity — not fear. It’s intriguing why the stories haven’t been taught. Why are we so ashamed?”

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