Interviews with Bennie McRae and Isiah Edwards: African Americans and the Civil War Sesquicentennial

By Earnest McBride

JA Contributing Editor

Celebrations of the Sesquicentennial (150 years) of the Civil War have gotten off to a start a lot like the celebration of the Centennial in 1961. The event then was represented as reconciliation between the “white brothers of the North and the white brothers of the South,” who had had a five-year-long falling-out that had begun in 1861 and lasted until May of 1865. A hundred years after the falling out, the apologists for both Union and Confederate factions said it was time to heal the wounds left by the Civil War.Meanwhile, black people were left out of consideration in the 1961 commemoration of the Civil War. At the time, most African Americans were experiencing the very apex of the Civil Rights Movement, with May 1961 being the starting point of the Freedom Rides into Mississippi and other critical bastions of Jim Crow that had proved unyielding to more than a century of complaints.Two outstanding black Civil War researchers – Bennie McRae of Trotwood, Ohio, and Isiah “Ike” Edwards of Long Beach, Mississippi – would like nothing more than to bring black Americans into the Civil War picture, if only as a duty to the 208,000 black men (and women) who actually served as soldiers and sailors in support of the Union and the many thousands who gave their lives in the effort.McRae has for the past 20 years been Webmaster of one of the most impressive black history sites online. His “Lest We Forget” family of Websites and individual Web pages specialized in publishing the original documents critical to a meaningful study of Black History, and more particularly of the black role in the Civil War.Edwards is the president of the Gulf Coast chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, perhaps the first black Mississippian to join the organization and certainly the first African American to be elected president of a state chapter.The pair of Civil War aficionados declares without hesitation that all Americans, and especially Americans of African origin, “owe an unpaid debt to the hundreds of thousands of black soldiers and sailors and the black ‘contraband’ volunteers that brought victory to the Union and ultimate freedom to themselves and their posterity.”Edwards laments the paucity of black participation in events related to the Civil War, especially in his home state of Mississippi, and nurtures the belief that “black fighting men and the heroes of the Civil War have been written out of history.”Citing the close connection between the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and those of New Orleans and Mobile, Edwards says he can’t understand why black Mississippians aren’t more enthusiastic about their own history.“We should look all the way back to the war of 1814,” he says. “That was the time when Gen. Andrew Jackson, who was in charge of the battle, invited men of color to join in the fight to push England out of America. There would be no discrimination on the battlefield, Jackson told them. And they would be given equal pay to whites and get 150 acres of land each for their participation. Unfortunately, these black men were not granted full citizenship. When the Civil War came, black people left all the plantations and headed for New Orleans. General Butler came up with a plan to recruit three black and mulatto regiments and deploy them at Shipp Island and near Pascagoula. These were the first black men to enter battle in the Civil War.”The Sesquicentennial provides contemporary African Americans a chance to square away their debts to their long-neglected freedom-fighting ancestors, McRae says. “Over 30 regiments were organized in the Deep South in early 1863 as the result of a massive recruiting effort in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Western Tennessee and also Alabama. All these regiments were given either ‘Corps d’Afrique’ or ‘African Descent’ designations, so there should be no questions about their race. I think black Mississippians, especially, ought to go out in droves to celebrate their victory in the Civil War.”McRae says he hopes black people will be “front and center in celebrating the 150 years since the Civil War began.” He praises the contributions  – ex-slaves made in winning the war for the Union, and says he has had many difficult times getting black groups around the country to show a sustained interest in commemorating the past deeds of their ancestors.“Black Civil War troopers and civilian war workers ought to be celebrated big time from now through 2015,” McRae says. “Blacks were anxious to join the war effort. They would escape from the plantations and try to enroll in the army to fight for their freedom. But the federal government at first would send them back to the slave farms and plantations. It was Gen. Ben Butler who first realized how valuable black workers could be to the Union effort. He was the first to use the name ‘contrabands of war and put the; black men to work rather than send them back into slavery.”The Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862 nullified the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and also allowed President Abraham Lincoln to employ black men in the military service, McRae said.“Gen. Lane out in Kansas, who was also a U. S. Senator, organized the First Kansas Colored Regiment in August 1862, and was able to keep them together despite some reluctance on Lincoln’s part,” McRae said. “Shortly after that, Butler organized the First, Second and Third Louisiana Native Guards. The first battle that a black regiment engaged in was at Island Mound, MO, with the First Kansas Colored on October 28-29 1862. And in November 1862, the First South Carolina scouted the rivers of Georgia and South Carolina at the sides of the white New York regiments.”Edwards says most state black leaders in Mississippi know less about their Civil War than the average person out on the streets. He cited several recent confrontations of Gulfport-Biloxi talk show host Rip Daniels who castigated a pair of state legislators for their lack of knowledge or concern about the War.“This is a part of all our history,” Edwards said. “Imagine, if a state legislator doesn’t know the basic history of his state and community, how is he going to be able to help people who come to him for his advice on certain important matters? I say to anyone, study your history. Learn about yourself and your parents and their parents. If you don’t know where you came from, how in the world are you going to be able to know where you’re going? To me that’s a sad thing, if you don’t know your own history.”