Righting a historic wrong Soldiers: Black Civil War troops were barred from a victory march 131 years ago. Yesterday, they won their tribute.

September 09, 1996|By Robert Gee | Robert Gee,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

WASHINGTON -- Charles Jones, a 16-year-old from Glen Burnie, has been working at McDonald's to help pay for his new tasseled navy blue Civil War uniform. Yesterday, he proudly wore it for the first time as he strode down Pennsylvania Avenue with 300 other black men clad in Union colors.

Carrying the weight of history, the soldiers were paying tribute, posthumously, to the 179,000 black volunteers known as the U.S. Colored Troops.

The "re-enactors," assembled by Civil War regiment and trailed by veterans' groups and high school bands, followed the route of Union soldiers who marched in a victory parade 131 years ago. In a humiliating indignity that yesterday's event sought to correct, black Civil War vets were excluded from the 1865 march.

Charles, among marchers from across the nation, said he had come to help "fill in some of the gaps" of U.S. history.

"I'm hoping that people here that are observing the parade, both black and white, understand what this really means -- that blacks participated in the Civil War," he said, peering from beneath the black brim of his oversized Union felt cap.

In fact, blacks did more than participate. By the end of the war, they accounted for fully 10 percent of the Union army.

"Black soldiers critically filled a void in the Union army" as troop numbers became depleted and public morale ebbed in 1863 and '64, said Walter B. Hill, chief historian in the Civil War Conservation Corps of the National Archives. The group is compiling service records and personal correspondence -- sometimes up to 20 letters -- of each black Civil War soldier. Soon, descendants and others will be able to follow a chronology of a soldier's wartime service on microfilm.

Yesterday's march down an eight-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, just east of the White House, kicked off a five-day celebration to honor the contributions of blacks -- runaway slaves from the South and free men from the North -- to the Union war effort. Ceremonies are planned at the Capitol and Arlington National Cemetery and a concert will be held at the Lincoln Theatre.

The celebration culminates Thursday with dedication of a monument to black Civil War veterans.

The yet-to-be-completed memorial will feature four black Civil War soldiers standing against a semicircular wall on which the names of all 186,000 black Civil War troops and their white officers will be inscribed. Descendants of 500 of those veterans are expected at the dedication in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington.

In the 45-minute parade yesterday, Charles Jones, a student at Mount St. Joseph High, played the role of escort to the Ladies Aid Society. That group of about 20 African-American women, dressed in Civil War-period clothes, represented those women -- often wives of soldiers -- who supported the black troops.

Maxine Brown of Gaithersburg, wearing a scarlet hoop skirt and white blouse, her hair tied in a bun, walked with Charles and the other women.

"A lot of children do not know this story, and now it's finally being told," she said. "This is a really important day."

Jane "Budge" Weidman, project manager of the National Archives research group, noted that Maryland played a vital part in the flow of African-Americans into the Union ranks in the second half of the war. Many Maryland slave owners, unsympathetic to the Confederate cause, accepted an offer by the federal government in 1863 of up to $300 for the release of their slaves to become Union troops. All told, 8,718 blacks from Maryland fought in the war.

The hot late-morning sun yesterday scorched the marchers, clad in wool trousers and topcoats, but could not stifle the enthusiasm of hundreds of onlookers. Blacks and whites lining the parade route smiled and cheered as the procession filed past a reviewing stand on Freedom Plaza, where a gospel singer sang Civil War-period spirituals and Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. urged the crowd "not to forget about this day" and its symbolic righting of a historic wrong.

Barry was flanked by Kevin Douglass Greene, a great-great-grandson of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and a great-grandson of Charles Douglass, a volunteer in the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, which was immortalized by the 1989 movie "Glory."

Frank Smith Jr., a member of the District of Columbia City Council and chairman of the foundation that is sponsoring this week's events, called the U.S. Colored Troops the "first freedom fighters. We were the second wave."

Casting light on this chapter of U.S. heritage, until recently a footnote in history textbooks, has, Smith suggested, inspired countless blacks to trace their family lineage to the Civil War.

One such woman, Rose Calbert Findley, proudly looked on as her father, 74-year-old Rev. William E. Calbert, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, strode past wearing a replica of the uniform his great-grandfather wore.

"I didn't realize [until recently] that I had an ancestor who fought in the Civil War," she said, "and I didn't know so many [black] people have" ancestors who served as well.

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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