Witnessing history Read on: Students are immersed in the Civil War heroics and struggles of a black soldier from Baltimore -- an attempt to whet their appetite for books.

March 04, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

Mike Brown, a Maryland park ranger, marched into a West Baltimore elementary school wearing the dress blues of a Union Civil War soldier, with a sword at his hip and a .58-caliber Enfield rifle in one hand.

By the time he finished giving a first-person account of the war as experienced by a black Civil War hero from Baltimore, Sgt. Maj. Christian A. Fleetwood, about 70 fifth-graders had touched his woolen uniform and explored the cruelties of slavery and combat.

Mr. Brown, 41, a ranger at Point Lookout State Park in St. Mary's County, has traveled the state for six years giving "living history" presentations about the role of African-Americans in the Civil War. He speaks to school and youth groups about 25 times a year.

"Reading is my big thing," said Mr. Brown, who has become an amateur historian since he started portraying Christian Fleetwood. "If I can somehow get kids stimulated to read, I will have succeeded. Pride comes from heritage. I try to make them aware that, more than just [playing] basketball and football, we've been an integral part of America."

Son of free blacks

Christian Fleetwood was among the first black soldiers to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration. Yet his story is not widely known, even in Baltimore.

Born in 1840, Fleetwood was the son of free blacks who worked for a wealthy Baltimore sugar merchant, John C. Brune. Young Christian was educated and, at 16, was sent to Liberia and Sierra Leone as a bookkeeper for the Brune trading company.

After returning from Africa, Fleetwood was valedictorian of his class at Ashmun Institute (now Lincoln University) in Pennsylvania and became a Baltimore shipping clerk.

In 1863, with Union losses mounting and the Army desperate for fresh troops, it began accepting black enlistments. The 23-year-old Fleetwood became a sergeant in Baltimore's 4th "U.S. Colored Troops." About 180,000 black soldiers, including nearly 9,000 from Maryland, eventually fought for the Union cause and took part in 39 major battles.

Fleetwood won the Medal of Honor for gallantry at the 1864 battle of Chaffin's Farm near Richmond, Va., where scores of black soldiers died trying to break through Confederate defenses. After two black flag-bearers were killed, Fleetwood carried the regimental colors through the rest of the battle. He emerged with a bullet hole in his trousers, his hair singed, the hearing in his left ear gone -- but no wounds.

Highest rank possible

Black soldiers such as Fleetwood served under white officers. As a sergeant major, Fleetwood held the highest noncommissioned rank allowed him. In 1864, the officers of the 4th recommended to the secretary of war that Fleetwood be commissioned an officer. But it never happened.

Dressed as Fleetwood, Mr. Brown last week showed the Matthew A. Henson Elementary School students his sergeant's stripes, brass epaulets, square-toed shoes that fit on either foot and, of course, the accurate Enfield rifle that caused so much carnage 135 years ago. And then he spoke as Christian Fleetwood.

"I did not hesitate to join the Army. I was willing to die to stop this institution that would allow one human being to own another human being like property -- I'm talking about slavery," he said.

"We wanted to prove we were men and that we could fight just as good as white soldiers. They were paid $13 a month; we were paid $7. We could never become officers."

The fifth-graders, fidgety at first, began to ask questions: "If your life was replayed, would you choose to fight in the war again?" Yes. "Was anybody free except for you?" There were many free blacks, and after the Civil War all blacks were free.

"How often did you fill your gun with powder?" Every shot. "Did you get hurt?" Only scrapes, but Fleetwood was often sick.

Oba-Cinque Mitchiner wondered whether he would be a slave if the Union had lost.

"I think after fighting in the war, [blacks] wouldn't have put up with slavery anymore after having a taste of being free," Mr. Brown said.

Emmanuel Smith asked what happened to black soldiers who were taken prisoner.

Confederates often killed them, Mr. Brown said. "They could not believe a black man would take up a gun against white men," he said.

"Were you thinking about your family during the war?" Jamia Roy asked.

Often, Mr. Brown said. Fleetwood knew his chances of dying were great; he wrote home frequently.

Marlon White asked maybe the toughest question, after finding out that Mr. Brown and his teacher, Richard Boynton, studied together at Bowie State University.

"On the SATs, what kind of score did you have?" the fifth-grader asked.

Mr. Brown ducked that one.

Some students who stayed on to chat with Mr. Brown were asked whether, for all the suffering it caused, the Civil War was worth fighting. Without hesitation, they said it was.

"If the North didn't fight the South," Marlon White said, "we might still have slavery."

"It's worth it because now black people can go places," Oba-Cinque said.

Emmanuel added: "It stopped slavery, but it didn't stop racism."

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