South Carolina, more specifically Charleston, has suffered trauma in the last month or so. The Mother Emanuel Nine succumbed to an animal that distorted his limited knowledge of history and used it for evil. Since that incident, there has been forgiveness from the family members of the victims and the lowering of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds. While the debate about the meaning of the Confederate flag still rages, a new debate about what Confederate monuments should remain or go, is heavy on the minds of many.
Amid all of these uncertainties, Company I, 54th Massachusetts Reenactment Regiment had to continue to conduct business as usual. For more than a decade, as African American Civil War reenactors, we have been honoring the 200,000 men who served the Union during the American Civil War. More specifically, we have been going to Morris Island, South Carolina to commemorate the Assault on Battery Wagner, the battle that was portrayed in the award winning movie Glory. For the past few years, we have also been commemorating the battle of Sol Legare, which occurred on James Island, South Carolina on July 16, 1863.
On Thursday, July 16, 2015 we gathered at the Seashore Farmers Lodge to commemorate the 152nd Anniversary of the Battle of Sol Legare. We set up a living history encampment so that we could interpret both sides of the Civil War. Four people showed up to represent the Confederacy. Well in advance of their arrival, we had that conversation about the possibility of them showing up with the Confederate flag. Our conclusion was that we would allow that flag to fly in that interpretive environment. They did not show up with a flag, therefore we did not have to deal with that issue.
The event went well with lots of fellowshipping among us all. If only an audience would have showed up to take it all in. We learned the hard way that the desire to have events correspond with historic dates does not always align with people who have to work for a living. Maybe we can make a course correction next year when we conduct this activity.
When in April of 1861, President Abraham Lincoln put out a call for 75,000 soldiers to put down a rebellion that he thought would last three to six months, Black men were denied that opportunity to serve. We know that four years and approximately 600,000 deaths later that Civil War would end. It was not until the emancipation proclamation of 1863 that Black men could legally serve as combatants, although some like the First Kansas Colored, First South Carolina Colored and the Louisiana Native Guard had served before that period.
Approximately 200,000 men would serve for the Union army and navy during the Civil War in what became known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT). We know more about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry because most of those men were free long before the Civil War. Most were even born free for their native states had abolished slavery long before the Civil War started. Along with that freedom came education that led to documentation that would be used for books and eventually the movie Glory.
So for the past ten years or so, we have been going to Morris Island, South Carolina to commemorate the Assault on Battery Wagner which occurred on July 18, 1863. One can only get to Morris Island by boat. Sandlapper Tours, the company that we hired to take us there, had warned us that because of erosion there was far less beach to conduct the commemoration. So the fear now for the island is not development, which preservation have beaten back, but erosion. We were also alerted that the recreational traffic on the island would not allow us to beach the boat there on Saturday, July 18th the actual 152nd anniversary of the battle. We would conduct the ceremony on Friday, July 17.
Because we are not new at this, the process would occur swimmingly. Although I was getting reports of rain in surrounding areas, from start to finish, we experienced none. We even met some people who joined us after learning about the event when we showed up at the Charleston Maritime Center in Civil War uniforms. Some recreational boaters even took the time from their reveling to join us when we got to the island and let them know what was happening. Some of them were quite forthcoming about the fact that they were from Massachusetts which certainly worked in our favor. What the representative from Sandlapper Tours had relayed to me about the erosion was true. The current deepening of the harbor is taking its toll on the island. Trees have been uprooted, the dunes are being encroached upon and there is far less beach than there was last year.
The ride back was an impromptu moment for the participants to talk about matters relating to history. The highlight of that moment was hearing from descendants who fought on both sides. One descendant from a member of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry even read a letter written by his Ancestor from that period.
We could not let the day end without paying our respects to the Mother Emanuel Nine. So no matter what happens with Confederate monuments in the future, when the dust settles, for us, it will always be business as usual. We will continue to honor the 200,000 men who served for the Union army and navy during the American Civil War. They were an aspect of history that is evidence that our Ancestors did not stand idly by waiting to be freed. They took an avid and active role in helping to obtain that freedom. That volunteer role put them in harm’s way but they knew that although they were free their actions would strike a blow against that institution that held others in bondage. And to the Mother Emanuel Nine, we made a collective decision to incorporate a memorial to you on your anniversary of your ultimate sacrifice.