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.