Retracing The Steps Of Black Civil War Soldiers

Roundup: Talking About History

Bob Thompson, The Washington Post, 23 Nov. 2004

[Editor's Note: The original article is much longer.]

It's not something you see every day on a Civil War tour: Two guys with deep southern roots, one black, one white, gazing side by side into their shared, violent past.

Then again, this isn't actually a Civil War tour -- yet. Asa Gordon and Robert Freis are just starting to put one together. They're looking to tell the underreported tale of the African American soldiers who fought and died in Virginia a couple of lifetimes ago. Right now, on the first day of a two-day scouting trip, they're standing beside the thick stone walls of old Fort Monroe, looking for a place to begin.

What Gen. Benjamin Butler did here in May 1861 seems to fit the bill.

Early in the war, as the introductory video at the Fort Monroe museum explains, the old fort -- which remained in Union hands throughout the conflict --"provided the setting for a seemingly trivial incident which was to have great consequences." Three runaway slaves sought sanctuary there. Their owner, Col. Charles Mallory of Hampton, sent a message to Butler, the Union commander, demanding their return under the Fugitive Slave Law.

Forget it, Butler said.

Hadn't Virginia seceded from the Union the month before? Didn't that mean that U.S. laws no longer applied? In wartime, enemy property is fair game, and since the South treated slaves as property, they could be confiscated as" contraband of war." Of course, if the colonel would just swear allegiance to the United States -- well, that would be a different story, wouldn't it?

"Butler put him in a position of damned if you do and damned if you don't," says Gordon with a grin.

There was more to it than that, though.

When local blacks heard of Butler's contraband decision, large numbers of them began to materialize at what they called"the Freedom Fort." Many were put to work, with pay, as badly needed laborers. Some eventually ended up in military service. As the war went on, slaves throughout the South would seek freedom within the Union lines. Eventually, as the museum video explains matter-of-factly, this"led to the enlistment of over 200,000 blacks in the Union army and navy."

"I think this is worth a look," Freis says. It seems an understatement somehow.

The story Freis and Gordon want to tell is one that has been largely overlooked for 140 years -- by whites as well as blacks, but for different reasons.

Among whites, popular interest in the Civil War has been booming for many years. Some trace this upsurge to the elaborate centennial celebrations of the 1960s, others to Ken Burns's 1990 PBS epic miniseries. Whatever its cause, the fascination has largely centered on the major battlefield action, much of which occurred before black troops began to play a part. What's more, for most of the millions of visitors drawn to such iconic sites as Gettysburg, Manassas and Antietam, the war's rich narrative of strategy, tactics, valor and sacrifice has overshadowed its racial underpinnings.

Yet to most African Americans, as Gordon and Freis point out, the Civil War appears radically different and much simpler. One side was defending slavery and one wasn't. As for all that blue-gray battlefield drama, well -- that's white people's territory.

"They say, 'I don't want to hear that, that's their story,'" Gordon says."I say, 'No, let's expand it, we've got to tell the story.'"

A 64-year-old native of Savannah, Ga., with an activist's intensity tempered by an infectious laugh, Gordon came north to attend Hampton Institute because blacks weren't welcome at major state-run Georgia colleges in those days. He marched against segregation, studied physics and wound up with a job at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Astrodynamics paid the bills, but history became an avocation. One day, while researching Underground Railroad organizer Harriet Tubman, he stumbled across the name of a friend's ancestor who'd fought with the United States Colored Troops.

Before long he was hooked. The bookshelves in the study of his brick home in the Brookland section of Northeast Washington now overflow with Civil War books. Among them sits a selection of video clips culled from the 1989 film"Glory," about the all-black 54th Massachusetts and its furious, failed attempt to take South Carolina's Fort Wagner in 1863. Gordon credits"Glory" with bringing the history of black Civil War soldiers to a wide audience for the first time. Still, he's got problems with the Hollywood version. Chief among them is its preoccupation with the saintliness of the 54th's white commanding officer to the detriment of the black supporting cast.

In the 1990s, after taking early retirement from Goddard, Gordon got involved with the movement for an African American Civil War Memorial, now located at 10th and U streets NW. This led to the founding of an organization called the Sons and Daughters of the United States Colored Troops, which he heads. Last year, an article about him in the Richmond Times-Dispatch produced an e-mail from a fledgling for-profit outfit called Civil War Weekend: Would he like to collaborate on an African American Civil War tour?

Gordon wasn't sure. Civil War buffs, in his experience, were likely to be white guys who spent too much time talking tactical mumbo-jumbo about"the left oblique and the right oblique."

Robert Freis talked him into it.

Freis is a compactly built, 49-year-old Shenandoah Valley native who has been walking Civil War battlefields for more than half his life. As a 23-year-old reporter in Culpeper, Va., he befriended a military historian named Jay Luvaas, who believed that tramping through the historic landscape and stopping to read the words of men who fought there brought the war home in ways no classroom presentation could.

For the last decade and a half, Freis and a succession of fellow enthusiasts have led annual weekend tours for their friends and friends of friends. Four years ago, he decided to turn pro. He has no thoughts of quitting his day job designing and editing magazines for a publishing company in Roanoke, but hopes the battlefield business can perhaps evolve into"a lucrative hobby."

Lucrative or not, he loves it. What he doesn't love are the assumptions about him that people sometimes make.

"I feel defensive about being interested in the Civil War," he says."I don't want to be perceived as a racist." African Americans especially, he says, tend to see Civil War history as"the exclusive domain of the people who enforced the system of apartheid."

Which isn't right."This was their war if it was anybody's," Freis says."It's about them."

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