A civilian admires the medals worn by Corp. Albert El while Sgt.… (The Baltimore Sun, Provided…)
On a cold November day in 1865, hundreds of United States Colored Troops who had served during the Civil War marched proudly in uniform through the streets of Harrisburg, Pa.
The procession formed downtown near the state Capitol, winding its way to the mansion of a local abolitionist. There, the war heroes were praised for their service to the nation.
The Pennsylvania Grand Review, the only event of its kind, attracted black soldiers from more than two dozen states, including Maryland, to celebrate the end of the Civil War.
Next weekend, tourism officials hope to draw descendants of the troops, history buffs and travelers to a four-day celebration in Harrisburg. The event is the culmination of a year's worth of projects and helps kick off events marking the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
Although the Grand Review was a seminal moment in American history, it has been largely forgotten over time. Harrisburg residents organized the parade to honor the 180,000 African-Americans who fought in the bitter conflict. Black troops had been excluded from the Grand Review of the Armies, a gala military procession held in Washington after the war.
"Most Americans don't know about this history," said Lenwood Sloan, who leads cultural and heritage efforts for the Pennsylvania tourism office. "With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaching next year, we believed it was the right time."
The long weekend will include genealogy workshops, costumed interpreters, theatrical productions, concerts, lectures and an exhibit featuring the Civil War muster rolls of the USCT.
"The highlight will be a commemorative procession of what we call '100 Voices,' African-American men who will represent unique stories of those who served," said Sloan. "It's not a re-enactment, but we hope to capture the spirit of that original day."
The Grand Review has attracted national attention. Uniformed regiments, re-enactors and color guards from several states will march downtown, led by two grand marshals and accompanied by area bands.
The Pennsylvania Past Players, actors who portray historic figures, will walk the route, as will USCT descendants.
Organizers spread the word via Facebook, family reunions and ads. As many as 5,000 participants from across the country are expected to attend, including some from Maryland.
"About 40 family members are coming. We're so excited," said Chandra Beale, 55, of Baltimore, a descendant of soldier John Aquilla Wilson. "Not many people can say that they actually know of an ancestor who fought in the Civil War."
Wilson, who was Beale's paternal great-grandfather, was only 15 when he left his home in Gatchellville, Pa. (just over the Maryland border), to enlist in the Army.
As is the case of many who served in the USCT, his story is not fully known. Fortunately, Wilson's family — he and his wife had 17 children — does have his honorable discharge document, uniform and some photographs taken later in life.
Historians say the soldier was one of the oldest surviving Civil War veterans when he died in 1942 at age 101. He's interred at Fawn Grove Cemetery in York County, Pa., along with 29 other members of the USCT.
Darlene Colon of Lancaster, Pa., will journey to Harrisburg, along with a dozen relatives. Colon, whose family tree includes branches in Maryland, relied upon oral history and genealogical records to identify nine ancestors who were USCT veterans.
"There's such a sense of pride having this connection to history," said Colon, whose great-great-grandfather, Abraham Quamony, enlisted in February 1865 in Philadelphia, most likely at Camp William Penn. He became a corporal and saw service in Virginia, Maryland and Washington.
Colon's great-great-uncle, John Thompson, joined the cause in June 1863 and became a member of the 3rd USCT, Company B.
Such stories are just a sampling. The White Carnation League — an alliance of USCT soldiers' descendants, scholars and supporters — worked with leading genealogists to help families across the country conduct research and chart their histories.
While many hail from Pennsylvania, the league has also connected with hundreds of USCT descendants traveling from as far away as California, Nevada, Wisconsin and Missouri to join the festivities.
Jeannette L. Molson, 73, a resident of Woodland, Calif., is among them. She has discovered 14 relatives who were UCST veterans.
"I've spent more than 30 years doing research on my own and working with a genealogist," says Molson, whose great-great-grandfather, Samuel D. Molson, was on the original 1865 Pennsylvania Grand Review organizing committee. "It's an honor to be part of this, to see how strongly my relatives felt about their country and freedom."
Beale of Baltimore agrees. Her family boasts six generations of African-American veterans dating from the Civil War to the present. Her son is now serving in the Navy.