A Bit Of Historiography
The contribution of black soldiers and sailors to Union victory was one of those things that got thrown in the historiographical memory hole for a couple of generations. It started creeping its way back into general consciousness in the nineteen sixties, when people started talking about Black History.
I have this fairly elaborate theory that I have been working on about views of American history. A short version is that the culture of the United States America, the elements that explains why we are not European was well formed by the time Alexis de Tocqueville visited in the eighteen thirties. Among the constituent elements are four pretty distinct groups from the British Isles, the indigenous peoples, people taken in captivity from Africa and a melange of German and Dutch in the middle colonies. They baked the cake. The wretched refuse yearning to breathe free started flooding in sometime after that and provided the icing and the cherry on top.
My theory is that a unified American history was really for the benefit of the wretched refuse. Anybody who identified with one of the elements would have their own distinct narrative. (A complication is that the identification with any of the elements does not necessarily imply ancestry.
Jim Webb, the most badass of the participants in the most recent Democratic debate, in his Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America makes a strong case that much of the culture of the American military and white working class derives from the Scots-Irish, who came to America in the first half of the eighteenth century indirectly from the Scottish border region by way of Ulster. They did not linger on the coast but sent straight to the frontier. Think Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson and about 95% of the Confederate Army.
The ironic thing is that that group probably has the most in common with African Americans of any, which is why they love one another so much or not.
At any rate Civil War historiography for the masses- post 1840 immigrants, their children, grandchildren etc was heavily influenced by a romanticized version of the Confederate cause and the notion, somewhat accurate, that white northerners, mostly, did not care that much one way or the other about slavery. Paul Buck explained the process in his Pulitzer Prize winning Road To Reunion in 1937.
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 180,000 black soldiers in the Union Army were an inconvenient fact in this narrative, so they slipped from popular memory. In the segregated schools of the South, they were remembered though. And they resurfaced as part of "black history" or as we might more accurately say "history" beginning in the sixties.
One of the things that made them easy for them to be forgotten was that they came in heavily after the big exciting battles like Manassas, Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
It is too bad I am such a lousy reporter, so I only have bits and pieces to support this. As far as I have been able to tell Civil War reenacting got going seriously in the run-up to the Centennial which went real light on the issue of slavery. It was a pretty white affair until the movie Glory in 1989
Most of the black reenactors I spoke with at different events either started after the movie Glory or were in the movie Glory.
Better Than Banning The Confederate Flag
You can't cut the romantic version, somewhat accurate, of the Confederacy -brave men defending their homeland from invasion - out of the American psyche, Our country has the only world class military academy - West Point - that fought a heck of an intramural war before being called to rescue the world from totalitarianism. It gave us a tradition of being magnanimous in victory, if not quite gracious in defeat.
But we cannot forget that the Civil War was a war for liberation by a significant number of the people who fought in it. So rather than tearing down monuments to the Confederates, let's be putting up monuments to the USCT soldiers who faced them.
For Civil War nerds - As far as I can tell the Masschuessetts black regiments were never incorporated into the United States Colored Troops unlike Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson's First South Carolina Volunteers which became the 33rd USCT.