Interest in black soldiers who fought for Union grows in NC

Published 7:36 pm Sunday, September 24, 2017

RALEIGH — As Deborah Jones was researching her own genealogy, she stumbled onto some North Carolina history with which she wasn’t familiar — the muster of a troop of black union soldiers as the Civil War was wrapping up.

Now Jones, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, is part of a group researching the 135th U.S. Colored Troops, which was mustered in Goldsboro in March 1865.

“I just started … finding out more about these troops and their participation in their freedom,” Jones said. “They had this opportunity, and they decided to be part of the success of people coming out of slavery.”

Historians estimate that about 180,000 black soldiers fought for the Union, including about 5,000 from five regiments in North Carolina. When the war ended in 1865, African-Americans accounted for about 10 percent of the Union army.

The Goldsboro research group is part of what U.S. Colored Troop advocates believe is a building interest in North Carolina in the black soldiers who fought for the North. In New Bern, for example, Tryon Palace is sponsoring a reenactment with the 35th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops and the 7th Regiment of the Confederate States Army.

Historian and museum curator Hari Jones, who will be the keynote speaker at a symposium in April in Goldsboro, said what he sees nationally is better research by both reenactors and local history groups rather than more people involved. “The quality is so good that it’s gotten more interest among future scholars,” he said.

Tryon Palace received a grant of more than $23,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences to provide uniforms for the 35th, said Craig Ramey, spokesman for the historic site. The New Bern Academy Museum, which Tryon Palace manages and where the reenactment will be held, is the home to a historic marker for the rallying of North Carolina’s first regiment of black Union soldiers, who were later designated the 35th.

The reenactors will set up an encampment and conduct their drills, but won’t battle each other, Ramey said.

Bernard George, who previously was a reenactor with a Kinston regiment before the New Bern regiment was established, blames revisionist history for a lack of information about the U.S. Colored Troops.

“About 40 years after the end of the Civil War, most of the black Civil War heroes and those of Reconstruction were written out of history,” George said. And former slaves and their descendants didn’t want to be reminded of antebellum times, he said. “We were glad to put the Civil War behind us.”

The president of the U.S. Colored Troops Living History Association , Malcolm Beech of Kinston, said he expects to have a new regiment of reenactors in Goldsboro and Raleigh in 2018. He also expects North Carolina will have 30 Colored Troop reenactors within a year or so, giving the state the most in the country.

“It doesn’t compare to what the Confederates usually have,” he said. “But if you have 30, it makes a visible difference.”

In Goldsboro, the research group is planning a Civil War living history weekend in April with a symposium, a pop-up museum and an encampment. They also hope to raise money for a monument to the 135th, said Amy Bauer, who is leading the research. North Carolina has just one monument to the USCT, a rectangular stone marker on top of a concrete base in Hertford, located near the Virginia line.

The city of Goldsboro is interested in helping to honor the troops with a monument, although no money has been committed since officials haven’t seen a design, city manager Scott Stevens said.

“I believe there will be a memorial,” he said. “But what does it look like and where do we put it? I think we’re going to be part of trying to do the right thing.”