African American Civil War History in the National Park System

African American Civil War History in the National Park System


There are many sites in the National Park System that include places associated with African American history during the Civil War period. The following are some that illustrate many of these significant places and events.

Stories about African American Civil War History in the National Park System

Historical Sites

    Andersonville National Historic Site, Georgia

    This Civil War Confederate prisoner of war camp commemorates the sacrifices borne by American prisoners not only in the 1861-1865 conflict but in all wars. The Union prison population included many African Americans. During the Civil War, the Confederacy's threat to sell black prisoners into slavery and to execute their white officers ended prisoner exchanges.

    Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland

    General Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North was ended in this battlefield in 1862. Lincoln used the occasion of the Union victory here to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

    Boston African American National Historic Site, Massachusetts: African Meeting House

    The African Meeting House is the oldest standing African American church building in the United States. Completed in 1806, it has been the site of many events significant in African American history through all periods. Here, in 1832, William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Antislavery Society, one of the milestones in the Abolitionist movement. During the Civil War, members of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry enlisted at the Meeting House. The building today, restored to its mid-1850's appearance, is on the fifteen sites on the Black Heritage Trail, which travels through the largest concentration of pre-Civil War African American historic sites in the United States.

    Boston African American National Historic Site, Massachusetts: Shaw Memorial

    This park includes the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial monument honoring the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the most famous African American unit of the Civil War, and the subject of the movie "Glory." The memorial was designed by Augustus Saint Gaudens, sponsored by the family of Robert Gould Shaw. It was dedicated in 1897 and is recognized as one of the finest works of American sculpture. (Many centennial events are planned at the park in 1997.) The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was the first regular Army unit of African Americans raised in the North in the Civil War. The unit held enormous significance for blacks, embodying their struggle against slavery and racism, and represented their hopes for the future. Massachusetts abolitionist Governor John A. Andrews organized the unit between January and May 1863. The Lincoln administration permitted him to commission only whites as officers, but Andrew sought out those men who possessed military experience, opposed slavery, and embraced this idea of black military service. Andrew worked closely with black leaders like Lewis Hayden to win the confidence of the African American community and promised eventually to commission black men as officers. Andrew declared his commitment to the regiment, announcing that his honor "as a man and a magistrate" would "rise or fall" with the Fifty-fourth. Enlistees came from across the North and included the well-educated sons of black leaders like Frederick Douglass. The regiment quickly proved its fighting ability in the South Carolina sea islands and led the attack on Battery Wagner, a key Confederate fortification in Charleston's defensive network. Although the 18 July 1863 assault failed and cost the unit its fabled commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and 272 casualties, the unit's valor won the right for blacks to serve in the army. Nearly 179,000 African Americans subsequently enlisted and played a crucial role in the victory over slavery and the South. Equally important, the unit led the fight for racial justice. For eighteen months, the 54th and other black units in the Department of the South refused all pay until the federal government ended its policy of unequal pay for black soldiers. Although promised the same pay and benefits as whites, all blacks regardless of rank received less pay than white privates. Near mutinous conditions prevailed in the Fifty-fourth until Congress bowed to pressure and adopted legislation equalizing the pay of black and white troops. In the closing months of the war, elements of the Fifty-fourth were the first Union soldiers to occupy Charleston, the seat of secessionist fervor. The unit also destroyed valuable rail stock and liberated hundreds of slaves in the back country of north Georgia and South Carolina before mustering out of service in August 1865.

    Fort Scott NHS, Kansas

    The right to bear arms against the Confederate army was considered a part of emancipation. The First Kansas Colored, the first black regiment to see combat in the Civil War, and the Second Kansas Colored, were mustered here.

    Fort Sumter NM, South Carolina

    It was near here at Fort Wagner that the famous African American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts under Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, made its heroic attack. The 54th let the attack, scaled the parapet, and were only driven back after brutal hand-to-hand combat.

    Frederick Douglass NHS, Washington D.C.

    Frederick Douglass saw the Civil War as the inevitable consequence of man's inhumanity to man and a necessary conflagration to break the bonds of slavery. He saw immediately that if former slaves could fully participate in the fighting, they could not be denied full citizenship in the Republic. George Luther Turner, one of the original backers of John Brown, became a major in the Union Army. He immediately turned to Douglass to help recruit "Colored" ; Troops. The March issue of "Douglass Monthly" issued the well known challenge "Men of Color To Arms." Douglass recruited over one hundred free blacks from upstate New York for the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts. Among the recruits arriving at boot camp were two of Douglass' sons Lewis and Charles. Lewis, the older son, served as the first sergeant major of the 54th and he was in the thick of the fighting at Fort Wagner where 1515 Union troops were mowed down by a blistering barrage from the Confederate stronghold. Lewis marveled that he returned unharmed from the assault. President Lincoln sought Douglass' advise and invited him to the White House. Apparently the two men came to an immediate understanding and respect for one another. Douglass left that meeting feeling that his concerns would be addressed and he agreed to continue to do more recruiting. Douglass had one more meeting with Lincoln on behalf of the black soldiers concerning equal pay. He felt that his advise was sincerely sought and duly considered. Nevertheless, Douglass was often frustrated by Lincoln's procrastination in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, was a decisive moment in the relationship of Douglass and Lincoln. Once having been issued, the slavery system was doomed. Douglass had persuaded Lincoln to make the pronouncement, and once having done so, the course of the war and the future of the nation were profoundly changed.

    Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP, Virginia

    Portions of four major Civil War Battlefields - Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House - Chatham Manor, Salem Church, and the historic building in which Stonewall Jackson died comprise the park. Fredericksburg National Cemetery is within the park and contains the graves of several USCT soldiers.

    George Washington Memorial Parkway, Virginia

    The 1st USCT encamped and trained on the Theodore Roosevelt Island.

    Gettysburg NMP, Pennsylvania

    The great Civil War battle fought here July 1-3, 1863, repulsed the second Confederate invasion of the North and today, the park has numerous historic items including a collection of several dozen African American Civil War museum objects from the Gladstone collection.

    Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, Missouri

    One of the most important cases ever tried in the United States was heard in St. Louis' Old Courthouse, which is today part of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The two trials of Dred Scott in 1847 and 1850 were the beginning of a complicated series of events which concluded with a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1857, and hastened the start of the Civil War.

    Petersburg NB, Virginia

    More USCT soldiers fought at Petersburg than at any other Civil War battle. One of their most notable actions included their participation in the Battle of the Crater during which African American soldiers suffered horrific losses attempting to seize Petersburg.

    Rock Creek Park, Washington D.C.

    The park contains several sites that were used in the movement of African Americans along the Underground Railroad from slavery to freedom.

    Springfield Armory NHS, Massachusetts

    From 1794 to 1968 Springfield Armory was a center for manufacture of U.S. military small arms and the scene of many important technological advances. Several types of weapons used by USCT were manufactured at the Springfield Armory.

    Vicksburg NMP, Mississippi

    It was during the engagements for this vital city that African American soldiers battled Confederate soldiers at Milliken's Bend in 1863.

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