A ‘Sojourn’ into History

West kicks of Black History Month lecture series at Daniel Island library with talk on African-Americans in the Civil War

By Charlie Morrison

Daniel Island kicked off Black History Month with a bang last Wednesday Feb. 1, the bang of a Springfield rifle, when two dozen Daniel Island residents flocked to the Daniel Island Branch of the Berkeley County Library system for the first of a three-part lecture series the library is featuring in February titled “Civil War and Black History.”

The lecture series is being coordinated by Daniel Island branch reference assistant Virginia Davis, and featured a trio of distinguished historians, Trident Technical College History Coordinator Donald West, decorated African-American historian Ron Roth, and Dr. Nic Butler, archivist and historian with the Charleston Library System. West was the first in the series to lecture. His presentation focused on the role of African-Americans in the Civil War, namely that African-Americans did have a role in the outcome of the conflict.download (1)

“The American Civil War has long been an ongoing and contentious issue examined and argued over by the average layperson, journalists, educators, scholars, history buffs and of course politicians,” began West, a longtime Charleston-based historian and regular volunteer with the Massachusetts 54th reenactment regiment. “Recent historical events including the observance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War have provided us with unique opportunities and teachable moments to learn about this period in U.S. history, with dozens, even hundreds of books articles and activities on the subject. The inextricable link, as most historians have reminded us, is that black people were at the heart of it.”

And not only that, continued West, but in every other war as well. “Whether it’s the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or the War of 1812, African-Americans have been a part of every major conflict in our nation’s history going back to the French and Indian War,” he said.

West did much to dispel the myth, at least any whiff of it hanging around the library’s reading room, that Blacks didn’t play much of a role in the outcome of the Civil War. Using dates, figures, facts, and anecdotal evidence West devoted his one-hour lecture to making the case that not only did African-Americans play a role in the outcome of the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history, they were integral.

“Men like Frederick Douglass, Martin Delaney, Octavius Catto helped with recruitment,” said West. “Sojourner Truth, Mary Anne Shadd and other Black women helped recruit men too,” began West on some of the most influential figures of the period. “Truth also served for a time as a nurse in the war. Another nurse, Lucy Higgs, her service and devotion to the 23rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry, a White Union regiment, earned her a government pension.”

“Additionally, tens of thousands of black civilians, both men and women served as cooks, dockworkers and teamsters. Some were spies, scouts and informants,” he continued. “They kept clean and buried the dead as well as nursed the sick and injured of both races.”
West used numerical figures in addition to historical figures in telling the story of African-Americans in the Civil War. He reported that approximately 209,000 Black soldiers and sailors fought with the Union during the four-year war, 25 of whom received the medal of honor. Blacks like the brave men of the Massachusetts 54th, said West, participated in well over 400 Civil War land battles, including the historic assault on Fort Battery Wagner, once located on present-day Morris Island. In addition, black sailors fought in literally every significant sea battle in the conflict, reported West.

They fought at Milliken’s Bend in Louisiana, here in the Lowcountry, and with General Ulysses S. Grant at Petersburgh, Richmond, and Appomattox, he said. More than 3,500 Black troops even stood guard with their Caucasian colleagues as Robert E. Lee surrendered, continued West.

The room was engaged, laughing with West at some of the quirks of history he discussed, reeling with a collective gasp as the image of a whipped, scarred slave flashed across the projector screen, and asking the historian a series of questions after his lecture.

“Despite the reluctance of Lincoln to use blacks in the military and regardless of the racial discrimination as well as the general belief of most northern whites that African American soldiers did not have the discipline or willpower to fight, black soldiers, sailors and civilians played a significant role in the final results of the war, preserving the Union and ending slavery,” said West before concluding his lecture and taking questions. “For African-Americans, sitting on the sidelines was never an option. The African-American men and women of the Civil War paved the way for the unmistakable legacy that we all benefit from now, a united and free nation.”

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