Monday, April 10, 2006
Counting, Remembering, U.S.C.T.
A couple of weeks ago, when the Civil War Forum visited Nashville, our first stop was the Nashville National Cemetery to see the new monument to United States Colored Troops. This moving memorial, set as it is among row after row of USCT gravestones, was in notable contrast to a little wartime cemetery we had visited two days earlier on the Stones River battlefield, near the Hazen Monument (pictured on their start page). There, a single USCT grave stands segregated just outside the brick wall of the proper burial ground.
Our guide at Nashville, if I heard him correctly, mentioned that the Nashville monument was one of only four in the nation memorializing USCT in this country. That sounded unlikely to me, and after digging around a bit I found reference to a number of plaques, monuments, and memorials to black Union troops. One report, I should say, asserts that there are only four Veterans Affairs-operated national cemeteries that boast some sort of monument to USCT. Most likely, that's how our guide settled on the figure "four." The most famous monument to black Civil War troops is probably the Robert Gould Shaw / 54th Massachusetts sculpture in Boston. Far more interesting, I think, is the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington D.C., captured in various angles at this site.
The Nashville statue is beautifully done. But more than a few people in our group had trouble making sense of the ambiguous phrasing on the plaque. It's hard for me to imagine how something so long in the making, something meant to last for generations, and for which the precise wording presumably required the input and oversight of numerous individuals, could result in a monument that causes even casual students of the war to mutter, "huh?"
The head scratching, of course, is due to the fact that the commonly published figures for USCT serving in Union armies during the Civil War is between 180,000 and 200,000. Back at home, I searched out some articles on the monument and discovered that the 20,133 refers to the number of USCT who hailed from Tennessee.
Strange that on a monument to United States troops, in a national cemetery, such a grammatically critical qualification was left off. As it is, untold numbers of visitors will now leave with the solid impression that United States Colored Troops, who fought so heroically on many a battlefield, numbered only about one-tenth of what we know to be case. Whether the plaque is ever edited or replaced, it remains a noble statue, standing sentry among the nearly 2,000 USCT buried here. Couldn't help but notice, though, in the Knoxville newspaper article linked to above, the comments of one Kwame Leo Lillard whose multiple masters degrees failed to touch upon black soldiers — largely escaped slaves — who fought against the Confederacy in Union regiments. Mr. Lillard's group apparently originated the idea for the statue, and launched the ultimately successful fundraising.
"There were black soldiers in the Confederate army too," Lillard is quoted as saying, "and we need to erect a monument to them." Hate to break it to him, but using the afore-mentioned formula for composing memorial plaques — listing just one-tenth of the total, or only those from Tennessee — the number of men honored by a Black Confederates statue would be less men than it takes to build the statue.
Good luck raising funds for that one.