Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Grand Review Of 2015 And Why Black History Is History

Overall I really liked the 150th anniversary of the Grand Review in Washington on Sunday May 17.  It was about a week off from being "real time" but I can live with that.  The original Grand Review took two days.  The Army of the Potomac on May 23 led by General Meade and the Army of Georgia led by General Sherman on May 24.  One explanation for the original Grand Review was to give the country a morale boost as it was still reeling from the Lincoln assassination.

We did have General Sherman looking appropriately psychotic.

General Meade was on Pennsylvania Avenue watching the parade

One of the elements missing in the original Grand Review was a substantial complement of black troops.  Many of them were on their way to the Rio Grande as the white troops,most of whom would soon be mustered out, marched through the streets of Washington. The commemorative event on Sunday May 17, 2015 tried to balance that scale just a bit with reenactors representing regiments of the Untied States Colored Troops near the front.

Getting There

My plan for this campaign was one of the wackiest I have come up with.  I took Greyhound to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan arriving around 1:00 AM with a 3:45 leaving for Washington.  My son William, who attends Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, met up with me.  There was a little drama as cell phone coverage was spotty and William could not get downstairs without a ticket at that hour, but we worked it out.

There was one strange incident while I was hanging out.  The PA does not provide enough seating for the waiting long haul bus passengers.  I ended up on the floor with my back to the wall.  I was drinking some of the water I had brought along when I heard this rather condescending voice which I realized was directed at me asking if I was drinking in the Port Authority terminal and to show him my bottle.  A beefy blondish PA cop was the source.  I suspect that if things had gotten difficult it would have been his silent vertically challenged partner who would have played the bad cop, but I am not sure.

Once I showed him the water everything was fine and they moved on to fight crime elsewhere, but I was consumed by curiosity.  Did I really look that much like a homeless wino? It is true that I am past due for a haircut, but still.  So I went over to ask them about it, but then I felt this bizarre compulsion to establish myself as a member in good standing of the upper middle class and shouldn't they feel a little silly.  It actually was a pleasant conversation and I was probably a bit sycophantic as I do really admire the job they do.  Still there is something about the incident that disturbs me and it is mainly about me that I am disturbed. Given where I was heading, I couldn't help but wonder if a 63 year old black CPA might have had a bit more trouble than I did.   I guess I'll have to leave it at that.

One aspect of the trip down that I thought was symbolically important was that I left from Union Station in Worcester Mass and with William arrived at Union Station in Washington.

My generation grew up in the shadow of Lost Cause historiography with the neo-abolitionists being viewed as revisionist.  All those Union stations and monuments scattered over Washington and many towns and cities in the North speak to a triumphalism on the part of those who had won the war, that fell out of favor on what Paul H. Buck in his 1937 Pulitzer Prize winning book called the Road To Reunion.
The memories of the past were woven in a web of national sentiment which selected from by- gone feuds those deeds of mutual valor which permitted pride in present achievement and future promise. The remarkable changes that had taken place within the short span of a single generation had created a national solidarity hitherto unknown in American life. The reunited nation was a fact.
The many black men whose service to the Union transformed the war into a fight for liberation did not fit well with that narrative and they were largely erased from the history, except perhaps, as W. Fitzhugh Brundage relates in The Southern Past - A Clash of Race and Memory in the segregated schools of the South.  A fellow my age who had experience both in segregated and integrated schools told me that there were more resources in the integrated schools, but much more dedicated teachers in the segregated schools.

In the sixties, people were talking about Black History.  A better term for it might have been history, with much of the Lost Cause narrative being called romance.

As far as I have been able to tell Civil War reenacting got started in the fifties in the run up to Centennial, but it was a pretty white activity with a lot of Lost Cause sentiment.  African American interest seem to have been kicked into gear by the movie Glory in 1989.

The USCT reenactors I spoke with at Appomattox seemed to be divided between those who had been inspired by the movie Glory and those who had been in the movie Glory.

USCT troops were little covered in movies about the Civil War after the one film that really implanted the Lost Cause narrative into popular culturen.

Lots of USCT in that movie,  I understand the actors were mostly white guys in blackface.They were not the good guys in Birth of a Nation.

The Campaign In Washington

I thought I had come up with a masterful plan. I had read that the marchers had to register at RFK stadium wherever the hell that is and be bused over to the start point which was on third street near Pennsylvania Avenue. At the train station we got directions to third street and found a nice spot to have some breakfast while sitting outside.  I saw some cruisers blocking traffic, so I figured we must be near the right spot.

Silly me.  The people at the next table who like just about everybody else in the city had no clue about the Grand Review told me the cruisers were there because of a 10k road race and that I was at the wrong third street and that I would not get to the right third street by walking along that one,  You know how in New York if you walk East on West 42nd street you will get to East 42nd Street and how in Orlando if you go north on South Orange Avenue you will get to North Orange Avenue.  Doesn't work that way in Washington.

Anyway 3rd Street NE which is where we were is not that far from 3rd Street NW.  Once we got there we then had to figure out which way to go.  I had a map of the Parade route and finally my Boy Scout training kicked in and I remembered how to orient a map from visible landmarks.

When I saw the horses I knew we were probably in the right place.

By the way if you are bringing animals other than dogs and cats into the City of Washington the Animal Control Inspector will come out to check on you.

William asked him if they had to worry about the horses being spooked by dogs and the like.  The inspector told us that horses like these are pretty well desensitized from participating in reenactments with, you know, cannons to the left of them, cannons to the right of them.

I started asking the guys what about their units and if they were representing anybody in particular. I was lousy taking notes though, perhaps an indication that my saving money on hotels had a cost.  The fellow in the officers uniform told me he was a descendant of Lt. Col William Reed of the 35th USCT. I thought that Martin Delaney who finished as a major had been the highest ranking black Union soldier, but I guess I was wrong.  Here is the story on William Reed.

About The Officers

Delaney and Reed were big exceptions.  Almost all the officers in the United States Colored Troops weren't, you know, colored. There is an interesting story about how they were selected.  In the 19th Century the Regular Army was very small and West Point only turned out about 50 officers a year.  Most of the regiments in the Union Army were raised by the states and who the officers were was sometimes a matter of local politics and prestige.  The USCT regiments were different.

Commissions were given based on passing examinations and there was a school established to train people for the tests.  In some ways it is viewed as the origin of OCS.  Quite a few of the USCT officers were idealistic abolitionists, although for others it was a matter of ambition.  Although it was never carried through Jefferson Davis had ordered that the USCT officers were to be tried for inciting slave revolts rather than treated as prisoners of war (the enlisted men would be enslaved).

Anyway if a USCT reenactment group wants to be authentic, they need some white guys to pretend to be officers.  It seems like a really cool thing to me, but it also does not seem like something you'd want to volunteer for.  It would be a really great honor to be asked.

Leonard Musta gave me a pretty strong speech about the war turning into one of liberation rather than "states rights". He told me he is associated with  and is working on a project to help people of African descent get DNA testing to trace their heritage.

Sesquicentennial Encounters

A Sesquicentennial real timer like myself is bound to run into somebody that he met at a prior event.  Steward Henderson is the President/Corporal of the 23rd United States Colored Troops

We had run into one another at Chancellorsville, where I had been hunting for my great grandfather.

There were also quite a few white units represented.

Including some Zouaves

And of course there were the ladies

including a girl who had not left behind by the 2nd United States Cavalry

She is an Iraq veteran in real life.

Now my horrible note-taking comes into play. Ram Thomas of the Executive Committee of the Philadelphia Branch of the NAACP is portraying an activist who was murdered while trying to help register blacks during Reconstruction

The Military Presence

The contemporary military has not been that well represented at Sesquicentennial events.  At Appomattox and Antietam members of the Old Guard were on the scene and there were speeches by very modern major generals.  There were also active duty military musicians at Gettysburg both on the eve of the battle and at the cemetery dedication.

This parade was led by a joint service military color guard

There was also a ceremonial unit from the Coast Guard

I had some nice chats with the captain, who actually was there for extra representation and not part of the ceremonial group.

I'm sure that you are consumed with the same curiosity that I was. Here is the answer to your question.  The ceremonial rifles are 1903 Springfields, which were replaced by M-1's in the early part of WWII, when it came to actually, you know, shooting people.  Although the Springfield did stay on as a sniper weapon.

The Music

The Federal City Brass Brand was there.

There was also BSA Venture Crew 1861

The great thing about all that music as you are walking around is that when they are not playing the Battle Hymn of The Republic, they are playing something Irish - like the Minstrel Boy.

The Parade Route

The parade went a short distance on third street and then took a left onto Pennsylvania Avenue and went about 10 blocks.  I asked a high ranking police officer what the expected crowd was and he told me that the first his guys had heard about it was when they got a call from the Park Service in the morning.

William and I followed the march route to the review stand at the end.

You will note that the spectator to marcher ratio is very low.

Michael Falco was providing period style media coverage

A couple of local people asked me what the parade was about.

Dammit Black History Is History

I had been under a mistaken impression.  I thought that this event was the work of some larger general Sesquicentennial group and that the African American Civil War Museum had gotten behind it with enthusiasm.  When I talked to the volunteers though I learned that it was actually the museum that had been the entire force behind the event.

If you look into there is a great continuity from the anti-slavery movement that was one of the major factors in triggering the war and the modern civil rights movement.  The "black history" that started coming out with an appearance of revisionism in the sixties had never been forgotten in the black community.

A Unitarian minister who grew up in the South in the fifties once told a story that illustrates that.  The kids in his neighborhood did not play cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians.  They played Yanks and Rebs with the preference on the Reb side.  Racing through the house with his Confederate flag, he was confronted by the family's black maid.  She sais "What are you doing with that redneck rag?  People shouldn't own other people.  That's just wrong."

Even though I really enjoyed being able to experience the parade by walking along side it, the general lack of knowledge of the event and the underwhelming public response was pretty discouraging.

Well, I talked to a few of the kids who were playing with the 1861 Venturers and told them to make sure that they were there for the bicentennial, I told William that I was leaving him my keppe and expected him to show up at the Bicentennial with at least one other Patrick Lyons descendant

I used to have a dividing line in my mind between history and current events, but as I have grown older it is more and more seamless. Sometimes it seems like a great weight, but there are some high points and this day was one of them.

My Favorite Reenactor

One of the things that the AACWM emphasizes is the large number of African Americans who served in the US Navy during the Civl War.  Most of the reenactors I spoke to had been doing it for a long time, but one of them was a first timer and he had thought outside the powder burning box

A Great Day

It's been a long time since I've been able to spend a whole day with my son and I have to say I am pleased with how the kid is coming along.  He spent most of the time drawing, so I'm hoping for something good which maybe will get posted as a supplement.

The ride back was uneventful although when we were stuck in traffic I thought about how great it was to not be driving.  I barely made my connection to Worcester sparing me another long wait in the Port Authority.

Peter J Reilly CPA  flunked out of graduate school at the famous University of Chicago, where he was studying history.  Doesn't look like he will ever get over it.


CNN covered the review

Malcolm Beech, President of USCT Living History Association was the one portraying  William Reed.

James Hubbard was the lone sailor.

If you want more pictures here is my album for the day.


  1. Thanks for the very interesting portrait of a remarkable event. Yet again the differences between the Centennial and the 150th are striking. The centrality of emancipation and African American participation in the war is now front and center (literally) in the commemoration of the war; fifty years ago Washington D. C. was a very different city and the commemoration of the centennial was all about transcending sectionalism, not burying slavery. You also provide an uncommonly diverse portrait of the participants in the commemoration and the roles they assume. Here is a portrait of a far broader memory of the Civil War than most Americans are familiar with. Thanks on behalf of those who couldn't attend!

    1. Thank you very much. A pat on the head from a distinguished historian of the period means a lot to this graduate school dropout.