Blacks Included in Civil War Re-enactment
By Christina Huynh
Blacks will be included in the Civil War re-enactment that is taking place in Arkansas, a state known for its visceral resistance to the Civil Rights movement whose mission has been to correct racial injustices. A southern Arkansas group is marking the 150th anniversary of a local Civil War battle with a re-enactment of the Confederate victory, educational programs and what some historians see as a shifting approach to remembering the war that divided a nation.
The events in Camden, hosted by the Ouachita County Historical Society, are part of a four-year, statewide observance of the Civil War led by the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.
Three Camden homes dating back to the Civil War will be open to the public, said Kathy Boyette, president of the county's historical society. Tents will be set up on the streets with costumed actors inside explaining daily life for women, families and soldiers during the war. They will discuss medicine, clothing and tools that were available. Performers dressed as Union troops will be camped inside of the city, and a Confederate artillery will be nearby.
The re-enactment of the Battle of Poison Spring will be staged Saturday at the Poison Springs Battleground State Park, where Boyette said between 75 and 100 re-enactors in Union and Confederate apparel will participate in the nearly hourlong show.
Among the Union troops who fought in the battle were the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, which consisted of runaway slaves from Missouri and central Arkansas. Boyette said the county's historical society will recognize the soldiers killed in the battle, "especially the 1st Kansas Colored, which took heavy losses."
"The fact that 150 years later there's open discussion about the racial atrocities that occurred at Poison Spring ... is a huge advance of where we were with the centennial 50 years ago," said Mark Christ, a member of the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.
At the time of the Civil War, Boyette said, Camden was the second-largest city in Arkansas and was an important area. That gives it "a really rich Civil War history," she said.
In late March of 1864, Union army Major Gen. Frederick Steele led his thousands of troops out of Little Rock on an expedition toward Shreveport, La., to join another army to invade Texas. "They marched south. They marched into an area that's very low on foraging-type of supplies," Christ said. "After skirmishing for a few days, Steele decides to turn away from Shreveport and go to Camden to hopefully get supplies."
Steele was "out of gas," said Gregory Urwin, a history professor at Temple University who has written several books about the Civil War. According to Urwin, Steele learned 5,000 of corn bushels were stored near Camden and decided to send some of his troops and empty wagons to retrieve the grain, where Confederate soldiers were nearby. Among those sent were the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry.
About 300 Union soldiers and almost 115 Confederate fighters were killed in the Battle of Poison Spring, according to Christ. Nearly 40 percent of the Union soldiers who were killed were black, he said, and those who had surrendered were killed by Confederate troops. "The black men who were supposed to be slaves, fighting against their former masters, it's completely outrageous to these people," Urwin said. "It's the world turned upside down for them."
History professor Tom DeBlack, who works at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, sees a change in the state's commemoration compared to its tribute of the war's centennial in the 1960s. "It's a little less romanticized," DeBlack said. "There's greater attention to the role of noncombatants and African-Americans in the battles in the war. ... The tone of it seems to be different."
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.
Feature Photo Credit: civilwaralbum.com