Men of Color, to Arms! / by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

 A USCT unit's standard bearers march to formation before the reenactment of the battle of New Market Heights; Henrico County, Virginia, September 2014. Photo: EHP

A USCT unit's standard bearers march to formation before the reenactment of the battle of New Market Heights; Henrico County, Virginia, September 2014. Photo: EHP

A couple of weeks ago, Brian and I witnessed our first Civil War battle reenactment, in Henrico County, Virginia. To be honest, I was anticipating a corny spectacle. I was also dreading encounters with "Heritage, Not Hate" types (those who contend that the Confederate flag is an innocuous symbol of Southern pride, not of white racism and violence). The latter were almost certainly in attendance, but I found my attention wholly absorbed by the United States Colored Troops.

By the end of the Civil War, the USCT comprised nearly 200,000 African American men, accounting for 10 percent of the Union Army. The battle we were about to see reenacted — New Market Heights, which took place on September 29, 1864 — was a pivotal victory for the North. It was also won by African American soldiers. 

The reenactment of the battle itself, though impressive (what struck me most was the sheer proximity of the soldiers to one another), didn't move me the way the lead-up to the fighting did. Watching the black troops assemble — segregated from their white fellow soldiers — I felt the magnitude of what they were fighting for. "Freedom" is a word we toss around so . . . freely . . . that it has lost much of its meaning. It can also smack of ignorance and entitlement and petulance and hypocrisy in today's America. But for the men of the USCT, freedom was of the most elemental kind. I felt this in my bones as I watched them line up for inspection and then march out in formation to their position on the battlefield. —EHP