Civil War-era black troops fought three-pronged war

bheffernan@islandpacket.comMay 31, 2013 


Civil War scholar and reenactor Asa Gordon talks about Harriet Tubman's role as the creator and leader of the 1863 Combahee River Raid Friday afternoon during a lecture on the legacy of U.S. black troops who served in the Civil War at Cherry Hill School on Hilton Head Island.

SARAH WELLIVER — Sarah Welliver Buy Photo

The Civil War was fought between two sides, but for the black freedmen and escaped slaves who enlisted as U.S. Colored Troops, the war had three fronts.

The first two battles -- for liberty from slavery in the South and for equal rights within the Union Army -- were won years ago.

The third -- for education -- is still being waged. It's a campaign in which Asa Gordon, Secretary General of the Sons and Daughters of the U.S. Colored Troops, is a soldier.

Gordon spoke Friday at the Cherry Hill School, an original building in what was once the town of Mitchelville. Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel set land aside for the settlement after driving Confederate forces off the island in 1861. The community, which eventually grew to more than 1,500 residents, formed in 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Mitchelville Preservation Project and the Hilton Head Island Land Trust sponsored Gordon's talk.

Gordon said the continuing fight for education began as an individual struggle among the troops to become literate. Education was believed at the time to offer freedom and a path to prosperity and it was fiercely sought after by the soldiers, Gordon said.

That fight has since morphed into a battle for a public re-education about the role of the black troops in the war effort, he said.

The soldiers' role and character has been distorted by history books and the 1989 film "Glory," Gordon told a standing-room-only audience. The troops, some of whom served on Hilton Head and played a role in protecting the island, were often depicted as lazy and uninterested in educating themselves. They were sometimes shown as poor soldiers.

"Present-day prejudices were projected on another time," Gordon told the audience. "Part of the education is to understand how we have been miseducated."

Following the talk, Gordon led a walk along Beach City Road to the site of Fort Howell, where a remembrance was held for the black troops who built the fort.

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