Camp Nelson in Kentucky meant freedom for Black men who could find their way to the site and fight for the Union Army, but the camp quickly became a nightmare for their families, who were eventually forced out and never emancipated. (Photo by nps.gov)

By Kara Thompson,
MDDC Intern

Calvin Osborne has always been fascinated by the Civil War. But growing up in the American Midwest, the Civil War battlegrounds were far and few between. The bloody story of how America turned upon itself has intrigued many. And when Osborne moved to the East Coast, he took advantage of the historical sites that have been preserved throughout the East Coast and Deep South.

In 1993, he went down to Charleston, S.C., to watch a reshowing 1989 film “Glory,” about the Civil War’s first all-Black volunteer company. The battle that the film depicts took place in Charleston, which made the location of the film’s revival significant. 

“I said, ‘Oh my god, I love this movie. What a great tribute to the Black heroes who themselves helped free slaves by fighting in the Civil War,’” said Osborne. “I decided to join the Civil War reenacting group that helped to make the movie.”

Black men in the early 1860s were promised freedom if they could steal themselves away from the chattel slavery system that dominated plantation life. (Photo by nps.gov)

Company B, the reenacting group, is dedicated to preserving the legacy of ​​the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and Black Soldiers in the Civil War. The organization is located in Washington, D.C., where Osborne moved to. 

Today, Osborne is in his twenty-ninth year with Company B. He has served in many roles within the group, including vice president, and is currently serving as president of the organization. 

Camp Nelson

Company B is not the only way Black civil war soldiers are being recognized for their role in history. Camp Nelson National Park in Kentucky, established in 2018, preserves the land that served as large recruitment and training center for African-American soldiers during the war.

Ernie Price, superintendent of the Camp Nelson National Monument, said the camp started in April 1863 with the intent to be a supply depot for the United States Army, specifically in preparation for attacks in areas around East Tennessee and Knoxville, Tenn. These campaigns were successful, and Camp Nelson had served its purpose. 

“Something very significant happened in April of 1864. There was a military policy that changed here in the Department of Kentucky, which would allow enslaved men to enlist in the United States military, and if they did so, they would be emancipated,” said Price.

Originally, the enslaved men needed permission from their owners to enlist, so there was not very much recruitment from the policy. But less than a month later, it was amended to say that permission from owners was not needed, and if the enslaved men could get to a federal military installation, they could enlist and later be emancipated. 

Camp Nelson, located in the middle of Kentucky and surrounded by agricultural areas heavy with enslavement, started to see huge amounts of enlistments—sometimes 200 in a single day—and by the end of the war over 10,000 soldiers would enlist and train there. 

These men would often bring their families with them, and so Camp Nelson turned into a refugee camp as well, according to Price. Though the men were emancipated upon enlisting, their families could not fight, meaning they were not given the option of freedom. 

On a May night in 1862, Robert Smalls decided he had lived his last day as an enslaved man. He took the boat he piloted for the Confederate Army and steered himself to freedom, which awaited just outside of the Charleston Harbor at a federal blockade. (Photo by nps.gov)

Brigadier General Speed Fry, Commandant of Camp Nelson, forcibly expelled refugees who did not have jobs in the camp between August 1864 and November 1864. His “Impulsion Order” cast out over 400 refugees during the middle of a winter storm.

“I think life and the camp for Black people in general—men, women or children, soldiers—was very tenuous. It was day to day, incredible hardships, often not enough food, the hope of some opportunity that was often jerked away and a very uncertain future,” Price told the AFRO. “It wasn’t that their life was good. I’m sure their life was incredibly hard here at Camp Nelson. But at least there was hope.”

The sentiment that life was hard for Black soldiers is echoed by Christopher Gwinn, Chief of Interpretation and Education at Gettysburg National Military Park. 

“At the beginning of the American Civil War, when most of the Northern people rush off and join the army, they’re not necessarily fighting for abolition,” he said. “I think most Americans then realize that slavery is kind of the fundamental issue with the war, but most northern men when they join the army, they’re fighting to destroy the rebellion.”

Founder of the African-American Newspapers, John Murphy Sr., served as a sergeant in the Union Army during the Civil War. (Photo Courtesy of nps.gov)

But Gwinn says this changes with time, if you look back at diaries and journals kept by White soldiers during the war.

“​​Over time, and it’s kind of remarkable to note, as more and more White soldiers see Black troops and combat or serve alongside them, there’s this growing respect for their ability as fighting men,” he said. 

According to Gwinn, about 180,000 Black soldiers served in the war in various capacities. 

“They initially are not used in combat roles. They’re used for manual labor, building roads, guarding rail lines, that kind of thing,” he said. “But over time, once they do get a chance to fight, they demonstrate themselves to be ferocious, ferocious fighters, and there’s no better example than the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry– which is one of the very first African-American regiments to see service in the American Civil War.” This same infantry is the one Osborne and other members of Company B represent during their reenactments.

Descendents of greatness

Though Osborne’s interest in the Civil War stretches back decades, he recently came across information that could hint at why this particular time period has always tugged at his spirit. Less than two years ago, he discovered that his great-great-grandfather fought with the First Kansas Colored Troops, the first group of Black men to actually fight in the Civil War.  

“I now know that it wasn’t just my spirit longing to keep these men’s history alive; this is my ancestor reaching out to me,” he said. “There’s an old saying in Black communities that if you reach out for your ancestors, they’ll reach back for you. And that’s exactly what I was doing, unbeknownst to me.”

The first time this soldier joined a segregated Civil War regiment for African-American men he signed an “X” to represent his free-will decision to enlist. Five years later, he returned as a Buffalo Soldier and signed his name, Moses Williams. (Photo by nps.gov)

Michael Boulware Moore is another person who still today is telling the story of an ancestor who fought in the war. His great-great-grandfather was Robert Smalls of South Carolina, a famous war hero who later went on to be a prominent leader during the Reconstruction era following the war. 

In his early 20s as an enslaved man, Smalls was sent to work as a pilot on a boat in Charleston by his master. He had to continue to pilot the boat even when it was taken over by Confederates during the war.

But Smalls knew there was a federal blockade just outside the Charleston Harbor, and that if he made it there, he would be emancipated. According to Moore, Smalls concocted a plan, which he launched the night of May 13, 1862.

“When the Confederate crew left , he put on the top hat and the long overcoat of the Confederate captain and mimicked his gait in the wheelhouse of the boat as he passed by these various forts,” said Moore. “He knew the passcodes and so he basically sailed the boat to freedom. And he was received as really one of the first real heroes of the Civil War.”

Once Smalls had his freedom he went back into the war effort and fought in 18 battles, becoming the first African-American to command a United States naval vessel. Through Admiral S F. DuPont, Smalls got an audience with President Lincoln, and persuaded him to allow other formerly enslaved men into the war effort, which led to the creation of the United States Colored Troops. 

“​​But the common conception of African Americans at that time was that they were less than human, that they were basically beasts of burden, that they were not capable of higher-level thinking,” said Moore. “I think Robert’s example showed that people of African descent can act with agency around issues of importance to them, that they can be strategic, that they can follow instructions, that they can do things that would be of service to the United States efforts.”

As Gwinn said, “one of the challenges with researching the African-American story in the American Civil War… is that their voices are often absent in the historical narrative.” But through the National Parks Service, Civil War reenactments and individual voices, these soldiers and their stories are slowly being added back into the greater narrative of the Civil war.

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