Slave Dwelling Project ~ 150th Battery Wagner Commemoration, Two Nights in Jail
150th Anniversary Commemoration, Assault on Battery Wagner
By Joseph McGill
"Approximately 200,000 African American men served in the Union Army and Navy during the American Civil War. For this particular stay, it was not much of a stretch for the Slave Dwelling Project and my Civil War reenacting to come together."
For the followers of the Slave Dwelling Project, you have become accustomed to the blog that I write after every time that I spend the night in a slave dwelling. You may also be aware that I am a Civil War reenactor so making history relevant is what I love. Our reenactment group is Company I, 54th Massachusetts Reenactment Regiment. Historically, the group was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Approximately 200,000 African American men served in the Union Army and Navy during the American Civil War. For this particular stay, it was not much of a stretch for the Slave Dwelling Project and my Civil War reenacting to come together.
The Assault on Battery Wagner occurred on July, 18, 1863. This was the battle portrayed in the 1989 award winning movie Glory featuring Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington. Although other Black regiments preceded and followed the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, because of this movie, this group is best known. For the past 10 years, Company I has been going to Morris Island, SC, the site of that battle to commemorate the men who fought, died and were captured there. This year would be different. Since this was the sesquicentennial or the 150th anniversary of that battle, we had to do more and do more we did.
On Sunday, July14 members of the local Civil War reenactment group worshipped at Mt. Zion AME Church in Charleston, SC. It is documented that historically, men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry worshipped at this church. After the service, the members proceeded to the Friendly Society Cemetery to place a wreath on the grave of Lt. Steven Swails who was one of only three Black officers commissioned in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. This is important because at the onset of the war one could count the number of Black officers in the Union army and navy on one hand. After the Civil War, Lt Swails who was originally from Cooperstown, NY, stayed in South Carolina and became a State Senator, lawyer and the Mayor of my hometown of Kingstree, SC.
On Monday night a small contingency of the local Civil War reenactment group gathered at the Seashore Farmers Lodge to view the movie Glory. The lodge was built about 1915 by local black farmers. Their organization provided insurance, advice, and burial assistance to members. The newly restored building fell into disrepair and was almost lost to demolition by neglect before concerned community organizers stepped in and saved it. Unfortunately, technical difficulties would not allow us to show the movie on a large screen. Fate would have it that only about five people showed up so we wound up showing the film on a computer screen which worked out just fine.
The next day we would find ourselves back at the Seashore Farmers Lodge for a day of living history. It was on this day, July 16, 1863 that that the 54th Massachusetts got its baptism of fire. The historical marker at the lodge states “During the Civil War (1861-1865) Sol Legare Island was the site of several camps, artillery positions and battles. On this date, one of America's first African American Army Regiments, organized in the North and led by Union General Alfred Terry; bravely gave their lives to win the freedom of enslaved Africans who were held in bondage here and on plantations throughout the south. 5,200 Federal Troops occupied this Island. The 54th waged a gallant battle but lost 14 men, 17 were wounded and 12 missing. It is with great pride and humble gratitude that we honor their unwavering courage and sacrifice for a moral cause. The lodge is located on the grounds of where Union forces camped before they engaged in the Battle of Sol Legare Island.” The day was filled with living history demonstrations and storytelling with a good mixture of community, state and national visitors.
Wednesday, July 17th would find us at Trident Technical College. By then, the Civil War reenactors from out of town began to show up. The guys from Company A in Boston were there. These were the guys who allowed me to fall in with them at the last two inaugural parades of President Barack Obama. The guys from Company B out of Washington, DC were there. Company K out of Atlanta showed up. Others representing Civil War United States Colored Troops (USCT) showed up from New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina. The evening event had a sparse turnout and we got all of the activities in before the rain started. We then went to the world renown Gullah Cuisine Restaurant in Mt. Pleasant where the famous chef Charlotte Jenkins did not disappoint with a spread of baked chicken, collard greens, okra stew, rice, yams, bread pudding and a side salad. A formal introduction was given to the group by me with a question and answer period that followed. Bringing all of these groups together was a little contentious but nothing that could not be easily overcome. It was revealed that in the room we had a descendant of one of the drummers of the 54th, a descendant of William Carney the Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from the 54th, and several men who acted in the movie Glory.
Thursday, July 18th found us at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, SC. The history of the fort spans the Revolutionary through World War II. It was from this fort on the night of December 26, 1860, under the cover of darkness, Major Robert Anderson would spike the guns and proceed to Fort Sumter. He would hold his position at Fort Sumter until after a 34 hour battle which started on April 12, 1861. As typical with the National Park Service, the rules were strict but we gave the public a great show that included lectures, storytelling and musket firing demonstrations. Putting all the guys in one formation was not as problematic as I anticipated. We even had a contingency of Confederates who participated in the Fort Moultrie event.
Above: 150th Commemoration, Photos by Herb Frazier
At 2:30 pm we began to board the boats that would take us over to Morris Island. The transport to the island was completed without a hitch although I was receiving calls for a seat on the boats up until the time we left the dock. The event on the island was carried out flawlessly. My only regrets were that high tide did not allow much beach to conduct the activities and we did not have enough time at the end of the program for people to reflect. We proceeded back to Fort Moultrie where we were fed and the activities continued. The evening culminated with a presentation by Lt. Governor Glen McConnell who is himself a Civil War reenactor. We ended the event by lighting luminaries that represented each man killed during the Assault on Battery Wagner.Above: List of USCT Soldiers Missing After the Assault on Battery Wagner. With Kind Permission of Fold3.
My Trip to South Carolina
By Kharson McKay, Age 11, Descendant of David Miles Moore, 54th Mass. USCT
"Everyone slid out of the boat and we stepped out onto the sand. It took my breath away. This was the Island where my ancestor David Miles Moore stepped into history!"
Above: Kharson McKay (Left). Photo by Herb Frazier
My name is Kharson McKay. I am 11 years old from Austin, TX. I love the Civil War. When my dad Bob McKay told me I had been invited to participate in a civil war re-‐ enactment, I was so excited to do it. My mom made me a costume (that apparently wasn’t very authentic) but it was still a great costume and I love it. Here’s the story of my trip to South Carolina. On Sunday, July 14 my dad and I drove 9 hours to my Sister’s house in New Orleans to pick up my 9 year old Nephew, Quinn McKay. We stayed for a while but we had to get back on the road. From there we drove to Olustee, FL to see the battlefield where my ancestor David Miles Moore, The drummer boy for the 54th Mass Company H. fought his final battle before he mustered out of the civil war in 1865.
It had closed just a minute before we got there at 5:01 so we went over the gate and took a couple of photos and videos and got out quick. After that we drove to Jacksonville, checked into a hotel right by the beach and swam in the ocean for a while. We tried swimming against the waves, but every time the tide came in it threw us back to the shore! Soon it got dark and we had to go back to the hotel. The next day we stayed for a while longer at the beach then had to get back on the road. We finally got to South Carolina and checked into our hotel. We heard there was a meeting at a university, and that got switched around but we finally got to the park where we saw everyone in uniform talking to each other and shaking hands. A few of the other re-‐enactors greeted us and we met a lot of the local people. A couple of the men and women spoke about where they were from and how they got here, then they did an amazing living history skit.
Soon it started to rain and we all went to dinner at a restaurant with a great Gullah/Geechee buffet. Sitting down with our food we talked about the reenactment and information about what was going to happen the next day at Fort Moultrie. After 2 hours of eating and talking we all went home to get some rest for the big day. That day, Thursday, July 18th I took a shower, put on my uniform and walked out of the hotel to reenact one of the most important battles in the history of The Civil War. When we got to Fort Moultrie I was amazed by the Fort and the different costumes and gear people had! I wasn’t quite prepared, but the park visitors center let me borrow a drum and a couple of the men there helped me look more authentic.
After a few hours of gun checking, firing demonstrations, eating, and history talks, we all got on the boat to Morris Island. There, everyone slid out of the boat and we stepped out onto the sand. It took my breath away. This was the Island where my ancestor David Miles Moore stepped into history! We knelt down into the sand and a lot of blinding pictures were taken of us. We got up again, played a marching cadence, and marched to a spot on the island were we all got into ranks and fired the guns. The drummer boys played Battle Hymn of The Republic. I couldn’t play the drums at all so I just played the bass part of it. The men fired their guns into the air and we all got back onto the boat. I will never forget that moment when I first felt the sand. Thank you Mr. McGill for inviting me on this wonderful trip. I had a lot of fun and I am thinking about doing this again. Thank you.
Stay at Old Charleston Jail
By Joseph McGill
The Old Charleston Jail was built in 1802 using bricks that were made by enslaved people along with their carpentry and masonry skills. My desire to extend the Slave Dwelling Project to the Old Charleston Jail was based on the fact that after the battle that was portrayed in the movie Glory, some of the Black soldiers who were taken as prisoners were held there. The American College of the Building Arts now holds classes in the jail and allotted me 15 slots for people desiring to share the experience with me. When I revealed to the public that I was going to spend two nights in the Old Charleston Jail, I immediately started to get responses about ghosts. While I don’t believe in ghosts, I do all within my powers to respect those that do.
I got to the jail at the appointed time of 6:00 pm to meet the tour guides who would be giving ghost tours in the jail. A prior meeting determined that we would interact only minimally with the tour groups. Nearly half of the people who signed up for the first night stay were no shows which at this point in the project did not surprise me but it turned out that nine Civil War reenactors, all males, would sleep in the jail that night. To my surprise, all of the reenactors were very anxious to interact with the tour groups. The tours started at our Civil War encampment where the visitors were presented with some story telling about how former slaves became Union soldiers. They then proceeded inside for their tour through the jail.
I tagged along on one of the ghost tours and enjoyed what I witnessed. Our drummer and youngest member of the Civil War reenactment group who was also scheduled to stay in the jail, went on one of the tours, as a result, we spent a great part of the night convincing him that everything would be fine inside the jail. 11:45 pm and the tours were over but for most of us who were to sleep in the jail, that time would have to come later. Some of the out of town reenactors wanted to hit some of the bars in town, while the rest of us just hung around outside engaging in conversation and enjoying adult beverages. Around 2:00 am we all found ourselves inside the jail to claim the spots where we would sleep. Despite all of the talk about ghosts, I found the night uneventful.
We would find ourselves back at the jail on Saturday, at 3:00 pm for a period of living history for the general public. I had anticipated a respectable contingency of Confederate reenactors so that we could give the visiting public a feel for how both sides operated during the Civil War, but only three Confederates showed and that number included one lady. That turned out to be a good thing because the crowd was very sparse but they were treated to interpretation and storytelling. At 7:00 pm we had to once again switch into a mode for receiving ghost tour groups. The routine was the same as the previous night. Eight people would stay in the jail that night, five men and three women. The crowds for the tours were just as robust as the previous night which was an indication to me that this is a lucrative industry. After the ghost tours were completed, we again found ourselves chatting outside and drinking a few adult beverages. On this night we did not occupy the building until 3:00 am. To my surprise when I woke up the next morning, two of the young ladies who spent the night had already left. I am still adamant about not believing in ghosts, the fact that my van would not start that morning because of a dead battery and the fact that the battery in my watch died when I was in the jail was pure coincidence.
In March of this year, I attended a panel discussion at a conference in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on ghost tours. It was concluded that one can obtain more African American history on a ghost tour than on a regular history tour. Personally, I have a problem with that. Participating in the event at the jail is bringing me around to seeing things differently. When we interacted with the tour groups, through our interpretation and storytelling they learned how men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry became prisoners at that jail, in other words, we hit them with some real history. To that end, I am willing to work with the American College of the Building Arts and the ghost tour company to address their groups in the same capacity in the future. There are times when you have to get in where you fit in. As for ghosts, I will spend several more nights in that jail if the opportunity presents itself in the future.