Today, I participated in the “Freedom Rising” symposium at Harvard University. It featured a terrific group of scholars and scholarship related to the emancipation of slaves of African descent in the United States and elsewhere, and I was honored to be included among them. More information on the conference can be found <at this link>.
Because it will be of interest to the readers of Civil War Emancipation, below is the text of my presentation. I talked about the national convention of black Civil War veterans that took place in Boston’s Tremont Temple Baptist Church in August 1887, an event full of historical significance related to both emancipation and African-American military service in the Civil War, which naturally was of great interest to the local audience, especially since the symposium’s closing event will take place tomorrow at the same location as the veteran’s gathering in 1887–Tremont Temple.
“Celebration and Agitation: The Black Civil War Veterans Reunion at Boston’s Tremont Temple, August 1887”
Tomorrow, people will gather at Tremont Temple for a dramatic performance exploring the connections between the Haitian Revolution and the end of slavery in the United States. Celebrating the coming of freedom in the American Civil War is quite appropriate as Americans in 2013 commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and the advent of black military service in the Union Army. What most of the audience in Tremont Temple will be unaware of though is that this location hosted another notable celebration of freedom over 125 years ago, when about 300 former black soldiers and sailors, as well as their supporters gathered there in August 1887 for the only known national reunion of black Civil War veterans.
The gathering occurred in Boston because although it drew veterans from outside the Northeast, the core participants were from the black Massachusetts regiments, not only the legendary 54th Massachusetts Infantry, but also its sister regiments, the 55th Massachusetts Infantry and 5th Massachusetts Calvary. The reunion’s timing seems to have been the result of two factors. First, the 1880s saw a significant increase of activity by Civil War veterans in general, as men who had eagerly resumed civilian life in 1865, over time became nostalgic about their military service as its horrors faded, and ex-soldiers and sailors increasingly assumed an honored place in American society. Second, for all Civil War veterans, Union and Confederate, the 1880s saw an escalation in the battle over the Civil War’s meaning and legacy—in other words, a conflict over the Civil War as memory.
For black veterans, to a degree unmatched by their white counterparts, Union and Confederate, the conflict over memory had serious practical consequences both for themselves and their race. The war had resulted not only in the end of slavery, but also led to the establishment of fundamental constitutional rights that on paper made African Americans free and equal citizens of the United States. Yet black veterans in the 1880s could not help but see these rights and the very security of African Americans were under attack, especially in the states of the former Confederacy, where in the wake of Reconstruction, white Southerners sought to reestablish racial supremacy. And, so, while the gathering of black veterans on August 2-3, 1887, at Tremont Temple was a joyous celebration of what they had achieved a quarter of century before, it also was a sobering occasion to rededicate themselves to defending their race’s hard won gains from the Civil War.
The veterans selected as their presiding officer, James Monroe Trotter, one of the few African Americans commissioned as a line officer in a black Civil War regiment, becoming a lieutenant in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry late in his service. Trotter was no doubt chosen because in 1887 he was the Recorder of Deeds in the District of Columbia, making him at the time one of the most prominent political appointees of African descent in the country. (For example, Frederick Douglass had previously held this plumb position.) Trotter gave the opening address to the convention reminding them of the great risk that had set apart their military service. “Your lot, comrades, was not like the white man’s,” he said. “You well understood that your enemies in the South would give you no quarter.”[i]
James Monroe Trotter was followed on the speakers’ podium by Alfred Hartwell and Norwood Hallowell, both high-ranking white officers of black Massachusetts troops during the Civil War. Indeed, it is notable that a number of white officers of the black regiments joined their former soldiers in Boston, demonstrating that their wartime alliance was still alive over two decades later. After their speeches, the former soldiers and their officers assembled on the nearby Boston Common where they paraded to the applause of a sizeable crowd, including the Governor of Massachusetts and the Mayor of Boston. The evening saw more speeches, most notably by William H. Carney, the hero of the Battle of Fort Wagner.
If the first day of the black veterans’ reunion had been a celebration of their military service in the Civil War, on the second day, the former soldiers at a morning business meeting turned to the current problems of their race. By 1887, as previously noted, increasingly African Americans found not only their citizenship rights violated, but also sometimes their lives at risk as white Americans, especially in the South, turned to violence to punish transgressors of white supremacy and more generally to terrorize the black population into submission. As the resolution drawn up by the veterans’ aptly put it:
“The stubborn and colossal fact stands out boldly, wickedly and cruelly that American citizens of African descent, survivors of their brave dead comrades, who placed in peril life and limb for the preservation of the Union, and their kindred to-day in a large portion of this great nation are denied justice in the courts, deprived of the exercise of the elective franchise, the victims of mob violence, an unprotected and outraged people.”[ii]
The black veterans at Tremont Temple demanded the federal government, indebted to them for their Civil War service, use its power to protect their race from violence and guarantee their constitutional rights. The reunion also called upon white Union veterans to turn away from reconciliation with their former Confederate enemies, which was becoming increasingly common and join them in guaranteeing the safety and citizenship rights of African Americans. In addition, they advocated for a memorial in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the service of black Union soldiers and sailors, and demanded that the Grand Army of the Republic, the principal Union veterans’ organization, take action against white Union veterans in Louisiana and Mississippi, who were seeking to force former black soldiers into a separate regional organization or “department,” instead of permitting them to join the existing one.
After the business meeting, the veterans closed out the reunion by traveling by boat to Hingham, Massachusetts. There they decorated the grave of Governor John Andrew, who had championed early the service of African Americans as soldiers during the Civil War. This act highlighted an important attribute of the convention. While a meeting of black Union veterans, as previously noted, the Tremont Temple gathering had a manifestly biracial character, and not merely because many former white officers of black regiments attended. That is, the ex-soldiers and sailors there made a point to honor not just their own service, but also a variety of white heroes, who had supported them and black race before, during, and after the Civil War. For example, in addition to Gov. Andrew, the assembled veterans also pointedly paid tribute to John Brown, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, Gen. Benjamin Butler, and others.
The celebration of white champions of African Americans at Tremont Temple was characteristic of black veterans generally and their Civil War memory. It was common for these men after the war through acts of commemoration to honor all Americans who risked themselves for the black race, regardless of their background. For example, numerous black GAR posts were named for various white Americans in addition to prominent African Americans (as well as a few significant international figures of African descent). No doubt, the veterans hoped with this interracial commemoration they could rekindle white support for their struggles to maintain voting and citizenship rights, and gain protection against racial violence.
Their hopes in this regard were not entirely in vain. The Tremont veterans, as will be recalled, had demanded the Grand Army of the Republic prevent the exclusion of black veterans from its department in Louisiana and Mississippi. While the 1887 reunion cannot take the entire credit, it is worth nothing the GAR ultimately refused to allow white Union veterans there to exclude black veterans, and the national leadership went as far as to purge departmental officers who refused to accept African Americans, paving the way for the participation of African American in the existing GAR department in Louisiana and Mississippi. White Union veterans then, responding to pressure from the 1887 black veterans convention and elsewhere, refused to betray their former black comrades, at least within the Grand Army. Indeed, while the segregation of many local posts would constitute a necessary concession to Jim Crow in the South and elsewhere, some local posts in the North accepted black members, and in some instances African Americans became post officers and a few even rose to become commanders of interracial posts and officers of GAR departments.
Yet the sad fact remained that when it came to status of African mericans more generally, which was at the heart of the concerns of the black veterans at Tremont Temple in August 1887, they largely found indifference from white Union veterans, who while they might be grateful to African Americans for risking their lives for the Union during the Civil War and maintained some semblance of racial inclusion within the GAR, proved unwilling to push for meaningful federal intervention to save citizenship rights and black lives from the terror inflicted on African American in the late nineteenth century.
So while black veterans, at Boston in August 1887, and elsewhere proved unable to preserve all their race’s gains from the Civil War, neither did they let them evaporate without a fight. Indeed, if no sustained black veterans’ movement for civil rights and security emerged from the 1887 reunion it was partly because they already were a dwindling group. By 1890, only about a quarter of the black soldiers and sailors of the Civil War were still alive (compared to about half of both Union and Confederate veterans). Despite their declining numbers, some black veterans would remain players in the civil rights struggle until their generation passed from the scene. For example, John B. Anderson, an ex-USCT soldier from Annapolis, Maryland, would play a notable role in the legal wrangling that ultimately led to U.S. Supreme Court decision of Guinn v. Oklahoma in 1915, declaring the grandfather clause unconstitutional. And as one speaker at the 1887 reunion noted that however endangered were African Americans and their citizenship rights, without question slavery was dead forever in the United States, and in that respect the veterans’ at the Tremont Temple reunion could justifiably rejoice in their role in making it happen. Let us in 2013 rejoice with them. Thank you.