Civil War saga: Black re-enactors tell their side of the story

Civil War re-enactors James White, center, his son, Jayden, left, and James’ brother, Joseph White, who lives in Leland pose at Fort Anderson, in Brunswick County.
Civil War re-enactors James White, center, his son, Jayden, left, and James’ brother, Joseph White, who lives in Leland pose at Fort Anderson, in Brunswick County. COURTESY OF JAMES WHITE

Like the soldiers he portrays at living history events and battle re-enactments 150 years after the end of the Civil War, James White employs the element of surprise.

Visitors who come to these commemorations believing they understand the conflict often are astonished to see a black man in a blue uniform, and to learn that 200,000 black soldiers and sailors fought in the Civil War.

“It’s part of history. I didn’t make it up,” says White, who has risen to the rank of commander of his re-enactment group, which portrays the real-life Battery B of the 2nd Regiment, U.S. Colored Light Artillery. “People tell me all the time, ‘I never knew about this.’ ”

Until the late 1990s, neither did White. He was working then at a post office outside Wilmington when two African-American men walked in “wearing funny uniforms.” He asked about their clothing, and they told him they were dressed as soldiers from the Civil War. “What about the Civil War?” he asked.

They invited him to an event nearby in which they were participating. He went, and he was hooked.

In his 16th year as a re-enactor, White has spent more time in uniform than many of those who fought in the war from 1861 to 1865. He owes his longevity as a weekend soldier to the enjoyment he derives from reliving the experiences of his forebears, and to the continuing fascination the public has with the conflict that took more American lives than all this nation’s other wars combined.

This year, hundreds of thousands of tourists are expected to attend events at former battlefields and other historic sites marking the sesquicentennial of the end of the war. They will peruse Matthew Brady’s photos of Union generals and see medical instruments used to treat the battle-wounded in Washington, D.C.; watch a Confederate victory re-enacted on Olustee Battlefield in Florida; and ride a bus over the route through Maryland by which John Wilkes Booth tried to escape after shooting Abraham Lincoln.

North Carolina scheduled events and exhibits throughout the year, including last weekend’s re-enactment of the Battle of Fort Fisher, south of Wilmington, which drew more than 800 costumed participants and a record 21,930 spectators for the fight that is considered the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. On Feb. 7 and 8, crowds will descend on the grounds of the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, the site of the Battle of Forks Road. There, after the victory at Fort Fisher, U.S. Colored Troops played a pivotal role in the Union finally taking over the port city, cutting off the South’s last source of supplies and hastening the end of the war.

Interest in the story of black soldiers’ involvement in the war, whether they were members of the Colored Troops or, in smaller numbers, fighters for the Confederacy. Once mainly the obsession of academics and all-white descendants’ groups, Civil War history is now a driving force in heritage tourism, and some of those being drawn to it are African-Americans for whom the subject was once almost taboo because of its association with slavery.

Today, blacks and whites often get hooked on the subject for the same reasons, says Martha Burdette, education curator for the Cameron Art Museum, which has held the Forks Road battle re-enactment every year since it moved onto the battlefield site in 2002.

“It’s the ancestor thing,” she says. “It’s close enough in history that almost everybody knows of someone in their family line who participated in some way in the Civil War. It’s something they have a personal attachment to.”

That might sustain people through endless pages of genealogy records and military rosters. Something else gets them out on a windswept battlefield when it’s spitting rain on a cold February afternoon, says Johnnie McKoy, who oversees the Forks Road battle re-enactment as the art museum’s property manager.

“It’s the boom of the cannons.”

Popular culture played a role too; many black re-enactors got started after watching the 1989 movie “Glory,” about a USCT regiment, and historic sites reported bumps in their visitor numbers after the airing of Ken Burns’ documentary series “The Civil War” the next year.

Tourism boom

North Carolina promotes its connections to the Civil War, using historic sites as educational resources and economic engines, especially in rural counties that have few other attractions. A 2013 report from the Civil War Trust noted that Bentonville Battlefield in Johnston County typically attracts 30,000 people per year, but on the 145th anniversary in 2010, 50,000 people came just for the battle re-enactment. They contributed more than $5 million to the local economy in one weekend.

USCT re-enactors have begun to participate in battles at N.C. Historic Sites where it’s accurate to do so.

For most of the war, it was illegal for blacks to fight for the Confederacy, though some slaves served as cooks or personal aides in place of, or along with, their masters, and some freed blacks who owned land are said to have volunteered to protect their property.

Battles and living history events are an investment for re-enactors, too, who might spend thousands of dollars on gear, must pay for their travel and sometimes pay a fee to participate. A cottage industry has grown around the hobby, with vendors online and in tents on battlefield peripheries offering period spectacles and cookware, reproduction clothing and fresh-baked hard tack, the cracker that sustained soldiers when other food was scarce.

Living history events often are one-day affairs, and participants can stay in motels or go home to their beds when visitors leave. Battle re-enactments usually last through a weekend, with the skirmish fought once each day and the soldiers, sometimes joined by their families, living in camps under much the same conditions that existed when the bullets were real.

‘Fighting for their freedom’

Malcolm Beech, a Kinston newspaper publisher and president of the U.S. Colored Troops Living History Association, says about 300 black re-enactors in about 15 units across the country – two of them in North Carolina – have an important lesson to teach. Until 1863, he says, the Confederacy was winning the war. With the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the Union called on freed slaves to enlist in the cause. In the South, those who could cross into Union-held territory could enlist. As black troops began to replenish the Union Army, the tide began to turn.

A player in North Carolina’s other black Civil War re-enactment group, the 37th USCT Infantry, based in Kinston, Beech wants children to know that people who looked like them were on the battlefields.

“You’ve got 200,000 African-Americans with guns now,” he says of the second half of the war. “They’re fighting to free themselves. The North was fighting to save the Union. The south was fighting for state’s rights. African-Americans were fighting for their freedom.

“We tell that side of the story,” Beech says. “African-American children, they feel real proud to learn that their ancestors had a role in freeing themselves. They weren’t just waiting for some great white man to come along. They laid it all on the line.”

A story that needs told

It’s a compelling story and an exciting pastime for White, who grew up in Brunswick County, graduated from Livingstone College in Salisbury and wrote a book about his re-enacting experience.

When he started, White joined the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops re-enactors, an infantry unit based in South Carolina. He developed a fictional character, Thomas Jackson, a South Carolina slave who is on good terms with his master and, when the master dies, follows his bequest to join the Confederate cause, signing on as a cook.

Later in the narrative White created, Jackson is enticed by the Union’s offer and joins an infantry unit, one of 166 regiments eventually formed as part of the real-life USCTs.

In his mid-30s when he joined the re-enactment movement, White was already older than the average soldier who served in the 1860s. Within a few years, he tired of all that marching in the heat and the cold, and of all the gear infantrymen carry into battle so that spectators get a realistic sense of the fight.

So around 2002, he helped form Battery B, the artillery unit, which consists of about eight soldiers and a borrowed cannon and does battle re-enactments all over North Carolina. White has recruited his brother, Joseph, who lives in Leland, and sometimes conscripts his son, Jayden, who is 8. They look sharp in their blue wool with the red trim. White tries to stay slender enough to always be able to button his coat.

As commander of the artillery unit – an officer – White, now 51, sleeps on a bed instead of the ground. He sets up an extra tent to display for visitors his collection of Civil War bullets, cannon shot and Confederate money.

White still enjoys the smoke and the noise of a battle, where he is focused on the choreography of the event, firing at the right time and making sure no one is injured as each 9-ounce shot of gunpowder is lit. But he says he prefers living history events, where he resurrects his role as Thomas the infantryman – without the marching – and gets to tell visitors the story of the black soldier’s life.

By the end of February, he will have participated in at least seven events.

White would like to see some younger recruits carry on the mission, but they’re hard to find.

“If they buy the uniform, I know I have ’em,” he says.

Beech, 68, who has been a re-enactor for as long as White, says research shows more than 6,000 black soldiers from North Carolina participated in the Civil War.

“Their story needs to be told just like any other North Carolinian’s story,” he says. “It’s not just a story about Confederate bravery, defending the homeland.

“I’m a Southerner, and this is my heritage too. When I’m telling the story, I’m just telling it from a different end of the gun.”