Today I had the honor of giving a talk to a local senior group at a church that had invited me to come in and discuss the Battle of New Market Heights. This was the second New Market Heights talk I’ve given to an elderly church group in the past two months, and I thought it was very interesting that one group was all African American and the other group was all white and they both had virtually identical reactions.
First, both church groups were practically unaware that African American soldiers served in large numbers during the war. They were equally unaware of the battle that took place at New Market Heights and the fact that fourteen black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor.
I find this especially interesting given the disparity between the two church groups. The group that I spoke to today consisted of 20 of the kindest seniors you could ever hope to meet. They were all white and I have to admit that I was slightly alarmed when I found out that they had only been told that I was talking about the Civil War (the name of my talk is “We are Soldiers, Not Slaves”: The USCT Experience at the Battle of New Market Heights – so very academic sounding, eh?)
When someone came up to me and told me that their grandfather fought for the Confederacy and that “I still fly the flag every day” I have to admit that I blanched. When I reached the point in my talk when I quoted James A. Seddon as saying “Slaves in flagrant rebellion are subject to death by the laws of every slave-holding State…They cannot be recognized in any way as soldiers subject to the rules of war and to trial by military courts…summary execution must therefore be inflicted on those taken” I was even more concerned at how the group might react.
As it turns out, my fears were completely unfounded and they probably speak more about my own state of mind than theirs. They were fascinated by the story of black men striking a blow for their own freedom and said the same thing that I hear over and over again when I talk about New Market Heights…namely, why hasn’t anyone told me about this before?
While this question is beyond the scope of this post, I think it’s interesting that a senior group at an African American church invited me to speak to them back in April and they had pretty much the same reaction. When I asked for a show of hands as to how many of them had heard about New Market Heights, the only person that raised their hand was the person who had invited me to speak to the group.
I don’t want to read too much into this, but I thought that it was interesting that two groups of equal size and roughly the same age, yet of different color, would react in the same way to a talk about something that happened literally in their own back yard. Are they simply victims of what Dimitri Rotov would refer to as a “Centennialist” approach to Civil War history that neglected the African American contribution? Or does this simply speak to the fact that they were not that interested in the topic in the first place?
Either way, it was my pleasure to talk to these groups and discuss an endlessly fascinating topic with them.