This article was first published Nov. 23, 2004.
HAMPTON, Va. — It’s not something you see every day on a Civil War tour: Two guys with deep southern roots, one black, one white, gazing side by side into their shared, violent past.
Then again, this isn’t actually a Civil War tour — yet. Asa Gordon and Robert Freis are just starting to put one together. They’re looking to tell the underreported tale of the African American soldiers who fought and died in Virginia a couple of lifetimes ago. Right now, on the first day of a two-day scouting trip, they’re standing beside the thick stone walls of old Fort Monroe, looking for a place to begin.
What Gen. Benjamin Butler did here in May 1861 seems to fit the bill.
Early in the war, as the introductory video at the Fort Monroe museum explains, the old fort — which remained in Union hands throughout the conflict — “provided the setting for a seemingly trivial incident which was to have great consequences.” Three runaway slaves sought sanctuary there. Their owner, Col. Charles Mallory of Hampton, sent a message to Butler, the Union commander, demanding their return under the Fugitive Slave Law.
Forget it, Butler said.
Hadn’t Virginia seceded from the Union the month before? Didn’t that mean that U.S. laws no longer applied? In wartime, enemy property is fair game, and since the South treated slaves as property, they could be confiscated as “contraband of war.” Of course, if the colonel would just swear allegiance to the United States — well, that would be a different story, wouldn’t it?
“Butler put him in a position of damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” says Gordon with a grin.
There was more to it than that, though.
When local blacks heard of Butler’s contraband decision, large numbers of them began to materialize at what they called “the Freedom Fort.” Many were put to work, with pay, as badly needed laborers. Some eventually ended up in military service. As the war went on, slaves throughout the South would seek freedom within the Union lines. Eventually, as the museum video explains matter-of-factly, this “led to the enlistment of over 200,000 blacks in the Union army and navy.”
“I think this is worth a look,” Freis says. It seems an understatement somehow.
* * *
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.
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.
Freis is a compactly built, 49-year-old Shenandoah Valley native who has been walking Civil War battlefields for more than half his life. As a 23-year-old reporter in Culpeper, Va., he befriended a military historian named Jay Luvaas, who believed that tramping through the historic landscape and stopping to read the words of men who fought there brought the war home in ways no classroom presentation could.
For the last decade and a half, Freis and a succession of fellow enthusiasts have led annual weekend tours for their friends and friends of friends. Four years ago, he decided to turn pro. He has no thoughts of quitting his day job designing and editing magazines for a publishing company in Roanoke, but hopes the battlefield business can perhaps evolve into “a lucrative hobby.”
Lucrative or not, he loves it. What he doesn’t love are the assumptions about him that people sometimes make.
“I feel defensive about being interested in the Civil War,” he says. “I don’t want to be perceived as a racist.” African Americans especially, he says, tend to see Civil War history as “the exclusive domain of the people who enforced the system of apartheid.”
Which isn’t right. “This was their war if it was anybody’s,” Freis says. “It’s about them.”
This is why he and Gordon have hit the road, looking for stories to tell and the places to tell them. Just now they’re cruising east on the John Tyler Memorial Highway (better known as Route 5) through the lush green landscape north of the James River, heading for one of the likeliest storytelling sites.
The James is where the slave-based plantation system was established in North America.
By the time the war began, Virginia was less invested than the cotton-growing Gulf states in the slave economy that had fractured the Union. Yet the blueblood families who inhabited the “big houses” here -- many of them tourist destinations now, with names like Berkeley, Edgewood and Evelynton -- were the ones who first put that economy in place.
“These are the people who brought you the Civil War,” Freis says.
* * *
It was May 24, 1864. Behind the line of earthworks snaking through the woods, 1,100 Union troops — all African American except for the usual complement of white officers — faced some 2,000 dismounted Confederate cavalrymen. The rebels were led by Robert E. Lee’s nephew, Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee. They were so confident that they sent a message demanding immediate surrender, on the grounds that it would be impossible for the bluecoats to hold out.
The Union commander replied, “We’ll try it.”
The Confederates charged.
Standing here on the banks of the James on a warm day 140 years later, it’s easy to see yourself huddling behind those earthworks, rifle cradled in sweaty hands, thinking that you might have just a few more minutes to live. Then the putt-putting of Harrison Tyler’s golf cart jerks you back to the 21st century.
Tyler is the owner of this particular battlefield, which is known, confusingly, as both Fort Pocahontas and Wilson’s Wharf; he snapped it up after a would-be developer went bankrupt a few years back. A big-boned, silver-haired man in his late seventies with the relaxed manner of the not-newly rich, he wears a pair of dirty white shorts and a lavender Pebble Beach golf shirt that’s torn around the pocket. His family tree is astonishing. One maternal ancestor was Edmund Ruffin, the ardent secessionist credited with firing the shot at Fort Sumter in 1861 that kicked off the Civil War. He is also the proud descendant of Pocahontas and the grandson of President John Tyler, whose nearby plantation house, Sherwood Forest, is still in the family. (That’s right, grandson: Both President Tyler, who died in 1862, and Harrison Tyler’s father, who died in 1935, had children late in life after being widowed and remarrying.)
The president’s grandson met Asa Gordon through another Civil War preservationist. Now he’s fired up the six-seater golf cart to give Gordon and Freis a personal tour.
The battle at Fort Pocahontas was part of a Union push toward Richmond, and the fort was built, Tyler explains, “to protect this narrow part of the river. Because Benjamin Butler’s supply ships were going to be coming up, and see, the Confederates could have put a little cannon right over there and sunk every one of them.”
No problem. The black troops routed Fitzhugh Lee’s men, driving them off and inflicting substantial casualties while sustaining relatively few themselves.
Freis and Gordon love this story, and they love the fact that — thanks to the generous descendant of the famous secessionist — the battlefield is in really good shape. It should be a highlight of what the two have taken to calling the “Fight for Freedom” tour.
* * *
Two guys can’t begin to change the perceptions of the Civil War harbored by both blacks and whites if the tour never happens, though — and a few months after the scouting trip, the prospects are looking a bit iffy.
Freis and Gordon’s effort would be a unique one, they say. There are plenty of Civil War battlefield tours, but none to their knowledge evokes the overall African American experience so thoroughly. So they were disappointed when their planned launch this fall didn’t draw enough interest to make it worth going through with. They had hoped in particular that African Americans would start claiming the war as their own, but they know they have a lot of negative history to overcome. The current plan is to try again in the spring, perhaps tying in the tour with the 140th anniversary of the fall of Richmond in April.
Meanwhile, they’ve stored up plenty of tales to tell.
There’s the one about the Confederate commander at Yorktown who, when he tried to draft slaves from local plantations to build defensive fortifications in 1862, was told by their owners to buzz off. Freis tells this as a parable of slave-owner selfishness, with the plantation gentry refusing to contribute to the defense of the very system that produced their wealth.
There’s the back-and-forth over the Confederates’ use of captured black soldiers as laborers. “If you were black, you were a slave,” Freis says of the basic rebel attitude. Hearing of the practice, Gen. Butler retaliated by putting captured Confederates to work digging a channel in the James River at a place called Dutch Gap, where they sometimes came under fire by Confederate artillery.
There’s the grim saga of Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of Petersburg, during which African American troops fought valiantly and — at the Battle of the Crater, on July 30, 1864 — figured in one of the most horrific fiascos of the war.
As dramatically rendered in the film “Cold Mountain,” Union engineers tunneled under the Confederate lines and used barrels of gunpowder to blow a tremendous hole in them. What the filmmakers didn’t explain was that black troops had been trained to take advantage of the gap the explosion created. At the last minute, the Union brass substituted untrained white troops, either because they didn’t trust the blacks or because they feared political repercussions if they were perceived as having sent them to be slaughtered.
The untrained troops then botched the assault and the African Americans, who joined the fighting later, got slaughtered anyway. Some Confederates refused to grant them quarter when they tried to surrender. The biggest lesson of the Crater, Freis says, “is what a touchy political issue the presence and use of the United States Colored Troops was.”
Finally, there are the two intense fights on Sept. 29, 1864, with which Freis and Gordon are planning to end their tour.
On the morning of that day, black troops stormed New Market Heights, a few miles southeast of Richmond. With great effort and heavy losses, they drove the Confederates off the fortified high ground. Fourteen African Americans won the Medal of Honor at New Market Heights, many for assuming command when white officers fell. Gordon has been active in efforts to better preserve the battlefield.
For some of those same men, however, the day ended extremely badly.
At Fort Gilmer, another Confederate stronghold a short march away, several attacks had already failed. Four companies of African American troops — fewer than 200 in all, an absurdly small number given the strength of the defenses — were ordered to continue the assault. The 120 or so who survived the murderous fire as they charged across the open ground wound up huddled in a ditch directly in front of the fort. The wall was so high, Gordon says, that men had to put their comrades on their backs to try to hoist them over “and then, as soon as their heads would rise above the parapet, they were mowed down.”
They tried this more than once, in an exhibition of doomed heroism every bit as stunning as the larger-scale efforts of the Confederates in Pickett’s Charge or the black troops at Fort Wagner. Yet the men who fought and died are history’s stepchildren. “Nobody ever comes here,” Freis says.
If he and Gordon have their way, that will change.