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History's Faded Trail

"I think this is worth a look," Freis says. It seems an understatement somehow.

'This Was Their War'

The story Freis and Gordon want to tell is one that has been largely overlooked for 140 years -- by whites as well as blacks, but for different reasons.


Asa Gordon, left, and Robert Freis at what was Gen. U.S. Grant's headquarters near Hopewell, Va., a site they'd like to include on a "Fight for Freedom" tour. (Wayne Scarberry For The Washington Post)

Among whites, popular interest in the Civil War has been booming for many years. Some trace this upsurge to the elaborate centennial celebrations of the 1960s, others to Ken Burns's 1990 PBS epic miniseries. Whatever its cause, the fascination has largely centered on the major battlefield action, much of which occurred before black troops began to play a part. What's more, for most of the millions of visitors drawn to such iconic sites as Gettysburg, Manassas and Antietam, the war's rich narrative of strategy, tactics, valor and sacrifice has overshadowed its racial underpinnings.

Yet to most African Americans, as Gordon and Freis point out, the Civil War appears radically different and much simpler. One side was defending slavery and one wasn't. As for all that blue-gray battlefield drama, well -- that's white people's territory.

"They say, 'I don't want to hear that, that's their story,' " Gordon says. "I say, 'No, let's expand it, we've got to tell the story.' "

A 64-year-old native of Savannah, Ga., with an activist's intensity tempered by an infectious laugh, Gordon came north to attend Hampton Institute because blacks weren't welcome at major state-run Georgia colleges in those days. He marched against segregation, studied physics and wound up with a job at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Astrodynamics paid the bills, but history became an avocation. One day, while researching Underground Railroad organizer Harriet Tubman, he stumbled across the name of a friend's ancestor who'd fought with the United States Colored Troops.

Before long he was hooked. The bookshelves in the study of his brick home in the Brookland section of Northeast Washington now overflow with Civil War books. Among them sits a selection of video clips culled from the 1989 film "Glory," about the all-black 54th Massachusetts and its furious, failed attempt to take South Carolina's Fort Wagner in 1863. Gordon credits "Glory" with bringing the history of black Civil War soldiers to a wide audience for the first time. Still, he's got problems with the Hollywood version. Chief among them is its preoccupation with the saintliness of the 54th's white commanding officer to the detriment of the black supporting cast.

In the 1990s, after taking early retirement from Goddard, Gordon got involved with the movement for an African American Civil War Memorial, now located at 10th and U streets NW. This led to the founding of an organization called the Sons and Daughters of the United States Colored Troops, which he heads. Last year, an article about him in the Richmond Times-Dispatch produced an e-mail from a fledgling for-profit outfit called Civil War Weekend: Would he like to collaborate on an African American Civil War tour?

Gordon wasn't sure. Civil War buffs, in his experience, were likely to be white guys who spent too much time talking tactical mumbo-jumbo about "the left oblique and the right oblique."

Robert Freis talked him into it.


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