By Jennifer Farish
Four regiments of African American soldiers who fought with Union forces during the campaigns in Tupelo and Harrisburg are an often neglected part of the war's history, said a local cultural expert.
Charles Johnson, creator of "Blue Suede Shoes in the Hood" and local cultural researcher, explained the role of the United States Colored Troops to an audience of approximately 20 people gathered for the City of Tupelo's first Civil War Symposium held Saturday.
Freedom and safety for their families provided by contraband camps in the North were among the reasons African Americans chose to fight in what was primarily viewed as "a white man's war," Johnson said.
The 59th, 61st, 68th and 2nd regiments of the U.S.C.T. were all involved in various parts of the battles around Tupelo and were responsible for covering the Union army as it retreated out of North Mississippi, said Brig. Gen. Parker Hills.
The troops were used mainly to guard trains, railroads and supplies and were often trained better than the white troops because officers felt the white troops could just naturally fight, Johnson said.
Johnson, in response to a question, said there are a number of ways for the Civil War history to become more inclusive of the role of the African American troops.
"Just do what we are doing now. Include it in high schools and history lessons," Johnson said, adding the children will pass the history on to their parents and down to their own children.
He added possibly including stories of African American troops in Black History Month lessons could be another way to ensure the "gallant fighting" of those troops does not become a lost part of the war's history.
Jim Woodrick, of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, added Mississippi will become the first state to erect a monument to Civil War African American troops with a statue of three men being constructed in the Vicksburg park.
The monument will depict two soldiers and one civilian. One soldier will be looking back to signify the past, while the other soldier will look forward into the future, Woodrick said, adding the civilian statue will hold a shovel in honor of the many non-military African Americans who aided in the Vicksburg campaign.
Creating a map
The first of what Tupelo city government hopes will become an annual symposium was also intended to give the city a beginning in establishing a map of local battlefields and specific locations mentioned in Civil War history, said Tupelo Mayor Larry Otis.
"The city is interested from a standpoint of being able to ultimately create a driving map of the Battle of Harrisburg," Otis said, adding the city feels it is important to be able to show visitors where the battles took place and hopes to use that opportunity to illustrate the large contingent of African American soldiers fighting for the Union during the battle.
Other sessions in the symposium included Dean Burchfield speaking on "Riding a Raid: The Union Calvary in Northeastern Mississippi"; Hills on "The Battle of Tupelo"; and Woodrick on "As fierce as Pharoahs: The Battle of Coleman's Crossroads".