Kevin Levin decided to forego staying at Gettysburg for this week’s events. Instead, he headed to Montreal, presumably to brush up on his sadly lacking hockey acumen, although anyone could have told him that Montreal is the last place a Boston Bruins fan (and I use this term very, very loosely) is welcome.
In choosing as he did, Kevin missed an excellent chance to enrich his study of Civil War memory, and, given his interests, he may have cause to regret nothing quite so much as the heaven-sent opportunity contained in today’s The Evening Sun, “serving the Greater Hanover and Gettysburg areas.”
Black re-enactor with Rebels says that ‘image needs to be portrayed’
By ASHLEY MAY
Behind Confederate lines stands a man with blue pants, a white shirt and a black face.
Shane Williams, from Canton, Ohio is a Confederate re-enactor with 1st Tennessee Company H. He’s set up camp on the Redding Farm during the battle re-enactment recognizing the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Richard Adams, a private of the same company, said there aren’t enough black re-enactors in the Confederate ranks. And he believes there should be more to represent black people who served as slaves and, he said, might have fought.
“The way I see it, whether slaves were forced to fight or they were volunteers, it’s an image that needs to be portrayed,” Williams said.
Rachel Edgar, a Union re-enactor who passes bread to the troops, said she hasn’t heard of any black Confederate soldiers, but under rare circumstances, it could have been possible.
There are no historical accounts of black men under arms fighting for the Confederacy, but there are accounts of slaves staying in Confederate camps with their masters.
“Most slaves had never been off of their Southern plantations,” Williams said. “They didn’t know anything else. They came with their masters.”
Williams said many black men wanted to fight for what they knew was theirs — the land that belonged to their master.
“I’m going to fight for what I know is mine,” he said.
Historians say there were slaves whose primary loyalty was to their master or plantation, but the Confederate government refused to arm slaves.
Runaway slaves, or those liberated by Union soldiers, were far more likely to enlist in Northern regiments when the government accepted their service in 1863. By the end of the war, about 180,000 black men served in the Union army.
Williams’ role as a black Confederate soldier is met with some controversy among his friends. Williams also belongs to the 5th U.S. Colored Troops, Company G, an Ohio re-enactment group.
“Because most blacks in the South were slaves, they feel that it’s disrespectful to my heritage,” Williams said.
But, he said he wants to teach the public about U.S. history. He’s been a part of re-enactments for 10 years, and has portrayed a Confederate soldier for four years.
Many high-ranking officers had slaves with them in Gettysburg, working as servants and cooks.
Adam Bell, of the 33rd Virginia, Company E, said some slaves came simply because they liked their master and wanted to care for them, but it wasn’t incredibly common.
Mitch Riggs, a Confederate re-enactor with the 33rd Virginia Volunteer Infantry Company E, plays the part of a German soldier in a small Irish unit. He said too often people believe slavery was the only reason behind the Civil War, but many soldiers didn’t have a solid opinion on the matter.
“Not a lot of people know their history,” said Riggs,of Pulaski, Pa.
Few in the ranks of the Confederate army owned slaves themselves, and were poor farmers “one step above slaves,” Riggs said.
“A lot of them couldn’t write their names,” Daniel Hall said.
Hall, also in the 33rd Virginia Volunteer Infantry, said the original 60 men in the company previously were railroad workers.
“In railroad work, they wouldn’t want to lose a slave, because that would cost money,” he said. “If they lost an Irishmen, they wouldn’t have to pay anything.”
In the Union army, opinions on slavery weren’t all that different. Most Northern soldiers enlisted to save the Union, and some resented the increased attention on freeing the slaves later in the conflict. At the same time, a significant number of Union soldiers were committed abolitionists who saw the war as a struggle for freedom from the beginning.
There are not a lot of details on black men in the Confederate Army, and Williams doesn’t claim to represent a particular person within a specific unit. But, he plans to further develop his role.
“I’m not a slave,” Williams said. “I’m still researching.”
My, oh my. Here was your chance, Kevin.
Finally, for those of you wanting to have more fun at home, I direct you here.