There was a Grand Review in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. On November 14, 1865, African descent soldiers who had been on occupation duty in the South and who had been preparing to embark on ships for Texas during the Washington Grand Review (May 23 & 24, 1865) marched through the streets of Harrisburg. The keynote was William Howard Day, who, said Major Martin Delany, had been “chosen to arrange the military policy of the under ground railroad relative to the slave enlistment.” The grand marshal of the Grand Review was Thomas Morris Chester, a war correspondent and native of Harrisburg. Chester wrote on the eve of the Washington Grand Review, “That the negro corps, under General Weitzel, has received marching orders is well known throughout their camps, and they are beginning to put on the war-paint with the impression that they are going to Texas. They look forward to the period of embarkation with a great deal of satisfaction [emphasis mine].” According to Chester, these soldiers did not feel slighted by Washington. They were excited about liberating Texas because these freedom fighters knew their work was not done.
In Harrisburg (November 4 – 7, 2010), the state of Pennsylvania celebrated the 145th anniversary of what has often been referred to as the Grand Review of United States Colored Troops. Kicking off the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War with such an event will hopefully excite an examination of African American participation in the Civil War that will explore formerly ignored facts. There are a number of questions we should ask in order to apprehend these facts. Such as what was the true magnitude of their contributions? How important were all their duties to the mission? Why did Benjamin Butler, Thomas Higginson, and Robert Shaw report that African descent soldiers were highly competent in drill soon after being enlisted? Did they have prior military training? If so, who trained them?
I think we can find the answers to these questions if we begin with the following questions: Why was William Howard Day the keynote speaker in Harrisburg? Why did Delany report that Day “was chosen to arrange the military policy of the under ground railroad relative to the slave enlistment”? Why was Thomas Morris Chester the grand marshal? And why did they select Harrisburg to host their grand review? The answers to these questions will lead to a greater understanding of African American activities before, during and after the Civil War. We are not yet close to appreciating the magnitude of their contributions because too many facts are being ignored and too many questions are being left unanswered. The result has been that a story of victims is being told instead of a story of victors. The Harrisburg Grand Review was really about a victory over tyranny achieved by enslaved and/or disenfranchised Americans.
It is commonly believed that United States Colored Troops were slighted by not being included in the Washington Grand Review. Of course, the colored troops that were actually in the Washington parade did not feel slighted. I was quoted in the Harrisburg Patriot-News as saying there were “colored regiments” that marched in the Washington Grand Review, but what I said was that there were “colored troops” that marched, not regiments. Over five hundred names of United States Colored Troops who marched in the Washington Grand Review can be found on the walls of the African American Civil War Memorial. If fact, a pioneer corps comprised of African Americans preceded every division in Sherman’s army in the Washington Grand Review. These African descent soldiers had experienced the hell of combat, marched hundreds of miles and laid hundreds of miles of railroad tracks. Like Seabees and combat engineers, they were important members of the overall military force that claimed a hard fought victory in the war. They marched proudly with their heads high along the avenue in Washington, and Captain Horace Porter reported, they were “conspicuous by their height.”
General Phil Sheridan did not participate in the Washington Grand Review even though the rest of his command did. Sheridan was ordered to Texas to take command of the forces being deployed there. General Sheridan took his orders without complaint because as a soldier he understood that duty called. Men of African descent assigned to the Texas command were no less dignified in their acceptance of their soldierly duties. There was no time for parading in Washington while there was still liberating to be done.
As late as September 1865, Chaplain Garland White of the 28th US Colored Troops wrote from Texas: “Some silly-minded men talk sometimes about home, and I am here to quiet them by assuring them that all will come right in the end, at the same time feeling in my own heart that unless we are made equal before the law we have got no home.” The Grand Review of United States Colored Troops was organized by the Garnet League, which expressly sought equality before the law. In May 1865, surely Chaplain White and the members of such a league would have thought only the “silly-minded men” in their ranks wanted to march in Washington and go home, especially since Texas had not been returned to the Union, thus the enslaved there had not been liberated. Far from being “silly-minded,” African descent freedom fighters were eager to put on their war paint and embark on ships for Texas to complete the work of enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation.
The following is the speech I delivered during the Harrisburg Grand Review (November 6, 2010) entitled “After Liberty Was Secured”:
While reflecting on the contradiction of slavery existing in a nation that claimed liberty as a gift from God as its foundation, Thomas Jefferson (a slaveholder) wrote: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; and his justice cannot sleep forever.” In April 1861, the great houses of the South and the great houses of the North raised sword against sword. The firstborn sons of those great houses were taken in a bloody civil war. After suffering the greatest disasters of the war, Congress gave President Lincoln the authority to arm men of African descent and to declare free slaves in states in rebellion. And a cry for help was issued in the Emancipation Proclamation.
Men of African descent answered that cry for help. They captured Charleston, the Cradle of Secession, and one regiment that trained at Camp William Penn was a part of that liberating army [32nd USCT]. They captured Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and one regiment that trained at Camp William Penn was a part of that liberating army [22nd USCT]. They stopped Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, and five regiments that trained at Camp William Penn were there to witness the surrender of Lee’s army to General Grant [8thUSCT, 41st USCT, 43rd USCT, 45th USCT, and 127th USCT].
And in the early morning of June 15, 1865, fleeing an army of United States Colored Troops, the Confederate governor of Texas, the last state in rebellion, crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico with Confederate Generals John Mcgruder and Kirby Smith as well as 10,000 Confederate soldiers. Six regiments that had been trained at Camp William Penn were there to occupy and return Texas to the Union, thus liberating the enslaved [8thUSCT, 22nd USCT, 41st USCT, 43rd USCT, 45th USCT, and 127th USCT].
After liberty was secured and the last group of slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation was liberated, it was now time to celebrate. This was no consolation grand review. Thomas Morris Chester, a native son of Harrisburg, knew this was no consolation grand review. This is not the consolation prize. This is the prize. This is the celebration of victory and liberty for all!”