Civil War Reenactor Gallery

DJJ as TMChester

Daniel J. Johnson as Thomas Morris Chester (2012). (c) Daniel J. Johnson. All rights reserved.

Banish the Use of “Colorful” Adjectives for People

(c) July 10, 2015, Daniel J. Johnson

Now that the State of South Carolina has removed the Confederate battle flag, the Southern Cross, from its state capitol, perhaps the American people and our government–local, state, and federal–can take a more substantial step toward healing and unity: discontinue the use of the words black, white, and brown (even yellow, red, and green) to identify, categorize, and describe people.These words in the lexicon of slavery predate the Confederacy.

Obviously, skin color identification is an aid to law enforcement, historians, anthropologists, and casting directors, but, otherwise, does our government have an irrefutable need to collect census data according to skin color and “race”? Do corporations really need to continue collecting this data? There was a brief time during the Colonial period–before slavery–when colonists identified themselves and one another, as English, Dutch, French, Spanish, German, Scottish, Irish, and even African. Nationality mattered at a time when colonizing nations fought over competing claims to American territory (albeit, still occupied by multiple Native American nations). But with the introduction of slavery and slave codes that stripped Africans and their descendants of every human right, came the use of “White,” “Red,” “Black,” “Negro” (Spanish for black) Colored, Mulatto, and Maroon to indicate social status: whether a person was free or a slave, fully human or subhuman, so that legal and social privileges could be conferred or denied appropriately.

If the Confederate flag is a vestige of a shameful and hurtful time in our nation’s past, even more so are these skin color references to which we cling.

*   *   *

During the reenactment season in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, I portray Mr. Thomas Morris Chester (1834-1892) of Harrisburg, Penn. Chester was the first and only African American journalist to write for a major daily newspaper, namely the Philadelphia Press, during the Civil War. There were, in fact, two Black weeklies published at the time, one of them being the Christian Recorder, published by the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Soldiers and chaplains in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) would write letters to the editors of those papers on their experiences during the war. But Chester, who had edited a newspaper during his stay in Liberia, was the only Colored news gatherer, or Special Correspondent, as war correspondents were called then.

From August 1864 to June 1865, Chester’s beat as a Special was the USCT regiments in the Army of the James, commanded at first by Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler and later by Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord. Chester arrived in the eastern theater shortly after the Battle of the Crater and was there throughout the Siege of Petersburg and Richmond. He entered Richmond with the Union vanguard when the city fell on April 3, 1865.

Chester’s reports provided first-hand accounts of how the Colored soldiers fought and were treated by both the Union and the Confederacy. Although he was prominent in his time as a teacher, journalist, lawyer, and champion of the rights and dignity of African Americans, he has been overlooked in many histories of the war. We owe unending gratitude to Mr. R.J.M. Blackett for his biography of Chester.

***

Here are some of my photos from Civil War reenactments in northern Illinois. We have many great people in the hobby. Whenever you attend the reenactment, make the effort to talk to as many reenactors as you can, even those in period occupations you may not be strongly interested in. Every reenactor has a story to tell about himself or herself and the historical person he or she portrays. The more you learn from everyone at a reenactment, the deeper your understanding of what it was like to live in the 19th Century. Be willing to put aside what you’ve learned from the movies; movies are a starting point to history, not the whole story, and often not accurate in every detail. –danjerjohn

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Thomas Morris Chester’s Field Reports

Headquarters 2D Brigade, 3D Division, 18th Army Corps
North of the James River, September 7, 1864

Intelligence from Richmond of yesterday and the day before acknowledges the capture of Atlanta by General Sherman, and ascribes it to the removal of General Johnston from command of the Army of Tennessee.

Day before yesterday the enemy’s pickets in front of this corps engaged in a variety of fancy and other dances opposite our outposts. The dancing itself would scarcely have been noticed, but having ladies, relatives, and friends for partners within speaking distances of our videttes, attracted some attention, and afforded no little amusement.

There are sure evidences of a scarcity of food just now among the rebels. They are continually soliciting to exchange tobacco and their papers for hard tack, sugar and coffee, which are regarded by them as luxuries. The great desire to obtain these eatables, since the capture of the Weldon Railroad, has somewhat shortened their supplies; of course, in itself, sufficient to reflect the exhausted condition of their supplies. The men acknowledge that they receive far below the usual quantity allowed to them, in consequence of its great scarcity, and as yesterday was spent by their pickets in gaming for squirrels and other things, to be obtained by shooting, we may very correctly infer that they are in a very hungry condition.

One of the rebel pickets a day or two ago advanced, unarmed, of course, to the post of a colored sentinel. He immediately hauled out a large piece of tobacco, which would cost in this army about two dollars, and begged that the darkskinned soldier would give him one biscuit, or hard tack, as it is known here, to eat. He merely informed the reb that it was against orders to make exchanges with their enemy, and to the persistent and repeated entreaties of this hungry Confederate he turned a deaf ear. After Johnny found he could not persuade this colored soldier to furnish him with a biscuit, he went away cursing him for refusing to meet his wishes. It is very difficult, in fact, generally impossible, to induce a colored soldier to swerve one iota from the instructions he may receive towards awakening the inhabitants of Jeffdom to a fearful realization of their assumed position.

One of the best evidences of confidence in the valor of the colored troops is manifest in the fact that they are entrusted with holding the right of our line, which is the nearest point we possess to Richmond. Their character for fighting and discipline is established, and henceforth, they may be expected to take a part in all the grand engagements along this line. They are anxiously waiting for the opportunity to meet the enemy, as, independent of the affair of Government, many of them have a private account which they are determined to settle at the first opportunity.  Rollin

(Source: Blackett, R.J.M., editor. Thomas Morris Chester, Black Civil War Correspondent: His Dispatches from the Virginia Front. Louisiana State University Press, 1989.)

Richmond, April 17, 1865

The dreadful intelligence from Washington was received in this city yesterday about noon. The first report came that he was dead, which smote the hearts of the loyal people with deep sadness, but they resolved not to credit it. But soon the official confirmation removed all doubts, and the people were overwhelmed with profound grief. The effect of this sad news has filled the heart of loyalty with mourning, and caused the rebels to quake with apprehension when they heard that the consideration heretofore extended to them had been returned in a spirit of such fiendish barbarity, by assassinating the Chief Magistrate to whom they are indebted for the conciliatory measures which have marked the triumphs of the Union army.

Persons who were prominently connected with the rebellion have signified their intention, and will soon move in public meetings, to denounce the act in fitting language, and adopt such expressions of condolence as the circumstances require. This may serve a purpose, and may for a time pass for genuine sincerity, but to every reflecting mind there can be but one conclusion—that the death of the President of the United States is another one of the infamous crimes which logically followed the efforts of treason to dismember the Union. It was, no doubt, committed at the instigation of traitors, with the object of affording them the consolation of making good their boast that Abraham Lincoln should never be acknowledged as their President. This class of persons need a little looking after, or we shall soon learn that some other idol of the loyal North has been murdered by those whose opportunities for slaying Union patriots in the field have so greatly diminished, but who do not hesitate to avail themselves of the services of the assassin.

Though Lincoln, the great, the good, and the honest patriot, has fallen, let us all trust that his successor may be imbued with the same spirit that has not only made the late President immortal in the estimation of his own countrymen, but which has gradually endeared him to the hearts of all lovers of freedom in foreign lands, until he has become the idol of the progressive spirit of mankind.

The Whig of to-day says, editorially:

The people of Petersburg had this afflicting news yesterday, before it was made public here.

Judge W. T. Joynes, Roger A. Pryor, John Lyon, and other prominent citizens, united in a call for a public meeting to express, if words could do so, their grief fo so sand an event, their abhorrence of the deed, and their sympathy for the bereaved. We know that the citizens of Richmond will take similar action.”

The flags of the shipping, both navy and merchantmen, were displayed at half-mast yesterday, and still continue so. Other marks of respect will no doubt be shown to the venerated dead.  Rollin

(Source: Blackett, R.J.M., editor. Thomas Morris Chester, Black Civil War Correspondent: His Dispatches from the Virginia Front. Louisiana State University Press, 1989.)

NOTES

Rollin was Mr. Chester’s pen name on the letters, as they were called, he sent to his editor John Russell Young, himself a former war correspondent during the earlier years of the war.

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