Delayed tribute to black soldiers Descendants: They come to Washington to honor their family members who fought for the right to fight for the Union in the Civil War.

July 16, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After holding the documents in her hands, Margaret Tildon returned to her Washington home, closed the bathroom door and began to tremble.

After late-night sessions at her computer and exhausting hours at the National Archives, she had found what she was searching for: a yellowed document so old she didn't want to touch it. It revealed that Ephraim M. Tilden, her great-grandfather and a black man, had fought in the Civil War in a Baltimore regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry.

"I got chills in my body when I first picked up those papers," says Tildon, a former teacher. "What they would always say to us in school was that soldiers were fighting to save the Union. But I know our people were fighting to get out of slavery. I could look at these papers -- they were so old and tattered -- and I knew what these soldiers were fighting for."

Tildon is one of hundreds of people who are gathering in Washington to mark the unveiling on Saturday of a memorial for more than 208,900 African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Clutching old company muster rolls and other frayed documents, these descendants met at a symposium yesterday to share their stories.

The Greene sisters from Harrington Park, N.J., handed out photocopied enlistment papers marked with an "X" scribbled by their ancestor Daniel Scott, who could not read or write. C.E. "Sonny" Scroggins donned a Union soldier's wool uniform to honor his great-great-great uncle Alfred Guest, who as a member of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry was part of the first regiment of black soldiers sent into the war. Joe Certaine, Philadelphia's city manager, carried a cell phone and sported a full cavalry uniform while telling the story of a mutiny that involved his forebear Robert Certaine over the pay disparity between black and white Civil War troops. (By 1864, the military had instituted equal pay for all soldiers.)

"We are the only people in this country who had to fight to be able to fight," said Certaine, whose great-uncle was sentenced to hanging for the mutiny but was later spared and shorn of his sergeant's rank. "This honor is long overdue -- 133 years, in fact."

Among the other activities: Tomorrow, the African-American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation will sponsor a symposium on abolitionism led by John Hope Franklin, chairman of the Presidential Commission on Race, and will hold a march by descendants on Saturday.

Troubled by the absence of any memorial in Washington to black Civil War soldiers, D.C. council member Frank Smith proposed the idea in 1991. The memorial will include an 11-foot-tall bronze sculpture, the Spirit of Freedom, as well as low granite walls that list 208,943 names of black soldiers.

Shaw neighborhood

Smith represents the city's Shaw neighborhood -- named for Robert Gould Shaw, the white commander of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, whose doomed assault on Fort Wagner, S.C., was portrayed in the movie "Glory." The memorial will be placed in that neighborhood and will be unveiled on the 135th anniversary of that self-sacrificing attack.

"I thought it was time to [build] some of our major monuments off the Mall and show people the greater expanse of our nation's capital," Smith said of Shaw, an area once devastated by inner-city riots. Smith also said the memorial is the first major national monument to be created by a black artist -- sculptor Ed Hamilton.

After so many years of waiting, the memorial project has been plagued by delays, to the frustration of many descendants. The latest is the most embarrassing: Despite the unveiling planned for this weekend, the walls bearing the soldiers' names won't be ready until fall.

"That's what we came here to see," said June Greene, who brought three generations of her family to a memorial symposium yesterday. "It was going to be like the Vietnam Memorial -- the first thing I was going to do was check to make sure his name was on there."

Memorial board members say they simply found more names on never-before-counted military index cards. "Nobody ever bothered to count these names before," Smith said. The names were researched by the National Archives, the National Park Service and the Mormon Church.

The memorial will also list the names of 7,000 white officers who led the black regiments. Yesterday, Jacqueline Janney Stroud remembered her ancestor George Janney, a first lieutenant from Ohio and a Quaker who was expelled from the pacifist order for entering the war.

Until Stroud's father began researching their lineage, her family talked little of its heritage -- a sore point since her grandmother was the daughter of slave owners in Missouri and her husband was the son of abolitionists.

"Now I feel so much more connected to my history," said Stroud, who flew in from Topeka, Kansas, with her husband, both of whom are Civil War re-enactors. "I think about George Janney, and I'm quite proud of him."

Soldiers' names

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