History as a Mirror

Yesterday in Culpeper County, the Freedom Foundation dedicated a new monument and several interpretive markers at Maddensville. The monument recalls the entry of the USCT into the war in Virginia and the execution of three of them by Confederates on May 8, 1864. Below are my remarks at the dedication, posted here not because they include much new about the history of the USCT, but rather because they speak to the importance of such efforts to remember. This is a post about the importance of public history rather than history itself.

Photo courtesy of Bud Hall

It’s easy to think of this simply as the dedication of a new collection of markers and memorials. It is that, of course, and proudly so. But today, I ask you to think about this effort in a different way.

It is part of an inexorable, inevitable, and indispensable process of change. It’s a change in how we see and understand our past by seeing not less of it—as has been our societal inclination—but more of it. 

In terms of public history—and especially in terms of the Civil War—what we have witnessed in our lifetime is the equivalent of taking a pair of binoculars and turning them around. Instead of magnifying the view, we have expanded it. We of course still see sites like this through the lens of the individual, vivid and human. But ever more, we see sites and stories like these through the lens of our national experience. And, when we do, we see how more of us fit into and have been affected by that experience.

The work of public history is like the work of a mirror. 

Sometimes, when we look in a mirror in the morning, we really like what we see; we go off to the day inspired and energetic. History is the same way. When we hold the nation’s mirror up to the public, they see or learn much that is beautiful, uplifting, thrilling, humbling. We can see in our past triumphant struggle, astonishing progress, places of quiet and beauty and grandeur and, like this one, courage. For those of us working in this business of history and preservation, it is a great joy to send people away inspired and excited.  We do it every day, and that’s good–essential. 

But how many times have we looked in the morning mirror, and maybe our hair is amiss, or we look tired, worried, a little worn from the previous night’s activities? And what do we do?  Well, most of us usually try to tidy up, get more sleep, relax, maybe go easy on the Tequila next time. We comb our hair, at least.

We try to fix what seems amiss in the mirror. 

History’s mirror can likewise be unflattering.  We see a past rife with injustice and inequity and pointless violence; we see a present often framed by willful ignorance about our past. We see history appropriated and misrepresented. These are difficult things. 

It’s beyond the ability of public historians to fix these things. But it is the job of public historians and the communities they work within to hold the mirror up and help people see the past clearly.  Some, inevitably, will turn away and choose not to see.  But my experience is that most people, like presumably most of you, consider carefully what they see and do their part to help fix what’s amiss—to understand how our past has shaped our present and to act. 

A look in the mirror doesn’t always make us feel better, but it invariably makes us better.  

The dedication of this monument and these exhibits expands our view of not just this community’s past, but our nation’s past, and it does it in essential ways.  

It is impossible to overstate how profound the sight must have been as men of the United States Colored Troops marched into Culpeper County on May 5, 1864. It was certainly profound to those men in uniform:  some of them had been enslaved here; probably two-thirds of them had been enslaved somewhere.  Now they fought for freedom, sensing that the freedom of others—of all—would transform the nation.  

Their presence here reflected a momentous change in this nation’s relationship with the institution of slavery. In many ways, enslaved people fleeing bondage helped forced that change. In 1862, months before the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands fled farms and plantations in Culpeper, Orange, Spotsylvania, and a half-dozen other counties, emancipating themselves, flooding into the camps of any part of the US army they could find:  By presenting themselves, they challenged the nation:  What are you going to do with us now?

War, and these people, forced the United States to choose between slavery and freedom. And for the first time in its four-score and five years of history, the United States chose freedom.

Here, on these roads and on this ground, some of those former bondmen returned in blue uniforms, and here they undertook the work of an army.

That they did represents by itself a deed of immense courage. Understanding that or any achievement also requires understanding the obstacles. The obstacles and dangers for these men were immense.  

They faced racism and discrimination within the Federal government, within the US Army. They received less pay than white soldiers; they sometimes received second-rate equipment; only white officers were permitted to command them.  And white soldiers often viewed them not as warriors, but as laborers, and the army often used them thus.

They also faced threats from their enemies unlike any white soldiers had to consider. In early 1863, President Jefferson Davis declared the Emancipation Proclamation “the most execrable measure in the history of guilty man” and he threatened that USCTs would be executed or sent back into slavery if captured.  Months later the Confederate Congress passed a resolution stating that white officers of black regiments would be “put to death or otherwise punished for inciting servile insurrection.” (Indeed, the USCT’s were the embodiment of one of the largest servile insurrections in history.) 

Despite the threats, more than 180,000 men of color enlisted in the United States Army—about 10% of all soldiers.  More than 40,000 of them would die.

The Confederate threats against these uniformed men of color mobilized the federal government—and even some white soldiers and the Northern populace—to the defense of the USCTs.

Lincoln’s General Order 252, July 31, 1863.  Lincoln:

“For every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed,” Lincoln wrote. “For every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works, and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war.”

In mid 1863, Lincoln suspended prisoner exchange because the CS refused to exchange USCTs. 

It was because of this that prison camps North and South started filling up to deadly levels.  Not until 1865 did the Confederates agree to the exchange of USCTs.

The Northern response deterred the Confederates from systematically fulfilling their deadly threats. But still, the soldiers who crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford and came down these roads in May 1864, knew dangers remained.  They knew that at Fort Pillow, Milliken’s Bend, and Port Hudson, Confederate soldiers massacred hundreds of USCTs rather than take them prisoner.

Still, the men of color in their blue uniforms came.

They followed the Army of the Potomac to the Rapidan. As the Union forces moved toward the river, Confederate cavalry crossed upstream and swept into Culpeper County. Those were warm days, and some of the USCTs, on their first campaign, straggled and fell into Confederate hands. 

Probably not far from here—we don’t know exactly where–on May 8, 1864, the 9th Virginia Cavalry came upon three of the USCT’s.  We know not their names or their units. We know of them only from a stunningly laconic diary entry by one of the Confederate cavalrymen, Byrd Willis:

“We captured three negro soldiers the first we had seen.  They were taken out on the side of the road and shot, & their bodies left there.”

These types of dangers were ever-present for the USCT. That fact magnifies their achievement.  In the coming months, the USCT would see battle. They would suffer indignities at the hands of their brother soldiers and atrocities at the hands of their enemies.

But, slowly, by service and accomplishment, they started turning minds.  

One Union officer reflected on the trend. 

” I have a more elevated opinion of their abilities than I ever had before. I know that many of them are vastly the superiors of those…who would condemn them to a life of brutal degradation.”

A Sixth Corps soldier, marching toward Spotsylvania via Chancellorsville, passed Black troops:

There is a great change of feeling in this army towards them, and I heard nothing but kind and cheering words to them.”

The ultimate success of the USCT was no antidote to deeply rooted racism, but it certainly marked a major step forward.  The service of the USCT was essential to establishing African Americans as countrymen in the eyes of many who had long refused to see them as fellow Americans. 

The church that rose here across the road after the war, Ebenezer; the success of the Madden family in this neighborhood, now lending their name to the site–these and thousands of other institutions and achievements grew out of the Civil War and the service of the USCT. The efforts of the USCT and those who followed uplifted America in absolutely essential ways. 

And so today we celebrate this small expansion of the mirror that reflects our history back upon on us. We see in that mirror a story of courage and perseverance and accomplishment that can’t help but inspire us. We see also dark contempt that serves as a cautionary tale—that clearly reflects the nexus between ignorance and injustice. 

The USCTs were essential agents of that change. And by gathering here today and shining light on this story, so too are all of you.  

3 thoughts on “History as a Mirror

  1. Pingback: Around the Web December 2021: Best of Civil War & Reconstruction Blogs and Social Media - The Reconstruction Era

  2. Thank you, John. It’s not history unless it includes the “hard” parts and we will continue to underachieve as a nation until we understand that.

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