Towards the end of the American Civil War, an African-American officer from the 29th Regiment of the United States Colored Troop named Sergeant Major William McCeslin was asked by a Washington war correspondent if he thought the image of black Americans would be improved with the winning of the Civil War, possibly to the point that the Federal government would offer African-Americans full rights and citizenship. McCeslin’s answer to this questions was blunt and to the point. “We, the colored soldiers, have fairly won our rights by loyalty and bravery [on the battlefield],” McCeslin said, “[how] shall we obtain [our rights permanently]? If we are refused now, we shall demand them [in the future].”
It seems odd to think of the American Civil War without the iconic stories or images of Frederick Douglas rally his countrymen to war, President Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, or the attack of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry on Fort Wagner in Charleston harbor. Sadly, many of the brave African-American soldiers who risked their lives during the War Between the States have not been fully recognized by the Commonwealth or the nation for their contributions to the war effort, contributions given at great risk to their own lives and personal freedoms. All that, thankfully, will change with the coming 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War and a renewed push from local and state governments to recognize the contributions of African-Americans troops.
In a proclamation issued earlier this month, Governor Ed Rendell kicked off an initiative entitled “The Grand Review”, a reference to the fact that of the over ten thousand African-Americans who served the Union cause (about 10% of the total Union forces in the field), none of them were allowed to march in the Grand Review of the Union Armies celebration in Washington DC in April of 1865, shortly after the final surrender of the Confederacy. The initiative will celebrate these forgotten veterans now through 2013 over the course of a variety of interactive public programs like special historical exhibits, parades, ceremonies, and grassroots conservation efforts. “The events in Harrisburg and throughout Pennsylvania will help us to bring these soldiers out from history’s shadows and honor their willingness to dedicate the last full measure of devotion on a journey that led from civil war to civil rights,” stated Governor Rendell.
To see more on the Commonwealth’s “Grand Review” programs, click here
To see more stories and sites of African-American / Civil War activity, click here
Pennsylvania has a unique interest and history in this story. Besides producting hundreds of young black men who willingly risked their lives and freedom to fight for the Union cause, the city of Harrisburg in November of 1865 hosted their own “Grand Review” for the returning African-American soldiers. The event was hosted by he Garnet Equal Rights League of Harrisburg and included “a complimentary reception, a free dinner, and an oration welcome.” A true grassroots effort among the African-American community helped to make the event a success, passing information along by word of mouth (since publications in local medias were largely ignored by mainstream white society) and with the help of special half-price trickets for many of the major local railraod, which allowed by returning soldiers and citizens to attend the rally in the capital city (To read more on the original Pennsylvania “Grand Review” for African-American soldiers from Penn Live.com, click here)
Of the many programs that are going to be offered through the 2010 version of the “The Grand Review” initiative is an effort to preserve the final resting place of many of the 54th Massachusetts legendary soldiers, who were so beautifully portrayed by Denzel Washington and Morgan Freemen in the 1989 movie Glory. Many of the Fifty-Fourth’s early recruits came from the Lancaster city of Columbia, which has a long history of anti-slavery activity. Prominent local African businessmen like Stephen Smith and William Whipper, former slaves who had purchased their freedom, were prominent community members and bussinessmen who encouraged Columbia’s white to take part openly in the Underground Railroad and helped to mobilize Columbia’s black for the conflict during the American Civil War. Many of the men killed in the Fifty-Fourth’s desperate charge against Fort Wagner in July of 1863 and those who survived the war to die of old age are buried in Columbia’s Mount Bethel and Mount Zion Cemeteries – mainly because no other cemeteries in the city of Columbia would allow African-Americans veterans to be buried alongside their Caucasian comrades. Instaed they rested alongside poor former slaves, unknown runaways, and outcasted African brethern.
Sadly, time and neglect has caused a number of the graves (especially at the Mount Zion Cemetery) to be overrun by undergrowth. Many of the graves have sunk into rounded ditches, marked only by broken stone or white wooden crosses placed by PennDOT workers who “re-discovered” the cemetery while doing construction to expand the nearby Route 30 bypass. “There is an immediate need to cleanup…[this site],” says park ranger Jeff Groff, noting not only the windy and erratic summer weather in Lancaster County, but also the pure neglect of the cemetery itself. A local project known as “The Hallowed Ground Project” is underway to get local groups together to try and provide new upkeep for the Mount Zion Cemetery and petition the state for grant money to use ground-penetrating radar to locate all of the lost graves.
To see more on the “Hollowed Ground Project”, click here
While there is still much work left to be done to help save the physical remains of many of these African-American soldiers, their legacy remains as strong as ever. Many historians have concluded that without the help of African-American servicemen, the Civil War would have continued on for many more months if not years, costing more American lives in the process. African-Americans proved themselves, as Sergeant Major William McCeslin said, to be steadfastly loyal and devoted to cause of the Union war effort even though they could not reap the full benefits of that cause’s victory. This year, as we approach the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, take some time to read about, volunteer for, or visit one of the amazing productions within the Commonwealth’s “Grand Review” program. The stories will serve to educate and inspire you, while finally giving recognition and thanks to a segment of American history long forgotten behind race, bigotry, and lack of understanding.
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