Interpreting USCTs in places where they were not…

Posted on March 10, 2013 by


Recently, there’s been a flurry of posts about USCTs (see Craig Swain’s, here; Emmanuel Dabney’s, here; Kevin Levin’s, here; and Jimmy Price’s, here), and, as I’m in the process of compiling a list of USCTs born in Shenandoah Valley counties, I find it timely.

Should the interpretation of USCTs be incorporated into places in which they were not… battlefields and museums? I say… yes. In fact, I left a comment on Craig’s post, which follows…

In sifting through the records of Shenandoah Valley-born USCTs I find myself appreciating the multi-dimensional possibilities in interpreting a place (hard-stop emphasis on “place”)… but through its people (hard-stop emphasis on “people”). Take the example of the battle of Cedar Creek. Sure, we have two armies battling it out, from different sections [at this particular place], but when we look at this from the locals’ perspective, it adds another facet to the place. I think the line “… and to think… some of those boys in gray were from these very fields… and homes around this battlefield”… is an expected interpretive buzzline. Yes, it’s important, but there’s more to the story. What about the others who were from these very same fields, but were off elsewhere, in another color uniform… in the USCT, fighting for… well, let’s call it… a “different vision of freedom“. What were they doing at this very same time… in October, 1864? There are obvious opportunities in that… not just in interpreting, but in enhancing the “wow” factor in those listening. Especially from the “wow, I never considered that” angle.

To me, the approach to interpretation via the local connection is the most relevant, and, perhaps more importantly, creates a natural flow (place facilitates a discussion of people). Are there other ways? I suspect there are, but, I think care should be taken not to make the interpretation “awkward” and “clunky” (flat-out interjection of content with no tie-ins). To me, interpretive transitions should be natural. How else might we consider interpretation of USCTs at Cedar Creek and other battlefields in the Valley?

As most of the places that would be impacted are staffed with interpretation professionals/public historians, I don’t see the addition of USCT interpretation as being hasty and awkward. There are others, I fear, who may be influenced more by their zeal, and thereby lose sight of the history. To be honest, in some I see a clear pendulum swing, to the exact opposite side (but equal in extreme) of the “all Southerners were Confederates and weren’t fighting for slavery” argument.

So let’s go back to the example of Cedar Creek. In our interpretive program, we’re talking about locals who were Confederates, and locals who were USCTs. Once again… each had a different idea of what they were fighting for… different concepts of freedom.

One can say the local Confederates were fighting for slavery… but that would only be telling part of the truth. One can also say the USCTs were fighting for the chance to be free, but that too would be telling only part of their story. We have complicating factors that make us put on brakes… and pretty darn quick. Were some Confederates fighting to keep slaves, while others were fighting because… and, let’s be perfectly honest with ourselves and history… the boys in blue were “down here”? Absolutely. Of course, there were other Confederates who were in the ranks as well… and some of them didn’t even want to be there in the first place. That being the case, should we not expect the story of the USCTs to be equally complicated?

Yes, but how so? Give an example…

While incorporating the story of the local USCTs into the story of the battle of Cedar Creek, I think we should also mention the 19th U.S.C.T. (and yes, some Shenandoah Valley born USCTs were in the 19th), and their visit to the Valley, in 1864. As Richard R. Duncan points out in Beleaguered Winchester, (via the thesis of Jonathan M. Berkey, and the accounts of Julia Chase and David Hunter Strother)… the visit was part of a recruiting effort…

How does the story of the 19th USCT complicate this visual... the transition of a slave to a soldier? Animated GIF from John Rudy's blog, Interpreting the Civil War.

How does the story of the 19th USCT complicate this visual and our “memory” of the USCT… the transition of a slave to a soldier? Animated GIF from John Rudy’s blog, Interpreting the Civil War.

attempting to enlist free slaves, they encountered both resistance and flight. In Charles Town, after an enthusiastic  initial greeting recruiters were able to secure only eight to ten recruits at bayonet point. On hearing of their approach to Winchester, many blacks went into hiding. Those found were herded down the Martinsburg Pike by white officers “as if they were driving a flock of black sheep.” But there were attacked by “bushwhackers” and, Strother noted, “During the fight, all the conscripts… ran away.

In his post, Kevin Levin notes, “When USCTs are killing Confederates they are engaged in a fight for freedom”, but how might this story about the 19th USCT suggest complicating factors?  Theoretically (maybe more because we know of the end result), we may nod our heads in agreement with Kevin, yet, the reality of the overall story of the U.S.C.T. demands that we acknowledge – most especially in our interpretation – the complexities.

For that matter, I even hesitate to place names of Valley-born USCTs in a column titled “Unionists”. At a minimum, I feel a need for a short disclaimer. After all, in the absence of statements made, saying “yes, I wanted to fight for the Union”, how can I be sure. Were some fighting not for Union, but for their freedom, and the freedom of others? Yes. Were some in the ranks for other reasons? Probably. Lastly, were some only there because they had been put there at the point of a bayonet? Of course, the example cited shows the answer is “yes”.

Do we have opportunities to interpret USCTs in places in which they were not? Again, I say… “yes”, but let’s take care not to lose sight of the history. I’m reminded of a quote from the movie, Glory

Teach them properly, Major…