- “Equal to Any Minstrel Concert I Ever Attended at Home”Union Soldiers and Blackface Performance in the Civil War South
On July 18, 1863, pensive Union troops gathered in the gloaming outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Union general Quincy A. Gillmore had decided to assault Fort Wagner, an imposing Confederate fortification. Built of sand and palmetto logs, Wagner would serve as the proving ground for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, a unit composed largely of African Americans and commanded by Robert Gould Shaw, the privileged son of abolitionists. As the evening deepened and fog rolled in off of the sea, the storming column formed. At around 7:45 p.m., the attack began as the Union troops moved up the narrow ribbon of sand toward Wagner at a quick-time march. All remained quiet until the men came within two hundred yards of the fort’s walls. Then, as a veteran of the 54th described it years later, “Wagner became a mound of fire. . . . A sheet of flame, followed by a running fire, like electric sparks, swept along the parapet.” Shaw ordered his men to charge at the double-quick, and his troops “with set jaws, panting breath, and bowed heads, charged on.” In the face of the shot and shell that tore into them, followed by close-range fighting, the black troops could gain little ground during their assault. Union soldiers failed to make any lasting headway against the Confederate works. In the wake of the assault, Confederates dumped the bodies of the fallen black troops into the ditch at the front of the parapet. To express their hatred of Shaw, who had been killed during the attack, the Confederates unceremoniously dumped his corpse into the ditch to lie with his men, denying him any of the customary honors of burial befitting an officer.1
For many scholars, and in popular culture, the immolation of the 54th Massachusetts stands as the entire story of the assault on Wagner. Indeed, the martyrdom of Robert Gould Shaw and his men appears as an example that stands in for the Civil War as a whole among modern scholars and in popular culture. Shaw, though the child of Boston Brahmin abolitionists, had only come during the course of the war to embrace the cause of freedom. Amid the death and destruction, the 54th Massachusetts and other [End Page 509] United States Colored Troops proved to the nation that they were men and belonged. Through their combat service they demonstrated courage, independence, and strength.2
A week later, soldiers in St. Augustine, Florida commemorated the Union assault on Wagner by enacting a far different drama. On July 22 and 25, members of the 7th Connecticut Infantry Regiment held a benefit for their comrades who had been wounded in South Carolina. Privates Henry Lardner and William H. Clark played their violins, accompanied by Sgt. Oscar W. Cornish on the guitar, Pvt. William H. Wheelock on the banjo, and Cpl. Henry H. Taylor on the bones. Sgt. John J. Cochrane and Pvt. William H. House both played tambourines, while Pvt. Henry Longden and Cpl. John H. Bario sang. One soldier even wore a dress and wig in his role as a female dancer. Rather than putting on a simple musical concert, however, the soldiers all wore blackface, made from a mixture of burnt cork and greasepaint. They mimicked the blackface minstrel shows they had seen back home in New Haven and Boston, including in their show what they considered comic songs, laughable dialogues, ribald jokes, and slapstick humor.3 In doing so, they reassured themselves that African Americans differed little from the grotesqueries of the minstrel stage and therefore posed little threat to the social and economic status of the white troops even as emancipation and service of black men in the Union army threatened to disrupt antebellum racial hierarchies.
The role of blackface minstrelsy within the camps of northeastern white Union soldiers from urban areas—the soldiers most familiar with minstrel culture—shows how some soldiers used antebellum popular culture to render an alien land and people familiar.4 As historian Edward L. Ayers has noted, “public and private, economic and...