Some clouds
40°
Some clouds
Hi 64° | Lo 44°

Blacks overlooked in Civil War histories

  • Ron Bailey of the Gettysburg Black History Museum talks to students at Mohawk Trail Regional School on Tuesday.   Recorder/Paul Franz

    Ron Bailey of the Gettysburg Black History Museum talks to students at Mohawk Trail Regional School on Tuesday. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Ron Bailey of the Gettysburg Black History Museum talks to students at Mohawk Trail Regional School on Tuesday.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Ron Bailey of the Gettysburg Black History Museum talks to students at Mohawk Trail Regional School on Tuesday. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Ron Bailey of the Gettysburg Black History Museum talks to students at Mohawk Trail Regional School on Tuesday.   Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Ron Bailey of the Gettysburg Black History Museum talks to students at Mohawk Trail Regional School on Tuesday.  Recorder/Paul Franz

BUCKLAND — In Gettysburg, almost 100 years before Abraham Lincoln proclaimed “a new birth of freedom” in his famous address, African-Americans in that small Pennsylvania town were already living their own freedom — as free-born residents, or freed slaves, who owned farms and ran businesses. Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican and fierce opponent to slavery, had an office right on Gettysburg’s town square.

But the famous Mason-Dixon line was only seven miles south, at the Maryland border. When the Civil War moved north, this black, free community of about 185 people lived in fear of Confederate soldiers who were capturing free-born blacks and selling them into slavery.

“Most of the 185 people left Gettysburg as the Civil War drew closer,” Ron Bailey, president of the Gettysburg Black History Museum, told a Mohawk Trail Regional School audience. “Several families returned, and their stories have yet to be told. This impact on black people was unique, in that free black people had to escape. They lived in constant fear of slave-catchers.”

Bailey spoke Tuesday morning at an event sponsored by the Mary Lyon Education Foundation. Bailey, an Amherst College graduate, is also a long-time friend of Shelburne Falls Postmaster Erik Doty, who introduced Bailey to the audience.

That black people know too little about their own history and heroes was the subtext of his talk and slide presentation. It is also the reason for creating the Gettysburg Black History Museum, which tells the story of Gettysburg’s history from the African-American perspective.

For instance, he said, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery where Lincoln made his famous speech was “built by black labor,” he said.

Bailey said that about 15,000 black men served on the battlefield, largely as “teamsters,” for supplying both sides of the war. He noted that Massachusetts’s 54th Regiment Volunteer Infantry of black soldiers was “very active.”

“We had people in Gettysburg trying to reach Massachusetts.” He said they wanted to join the Massachusetts Regiment because they had been turned away from other units. “So they were trying to come here,” said Bailey.

According to the US National Archives: “By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10 percent of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war — 30,000 of infection or disease. Black soldiers served in artillery and infantry and performed all noncombat support functions that sustain an army, as well. Black carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons and teamsters also contributed to the war cause. There were nearly 80 black commissioned officers. Black women, who could not formally join the Army, nonetheless served as nurses, spies and scouts, the most famous being Harriet Tubman, who scouted for the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.”

Bailey, who had lived in Africa for 11 years, said that Africans who sold their enemies into slavery had a different concept of slavery “that was nothing like the holocaust that took place here.” He said people became enslaved as the result of war, or as punishment, but that slaves in Africa were allowed to marry, own property or even buy his or her freedom. “Being a slave was never reduced to (being) chattel,” he said. “He had rights.”

“I met groups of people in Africa who apologized to me (for slavery).”

Bailey spoke of meeting the king of a small country, who greeted Bailey through the use of an interpreter, because he didn’t know that Bailey spoke French.

“Tell the American,” he told the interpreter, “that after 400 years, we are pleased he has returned. Tell the American,” he continued, “we are pleased that he has returned and that he has not lost his color.”

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

There are no comments yet. Be the first!
Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.