Bill Harris and Barbara Marthal stand out in a crowd. Especially the crowd at the 150th Anniversary Battle of Selma reenactment.
It’s not just because they’re an interracial couple, even though in the middle of two-thousand costumed, gun-toting Union and Confederate soldiers, they’re worth a second glance. It’s not even because Marthal, a black woman, tends to show up in full period dress— embroidered straw hat and hoop skirt included. Self-proclaimed historians, Harris and Marthal go to Civil War reenactments all summer long hoping to catch an eye or an ear to tell their truth—the truth of black Confederate soldiers.
Marthal is the author of a children’s book Fighting for Freedom: A Documented Story, which she wrote hoping it would supplement public school history lessons on the Civil War. “Fighting for Freedom” is the true story of Richard T. Davis, a young Confederate soldier and his slave—and friend—Handy Davis Crudup. The surprising story of their long-lasting friendship, despite their roles as slave and master, is accompanied by historical documents.
These are important and neglected stories, they say, and there are many like them out there.
Marthal recommends that black people look up H.K. Edgerton, a black proponent of a view of Civil War history who argues that the Confederate army was made up of both African-American and white volunteers.
Edgerton is the former president of the Asheville, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. In 1998, he was suspended from the organization for failure to comply with their rules—though he puts a very different spin on the story (see article). In 2000, he was appointed the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Southern Legal Resource Center, an organization that defends the symbols of the Confederacy. He is also a member of the Sons of Confederate Soldiers.
Edgerton’s controversial stance on race relations and the motives behind the war make him a well-known figure at Civil War re-enactments and other Confederate memorial celebrations and events.
While the reenactment of the Battle of Selma rages, thirty miles away in Marion, Ala., Egerton is the guest speaker at a memorial for Marion soldiers who fought for the glory of the south. He dresses in Rebel garb and refers to the white Master of Ceremonies as “Massa.”
He explains that many masters and slaves were friends and that some cared so deeply about their white friends that they enlisted in the Confederate army to help them. Consequently, the Confederate cause became their own.
He explains this to the dozen members of the Sons of Confederate soldiers and their families who sit on lawn chairs or on blankets with their babies. He waves the Confederate flag and embraces a young boy dressed in a Confederate uniform. “The southern states from the beginning of the constitution strived to keep it on the path prescribed by the constitution,” he says. “The south could find peace and liberty only in independence. The honorable General Robert E. Lee said of them ’the citizen soldiers who fought for the confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom were the motivating factor in the south’s decision to fight the second American revolution.”
Edgerton asserts that without black soldiers, the Confederate army wouldn’t have been able to gain any of their victories and insists that the Yankee portrayal of the south is flawed and biased.
“All across America folks have begun to orchestrate an attack on the [Christian cross of Saint Andrew],” said Edgerton. “Unfortunately, those of us who look like me, who earned a place of honor and dignity beside a man they not only called master, but a man they called family and friend, have been used as a weapon of choice to do this. Black men and women all across the Southland of America made all the implements of war for General Lee’s beloved army, provided all the foodstuffs for his army, went off to war even thought they weren’t supposed to be there legally. And beside them they earned a place of honor and dignity in the war for southern independence.”
“Yesterday, in Oxford Mississippi, the past commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said ‘This is a memorial we come to honor. It’s not political,’” says Edgerton. “I don’t know how it can not be political with the kinds of things that is happening in America today for those of us who love the Christian cross of Saint Andrew.”
He waved the Confederate flag and shouted, “I am that cross.”
Back at Battlefield Park, as he watches the soldiers prepare for the Battle of Selma, Harris doesn’t quite agree, although he shares Edgerton’s belief that the portrayal of slave owners in the Antebellum south is flawed.
“[The reenactment is] to promote the heritage and get people aware— you need to protect it,” he says.
A few miles from the Civil War reenactment site, at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Mitchell Columbus shares similar sentiments, but for a different cause. Dressed as a black Union soldier, Columbus attended a protest rally sponsored by the Ancient Africa Enslavement & Civil War Museum in downtown Selma.
The activists gathered at the foot of the bridge to honor the black soldiers who were not mentioned at the Civil War reenactment and to pour libations in their honor.
Abayomi “Sister Yomi” Goodall, the director of the museum, organized the event after black soldiers were not allowed to participate in the reenactment activities.
“To commemorate is just to give honor,” says Columbus. He is not trying to antagonize the Civil War reenactors and does “not [want] to embarrass or infuriate” them, but he would like to honor some of the black Union soldiers.
He says he wants to honor them, as he wants to honor the foot soldiers who marched from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote.
“I hosted a talk show for about three years and I loved interviewing the foot soldiers when I got a chance,” said Columbus. “I got their experience and perspective. We are the last generation to get to witness that generation, but it also lets us know that we’re not so far removed.”
Story, photos and video by Asha Glover and Colleen S. Good