Although 200,000 African Americans served in the Union Army and Navy, and thousands more served Confederate causes, their role in the Civil War has long been overshadowed. A new Manassas Museum exhibit, Many Thousands Go: African Americans and the Civil War, shines a spotlight on the significant role both military and civilian African Americans played in the war.
The new exhibit, opening February 3 and continuing through April 1, explores America’s greatest conflict through the eyes of slaves, free blacks, and those African Americans who served in the Union army. It contains artifacts from the Pamplin Historical Park collection, interpretive panels, photographs, and a touch screen quiz.
The title of the exhibition, Many Thousands Go, is taken from a spiritual that slaves in Coastal South Carolina sang as they went to build Confederate fortifications to protect Charleston from Union invasion. In this exhibit, the lyrics “many thousands go” refer to African Americans who left their homes as soldiers, fugitive slaves, or in the service of the Confederacy.
When the Civil War began, both the North and the South refused to enlist African American soldiers. By the waning days of the war, following the North’s lead, the Confederate government authorized the enlistment of slaves as soldiers.
African American soldiers comprised 10% of the entire Union Army in the Civil War. From reported casualties, approximately one-third of all African Americans enrolled in the military lost their lives during the conflict. Twenty-five African Americans earned the Medal of Honor. Seven of the medals were awarded to Virginians; James Mifflin, Robert Blake, James Gardiner, Powhatan Beaty, Edward Ratcliff, James Miles, and Charles Veal.
After completing background research for Many Thousands Go, Pamplin Park historians were struck by the emerging theme of transformation, and made that a major focus of the exhibit. The exhibit details the transformation of Union war aims from defense of the Union to the abolition of slavery; the transformation of thinking among Northern soldiers and civilians regarding African American soldiers; the transformation of thought among Southern leaders regarding the arming of slaves; the transformation of African Americans from fugitive slaves to contraband of war; and ultimately, the continued transformation of the United States as a nation that has a longer history associated with slavery than without.
Several artifacts in the exhibit are unusual finds.
One is a diamond shaped metal badge worn by a Charleston, South Carolina slave, who was required to carry it after being registered with city officials by his owner. The identification disk (dog tag) was carried by Private Peter Turner, Company I, Fifth United States Colored Infantry, who fell wounded on September 29, 1864 at the Battle of New Market Heights, on the outskirts of Richmond.
Another is a stencil excavated at Folly Island, South Carolina belonging to Private Harrison Peril, a 22 year old farmer from Kentucky who joined Company K, Fifty Fifth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in June 1864 and died of disease a month later at New Bern, North Carolina.
Some artifacts emphasize the role of African-Americans in the Confederate Army, including the pension application of Terall Barnett, a slave who accompanied his master when he joined the Confederate army in 1864; and the requisition of rations for six anonymous black teamsters who served with the Thirteenth Virginia Infantry.
Curator Roxana Adams says that The Manassas Museum is fortunate to host the traveling exhibit, which views the Civil War through a new lens, in time for Black History Month in February. “Museum visitors who see this exhibit may be surprised by the extent that African Americans participated in shaping the history of the Civil War,” Adams says. “Their influence touched everything that happened during this period.”
Funding for the exhibit came from The Manassas Museum Associates, the City of Manassas, and Dominion Virginia Power.
On Sunday, February 8, author and living history presentations will celebrate
the opening of the exhibit.
Thomas B. Allen, will speak about his children’s book Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent at
2:00 PM. Allen is a National Geographic writer and acclaimed author of numerous works on military history and espionage.
His book follows escaped slave Harriet Tubman as she becomes a Union spy after leading runaway slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Allen calls the work “The hidden war inside the Civil War–the daring work of African Americans who spied for the Union. It is a world of danger, of ‘Black Dispatches,’ and of secret codes.” Allen will sign copies of the book, available at Echoes, The Manassas Museum Store.
Living Historian Tim Frederick and members of Company D 54th Massachusetts will portray the African American Union Civil War regiment made famous by the movie Glory from
1:00-3:00 PM. Both presentations are included with admission.
Admittance to Many Thousands Go is included with regular museum admission, which is $4 for adults and $3 for seniors and children. The Manassas Museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10:00 AM till 5:00 PM, and is open on Monday Federal holidays. It is located at 9101 Prince William Street in Manassas. For more information visit www.manassasmuseum.org or call 703-368-1873.