National Parks

Reflections on MLK Day of Service 2020: United States Colored Troops and the Work Left Yet Undone

Guest Blogger: Eric Atkins, The Unity Group
In recognition of MLK Jr Day on January 20, we invited Eric Atkins with The Unity Group to be a guest blogger this month. Atkins is currently Corresponding Secretary of the Unity Group and several other community-led organizations. He is a graduate of TSU and the UTC graduate school.

For many, the contributions of the United States Colored Troops throughout the duration of the Civil War may be little known. The Battle of Nashville illustrates both the struggles and successes of these men as they served the nation with courage and valor. It was  the scene of one of the most pivotal battles in which USCT fought as they opposed the last remnants of Hood’s Army of Tennessee. After witnessing their bravery and courage during the battle, General George Thomas turned to aides and said, “The question is settled, Negro soldiers will fight. ” Oddly enough, Chattanooga’s 44th USCT was one of the units that were involved at the Battle and served with the same honour and distinction that they had displayed at Dalton several months earlier. On a national scale, the USCT would be recognized for their service at Milken’s Bend, Fort Wagner, Fort Pillow, and the Battle of the Crater. Contrary to the resplendent platitudes bestowed by General Thomas on that frigid December day in Nashville, not only had the USCT served with valor on the battlefield, but they had long assisted the effort to preserve the Union, and by that virtue gain a much sought after freedom that would make the principles that the nation professed ring true for all.

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration has noted, by the end of the Civil War, 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army; 19,000 enlisted in the Navy; with valor they participated in over 400 engagements; 16 went on to receive the Medal of Honor; over 21,000 men enlisted in Tennessee, which ranks behind only Louisiana and Kentucky. 

One colorful figure who is reflective of this service is Mark Thrash. According to the legend of his life, he would be impressed into service burying the dead after the Battle of Chickamauga. He would go on and help erect the Battlefield, and become a much sought after storyteller and featured park attraction in retirement.

Similarly, while some USCT units that had been stationed in our region like the 14th, 16th, 18th, and in particular the 44th, will be remembered for their service on the field of battle, others such as the 42nd would not only aide in the completion of the first bridge over the Tennessee river, but were entrusted with securing and relocating the graves of fallen soldiers within a 50-mile radius, would  clear and prepare the grounds for burials, and assist with the overall layout and design of Chattanooga National Cemetery.

As part of the City of Chattanooga MLK Day of Service in 2019, coalition partners including the Unity Group of Chattanooga, 44th USCT Reenactment Group, National Park Partners and Mary Walker Historical and Educational Society gathered at the National Cemetery and held a wreath laying ceremony in part meant to honor these fallen warriors and call for a fitting Memorial to them be erected. We can report that there has been immense progress that will make this call a reality in the not so distant future.

We must also express great appreciation to the National Park Service for their willingness to provide education and awareness on the USCT and the contributions that Black citizens displayed during the Civil War and its aftermath. In conjunction with the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, numerous lectures and presentations have been provided on many of these subjects.The African-American civil rights and black history walking tour that has been sponsored by the National Park Partners the last few years has also greatly enriched public education on this aspect of history.

Another worthy aspect of Civil War history that is just beginning to gain in-depth evaluation is the effects the wartime experience had on the African-American civilian population. As the Union advanced into Southern territory, those enslaved would often find themselves newly liberated and flocked to the safety and security of the Army. Oftentimes they would form makeshift encampments that were essentially cities, such as Camp Contraband that was settled on Chattanooga’s north shore. As of now their stories are little known, one of which is the great smallpox outbreak that occurred between 1864-1867 where hundreds of Chattanooga citizens perished. Sections R, Q, J, and P in the National Cemetery contains the burials of around 800 African-American civilians who died during that tumultuous time.

On a closing note, let me share that many of our reflections growing up turns to  both the innocence of our youth and the work that is left undone. We did not know that the rocky terrain and wooded coves we treaded upon was hallowed ground. In fact, many of the citizens who reside in these places like Orchard Knob, Battery Heights, and other East Chattanooga neighborhoods have no inclination of the magnitude and great significance that these places hold. Near Amnicola, the old home of the Crutchfield family, Sherman gathered his men for Battle as they arrived at Boyce Station and other points of entry. Billygoat Hill, the areas that align Campbell St., and the Glass Farm, were all places where the Army of Tennessee would mount a determined defense of the area. These locations deserve to be preserved for future posterity to come and learn about their importance. It would be well if Billygoat Hill becomes a permanent part of the National Park Service. Sherman’s Reservation is a wonderful asset and is one of our region’s little known treasures. Also of vital importance, in addition to the USCT Memorial at National Cemetery, what is needed is a National Park Service East Chattanooga Ranger Station to be added to the interpretive landscape. 

On this MLK Day 2020, let us remember that Dr. King’s dream was that freedom should ring even on top of Lookout Mtn. Lincoln would offer another prayer for the nation when he said ,”malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” ; our aim should be to build up and plant atop solid ground the Beloved Community by  finishing the great work left undone. 

Respectfully, Eric Atkins

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