Monument being cast in Hampden and bound for D.C. is the first to honor the 200,000 black men who fought in the United States Army for their own liberty during the Civil War

FREEDOM'S FOOT SOLDIERS A

July 02, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

On some days, with the sunlight streaming through his artist's studio, Ed Hamilton says he would stop his work on the nation's memorial to the Civil War's black soldiers, step back and wonder: "What if these guys could talk? What would they say?"

There were no black soldiers in the U.S. Army when the Civil War began. By the war's end, nearly 200,000 black men, the majority of them escaped slaves, had fought in the U.S. Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.)

They and their 7,000 white officers campaigned in Florida and South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Three regiments helped chase Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia to its surrender at Appomattox Court House.

Yet, none of the 166 black units were allowed to march in the grand, two-day victory parade of Union armies that took place along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. The Sun noted their absence in passing. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote at some length about the black soldiers and said: "They can afford to wait. Their time will yet come."

Hamilton's "Spirit of Freedom," being cast in a Hampden foundry, tells a story of those soldiers and why they went to war. The sculpture, the first national memorial to the Civil War's black soldiers, will be unveiled July 18 in Washington after three days of events, including a parade of reenactors.

"I've been struck by how many there were," says Hamilton, who lives and sculpts in Louisville, Ky. "These guys paid a heavy cost to fight for their country, and then they had to fight to get what they were due."

During the war, black soldiers fought for equal status. Initially they were paid less than whites who fought for the Union. The Confederacy did not consider the soldiers and their officers worthy of prisoner-of-war status. At Fort Pillow, Tenn., men of the U.S.C.T. were massacred after their surrender.

The idea of building a national monument to these Union soldiers began seven years ago with District of Columbia Councilman Frank Smith Jr. He knew there were monuments in Boston to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, whose story was told in the movie "Glory." Markers in Petersburg, Va., and Olustee, Fla., noted the contribution of black soldiers. But nowhere was there a monument that spoke for all the soldiers -- men like Cpl. G.H. Jones, First Sgt. Lewis Miner and bugler Henry Upsher, whose bodies lie in Loudon National Cemetery in Baltimore.

In 1992, Smith and others formed a nonprofit group, the African-American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation. Later

that year, Smith asked Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton for her help in getting a bill through Congress to establish a memorial. President Bush eventually signed the bill into law.

Around that same time, Hamilton saw a Jet magazine article about the project. He contacted the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, then submitted his own proposal. In all, 90 artists participated in the nationwide competition.

A year later, the committee selected Hamilton, whose earlier work includes the Amistad memorial in New Haven, Conn., and a likeness of Joe Louis at Cobb Arena in Detroit.

"I knew as little about the Civil War at that juncture as I've ever known," says Hamilton, who now has a binder bulging with information about the soldiers. "My history learning comes from the project that I'm involved in."

For "Spirit of Freedom," he had to strike a balance between the usual themes of war memorials and the particular history of the black Civil War soldier. He didn't want the typical eagle and symbols of valor. He says he wanted a design that would show "what the soldiers were fighting for -- family and freedom."

"I started to do a column of soldiers, but I realized Washington is full of columns," he says, his voice a warm, Kentucky drawl.

Adding a family to the sculpture gave the work a different dimension: Now, someone viewing the statue would know it was about more than men and war. It was also about fighting to free those left behind. He even wrote a letter, imagining it as one a soldier might have sent home. It reads, in part: "I know not whether I will return, but what I do know is that if I don't go, there will be no freedom for the Negro."

A midspring afternoon and Hamilton is in Baltimore to check on the work being done by New Arts Foundry, which won the contract to do the bronze casting of "Spirit of Freedom." The shop on Clipper Heights Avenue is full of activity. Artisans prepare clay molds in one room; in another, bronze is fired in a kiln at 1,500 to 1,800 degrees; in yet another, finished works are prepared for delivery.

Hamilton, 51, enters the room where the wax molds are made. He sees two of his soldiers. They are full-size, headless and hold the butt end of rifles. Their heads, bearing the faces of young men, are nearby.

"There are my boys," he says, holding one of the heads. "Looking good. Looking good."

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