On one of the terrible, and then one of the great, American moments.
As part of my Veteran’s Week series, I wrote about the frustrating contradiction embodied by African American World War I soldiers—the way in which their impressive collective service gave way to continued discrimination and mistreatment once they were back stateside. Those responses were made possible, or at least greatly enabled, by the nation’s ability to forget the soldiers’ service, to write this hugely inspiring history right out of our communal memories (despite the best efforts of writers and leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois). And it’s important to note that such post-war communal forgetting and elision had happened before, and in an even more overtly ironic way: the forgetting and elision of the histories and stories of the more than 180,000 African Americans who served as US Colored Troops during the Civil War.
Given all the challenges faced by those African American Civil War soldiers, given Abraham Lincoln’s clear crediting of them with helping turn the tide of the war, and given the freakin’ overarching cause of the war itself, our immediate and absolute forgetting and elision of this community of veterans was and remains a national disgrace and shame. And while those processes unfolded over many years, they also can be localized in one specific and very telling moment: the May 23-24, 1865 Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, DC, in which over two hundred thousand Union veterans marched from the Capitol to the White House—and for which not a single USCT soldier was invited or allowed to participate. It’s impossible to know whether Abraham Lincoln, had he lived, would have permitted the Grand Review to develop in that way; but it’s certainly fair to link the moment and exclusion directly to the immediate post-war changes in Reconstruction plans and goals enacted by the Andrew Johnson administration and much of the rest of the federal government.
If the Grand Review was thus a low moment in American history, it also led, six months later, to one of our high points: Harrisburg’s Grand Review of Black Troops. On November 14, 1865, Harrisburg’s own Thomas Morris Chester—Civil War journalist, recruiter, and leader; son of an escaped slave who would go on to study law and become an educational leader and much more; one of America’s most inspiring figures by any measure—served as grand marshal for a parade of US Colored Troops, who marched through the city to the home of former secretary of war Simon Cameron (who reviewed and thanked the troops). Speeches by Octavius Catto, William Howard Day, and other luminaries helped frame the moment’s true historical, social, and national significance. And significant it was and remains: while it’s vital to remember, and rage against, the way in which the African American soldiers and veterans were forgotten and elided in our collective memories, then and (to at least too great of an extent) now, it’s just as important to remember the kinds of inspiring alternative histories and communities represented by great moments like Harrisburg’s Grand Review.
Next Harrisburg history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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